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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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.