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.

As part of Adm. Ernest King's plan to rotate aviation flag officers in and out of the war zone, McCain left the South Pacific in September 1942 to become head of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In August 1943, McCain assumed the newly created post of deputy chief of naval operations (air), taking five divisions of the bureau with him. One of his major contributions was the articulation of an offensive concept of operations for carrier-based air that envisioned a strike force of fast carriers capable of striking the Japanese home islands. As we shall see later, it was an idea ahead of its time.

In July 1944, McCain left Washington for the Pacific, where he became the commander of Task Force 38, the fast carrier force of Halsey's Third Fleet. As the United States pushed closer to the Japanese home islands, Third Fleet alternated operations with Admiral Spruance's Fifth Fleet and Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Mitscher. McCain continued in this position until the end of the war, making an important contribution to victory in the Philippines campaign, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Alton Keith Gilbert is not a professional historian, and for those who enjoy narrative history and biographies, and who appreciate military history, that is a good thing--which does not reflect favorably on the academic historical profession. A Leader Born is reminiscent of another excellent account of the Pacific war by a nonhistorian, Edward S. Miller's War Plan Orange, a remarkable book about the evolution of the U.S. war plan for defeating the Japanese in the Western Pacific.

It is clear that A Leader Born is a labor of love. As Gilbert confesses in the preface, he came to realize that, as he plowed through the material on McCain, "John Sidney McCain had grown to become a personal hero to me." But while he clearly admires his subject, A Leader Born is not hagiography. Even the greatest of men have flaws, and McCain was no exception. As Gilbert observes, "To take on command is to take on risks--risks of success and failure, and the risks of praise and criticism. McCain experienced a bit of each."

One determinant of McCain's successes and failures was his leadership style. This was true of the Navy's senior leadership in general, and Gilbert offers a comparative study of this factor. McCain always operated in the shadow of "Bull" Halsey, and the former shared both the virtues and vices of the latter. Meanwhile, in temperament and leadership style, Halsey was almost the polar opposite of Raymond Spruance. Spruance was deliberate and cautious, a meticulous planner, and a brilliant strategist and coordinator who left the execution of his plans to his subordinates. Halsey was a bold commander and imaginative improviser. As one historian cited by Gilbert observes, Halsey "had daring and was unafraid to take risks, but he was also sloppy in his procedures."

An aggressive risk-taker can be a good thing. When the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester Nimitz, needed a leader to restore the fighting spirit of the forces around Guadalcanal, he turned to Halsey to replace Ghormley. But Halsey's aggressiveness almost cost him dearly at Leyte Gulf, when he took the Japanese bait and left the landing force uncovered.

McCain was also a risk-taker. Whereas Spruance preferred to keep his carriers on a short leash to cover the amphibious force during the seizure of advanced naval bases in the Central Pacific campaign, McCain envisioned the fast-carrier force as an offensive weapon to attack the Japanese air threat at its source. Gilbert does not mention it, but McCain's vision adumbrated the Navy's operational concept for the use of the carrier during the Cold War. The carrier battle force was designed to defeat Soviet naval aviation by means of "bait and trap." With its offensive punch, the carrier was the "bait" because the Russians could not afford to permit the carriers close enough to launch strikes against the Soviet homeland. But it was also the "trap" because it carried the F-14 Tomcat, an interceptor designed to shoot down the bombers that would attack the carriers.

We sometimes forget that the United States was not preordained to win World War II. It took an extraordinary effort and extraordinary sacrifice to do so; and even then, we needed the right leaders in the right place. John S. McCain was one of those leaders so dedicated to the completion of his mission that he refused to let up, even though the stress and burden of command killed him. He might have suffered a heart attack while in command of Task Force 38, but kept it to himself lest he be relieved.

Senator John McCain writes a touching foreword to A Leader Born. His grandfather died when he was only nine years old, and it is clear that he left an indelible impression. But as I was reading I wondered what Admiral McCain would think about his grandson--and the rest of his generation. Of course, he would admire John McCain for the reasons the rest of us admire him: his steadfast courage, both physical and moral, the character he demonstrated in the crucible of war and long captivity, and his sense of honor. But I wonder if Admiral McCain wouldn't think that his grandson's generation had become too solicitous of America's enemies, and too soft to do what is necessary to defeat a vicious enemy.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is associate dean and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College.