The Magazine

Warrior at Sea

Admiral 'Slew' McCain and the old Navy.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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A Leader Born

The Life of Adm. John Sidney McCain, Pacific Carrier Commander

by Alton Keith Gilbert

Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95

Almost everyone knows that Sen. John McCain's father was an admiral. Indeed, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., U.S. Navy, served as commander in chief of the Pacific Command from 1968 until 1972, during which time then-Lt. Cdr. John S. McCain III was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. McCain had been shot down in October 1967, and when the North Vietnamese discovered who his father was, they attempted to embarrass the American military by offering McCain a chance to go home. But he refused, remaining in North Vietnamese captivity for five-and-a-half years.

Most people, however, do not know that McCain's grandfather was also an admiral. That would include me. Indeed, when I was asked to review A Leader Born, I thought it was a biography of the senator's father, not his grandfather. But as I was to discover, in the pantheon of World War II naval leaders, John Sidney McCain ranks right up there with William Halsey, Raymond Spruance, and Marc Mitscher.

McCain has been described as "a gaunt, hawk-faced man known as Slew by his fellow officers and, affectionately, as Popeye by the sailors who served under him." One cannot imagine him in today's Navy. He gambled, cursed a blue streak, drank bourbon and branch water, and rolled his own cigarettes with one hand. His fitness reports were excellent, with the exception of "military appearance." Admiral Halsey called McCain's infamous combat-area headgear "the most disreputable one I ever saw on an officer." But because of his merits, McCain rose to become one of the Navy's greatest combat commanders in World War II, leading the powerful aircraft carrier force of "Bull" Halsey's Third Fleet during key campaigns in the Pacific.

When asked what he thought about McCain, Halsey replied, "Not much more than my right arm."

Gilbert's biography is workmanlike. It will never be confused with Winston Churchill's life of the Duke of Marlborough, but it provides a fairly complete picture of a remarkable combat leader who deserves to be better known than he is. Gilbert has done a good job of pulling together bits and pieces of information about a man who died only four days after witnessing the surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri and, therefore, didn't have an opportunity to provide his own reflections on his wartime career.

John Sidney McCain was born in Carroll County, Mississippi, in 1884, the son of John Sidney and Elizabeth-Ann Young McCain. He began his college studies at the University of Mississippi in 1901 but transferred to the Naval Academy the following year, from which he graduated in 1906. He rose through the grades to rear admiral in 1941 and to vice admiral in 1943.

McCain began his career as what today is called a surface warfare officer, serving on vessels ranging from gunboats to battleships. He also graduated from the Naval War College and pulled shore duty in Washington. But when the Navy needed senior officers to qualify as aviators, Captain John McCain earned his wings at age 52. Shortly thereafter, he commanded one of the Navy's first aircraft carriers, the USS Ranger. He was selected for promotion to flag rank at the end of 1940 and then assumed command of the Pacific Fleet's Scouting Force, consisting of three wings of PBY Catalina seaplanes.

In May 1942, McCain became commander of all land-based aircraft in the South Pacific, under Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley. His job was to protect the vital sea lanes between Hawaii and Australia, which required searching a huge area north of Australia to detect the movement of the Japanese from the Marshalls and Carolines toward the Solomon Islands.

During the struggle for Guadal canal, the Japanese were able to exploit a "seam" between Ghormley's South Pacific command (McCain's search area) and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific command to inflict on Ghormley's force one of the greatest defeats in the history of the Navy at the Battle of Savo Island. During this night battle, the Japanese task force sank one Australian and three American cruisers, and badly damaged another. Fortunately, the Japanese did not follow up their victory. Had they continued south and attacked the unprotected transports, the first allied offensive of World War II might have ended in disaster. As it was, it set things back considerably, leaving the Marines ashore operating on a shoestring.

While there was plenty of blame to go around for the debacle at Savo Island, McCain has borne his share of criticism for the failure of aerial reconnaissance. But McCain certainly balanced the books with "his visionary and relentless support for the Marines on Guadalcanal," for which he received the first of three Distinguished Service Medals.