Like (Grand)father Like Son?

Mr. Gilbert is the author of A Leader Born, the biography of Admiral John Sidney McCain, who commanded the powerful Navy aircraft carrier Task Force 38 in World War II.

Senator John Sidney McCain III has a very good chance of becoming the 44th President of the United States. Looming large in Senator McCain’s long list of qualifications is over forty years of service to his country: twenty-two years in the Navy and over twenty years in Congress. However, the McCain family tradition of public service goes back many more years than that. Great-great-uncle Major General Henry P. McCain was the father of the selective service system in the Great War, and was Adjutant General of the Army in 1914. Great-uncle Brigadier General William A. McCain earned Distinguished Service Crosses in both world wars. Great-grandfather John McCain served as sheriff in his home county for six years, but perhaps is more notable for fathering the first of the Navy McCains. That was Senator McCain’s grandfather, Admiral John Sidney “Slew” McCain, Sr.

To complete the genealogy, next in this sea-going tradition is the Senator’s father, four-star Admiral John Sidney McCain, Jr., known as Jack. Next is the senator himself, who retired from the Navy as a four-striper. His two sons now carry on this nautical lineage: John Sidney McCain IV (another Jack) will graduate from the Naval Academy next year. Son Jimmy has already been through one deployment in Iraq with the U.S. Marines.

The Senator’s grandfather, John Sidney “Slew” McCain, Sr., was born in 1884 on his family’s farm in the Mississippi Delta. After one year at the University of Mississippi, Sidney (as the family called him) entered the Naval Academy. He graduated in February 1906 and shipped out to the Asiatic Station.

World War I found Lieutenant McCain serving as engineering officer on the armored cruiser San Diego. At the end of the war, Commander McCain embarked on the first of four duty tours in Washington. He worked closely with Congress solving naval personnel problems and planning the future Navy. Sea duty assignments saw McCain on the battleship Maryland as navigator, on the battleship New Mexico as executive officer, and on the Nitro (an ammunition and passenger ship) as commanding officer.

In 1935, McCain decided to go flying. At age 50 and with four stripes on his sleeve, McCain took his place on the flight line with the fresh-faced aviation cadets. Pilot training was a tough business for McCain, but he persevered and won his golden wings in August 1936.

By December 7th, 1941, Rear Admiral McCain was running the Navy’s patrol planes on the West Coast and in Hawaii—the very planes that were smashed in the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Kaneohe. McCain lobbied hard to get into the fighting, and got his wish in May 1942. He was assigned to command the multinational force of land-based planes in the South Pacific.

When the crosshairs for the American advance in the South Pacific settled on Tulagi and Guadalcanal, McCain’s planes covered the approaching invasion force and searched for Japanese carrier threats. The visionary McCain saw that Guadalcanal was not just a local skirmish but a vital step toward defeating Japan. He ordered the first planes into Henderson Field. Then he wheedled planes from the Air Force, Navy fighters orphaned by damage to the Enterprise in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, and planes from the Saratoga, which had been crippled by a torpedo. McCain’s determined crusade to get adequate air support on Guadalcanal not only helped ensure the success of that campaign but set an aggressive tone that was later repeated by the Navy’s leaders throughout the Central Pacific to the shores of Japan.

After a year back in Washington running the Bureau of Aeronautics, Vice Admiral McCain became the first Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Navy air. Although he was at the top of the heap for naval aviators, he never lost sight of his goal to get back to the fighting. In July 1944 he received orders to return to the Pacific. He honed his sea-going skills by first commanding a task group of four aircraft carriers. The impatient McCain was ready and rarin’ to go when in October 1944 he relieved Pete Mitscher as commander of mighty Task Force 38, with a dozen carriers plus battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. McCain and Mitscher would rotate that command until the end of the war.

McCain was welcomed back to the battle zone by the new Japanese weapon, the kamikaze. He responded with successful new anti-kamikaze tactics and a history-making raid into the South China Sea. McCain, running the principle offensive arm of Bill Halsey’s Third Fleet, finished the Philippines campaign and headed for Japan. There, his task force roamed at will up and down the coast striking airfields, factories, naval bases, and enemy ships. On August 15th, 1945, the day’s sorties against Tokyo were already launched and underway when the Japanese surrendered.

McCain, up to this point driven by his fighting spirit, was now feeling drained. After witnessing the surrender ceremony on the Missouri, he headed home to Coronado, California. Slated for a new post back in Washington, he paused at home long enough for a welcome party. There, in the middle of the festivities, John Sidney McCain said that he felt tired. He retired upstairs to his bedroom and died of a heart attack (or just plain exhaustion) at the young age of 61.

Grandson Senator John McCain recognizes and is proud of this family tradition. Campaign video-clips fade from grandfather (Sidney) to father (Jack) to John. The senator opened his March speech on foreign policy with references to both father and grandfather.

Grandfather John Sidney McCain Sr. was modest, fearless, fun-loving, extroverted, affectionate, and energetic. On the other hand, he was a fighter and labeled as aggressive, profane, impulsive, volatile, and hotheaded. Is the Republican presumptive presidential candidate anything like his grandfather?

Similarities abound, but it’s worthwhile noting one big difference to start. Senator McCain’s career didn’t end after becoming a Navy hero as did his grandfather’s. The Navy was a springboard, a maturing experience, leaving him wiser and leading him to a broader service in the public interest.

Some comparisons are quick and easy. If Grandfather Sidney was profane, the senator measured up when he unleashed a legendary stream of profanity at his Hanoi jailers. Both are energetic, and although they graced the lower regions of academic ratings, were natural leaders at Annapolis. Both wrote extensively, with the senator by far the more successful. Both love to laugh, and both carry easy, natural authority. Admiral McCain also had a soft, clear voice of command. Listening to the senator, one can almost imagine Admiral McCain speaking in the same calm yet authoritative voice.

There are other striking similarities. Both are fighters. Sidney worked hard to get out to the Pacific war in 1941 and to return in 1944. John passed up the opportunity to return home on the fire-damaged Forrestal to fill a need for pilots on the Oriskany. Moreover, as is well known, John refused to accept early release from the Hanoi Hilton.

Senator McCain almost proudly carries the label of “maverick.” Many are attracted to him because he will go against the grain when he believes in a greater purpose. Grandfather Sidney shared that bulldog-like tenacity for a cause he felt was right. He campaigned for armored decks on carriers, more fighter planes, and more aircraft carriers to defeat Japan.

The issue of temper also arises. Admiral Sidney McCain could blow his stack, and his staff scattered when it happened. Senator John McCain admits to a hot temper (though feels it is exaggerated), but passionately believes that there are things worth getting angry about. Although John seems rather fond of his rebellious streak, in his book Hard Call the senator shows a more careful, analytical side, meticulously dissecting the process of making hard decisions. He speaks of awareness, foresight, timing, confidence, humility, and inspiration. Such a thoughtful approach is a tool that will serve the country well.

His grandfather would approve.

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