John Sidney McCain Senior was the grandfather of Arizona Senator John Sidney McCain, III. The elder McCain, who had the nickname “Slew,” was a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy. He passed away just one day after returning home from serving in WWII, at the age of 61. Senator McCain looked up to his grandfather and wrote about him extensively in his memoir Faith of My Fathers.
For clarity, references to “McCain” below will apply to Senior.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. McCain Had a Successful Military Career but Did Not Originally Stand out at the Naval Academy
John Sidney McCain was born in Carroll County, Mississippi on August 9, 1884 to plantation-owning parents. He originally attended the University of Mississippi. His initial plan from there was to join his brother, who was attending West Point. The McCain had a long history of military service.
According to information on the official U.S. Navy website, the McCain’s traditionally served in the Army. There was at least one family member who served on the staff of George Washington. Another fought in the Civil War. There was a McCain who became a three-star general in the army during WWI.
But John Sidney McCain Senior took the entrance exams for the United States Naval Academy and inadvertently changed the course of his family’s legacy. When he passed and was offered a spot, he decided to forgo West Point in favor of the Naval Academy.
According to naval historian E.B. Potter, who is quoted in the 1999 biography John McCain: An American Odyssey by Robert Timberg, McCain’s performance at the Naval Academy was “lackluster.” Out of 116 members of his graduating class, he ranked 79th. He was described in the yearbook as “”The skeleton in the family closet of 1906.”
2. McCain Sailed Around the World as Part of Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Great White Fleet’
After graduating from the Naval Academy, John McCain Senior spent the next few years at sea. The ships he served on included the battleship OHIO, the cruiser BALTIMORE, the destroyer CHAUNCEY, and the gunboat PANAY.
From 1907 until 1909, McCain sailed around the world as part of the Great White Fleet commissioned by President Teddy Roosevelt. The fleet was made up of 16 battleships. The mission was to travel around the world to show off the new power of the United States Navy.
During the final stretch of that mission, McCain sailed on the USS CONNECTICUT. He also served in the Asiatic Squadron, before he was ordered back on land at the base in San Diego. Prior to the U.S. entering the first Word War, McCain got his first taste of true leadership in Charleston, South Carolina. He was the Director of Machinist Mates School from 1912 until 1914.
McCain served aboard the SAN DIEGO for the majority of his time in WWI. The armored cruiser was responsible for escorting other ships through the first leg of the journey to Europe.
3. McCain Took to the Skies Later in his Career and Was Instrumental in the Navy’s Development of Aviation Strategy
In the biography about referenced above by author Robert Timberg, John Sidney McCain Senior was a “pioneer in the development of naval aviation, notably in the strategy and tactics for employing attack carriers.” In 1935, McCain made the decision to begin flight training. He was in his early 50s at the time.
Here’s the story: According to the U.S. Navy website, the Navy decided to expand his air presence during the 1930s. They had naval officers who could fly, but few with experience as commanders. By this point, McCain had risen in the ranks and become a Captain. He was asked if he’d like to go to the flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and he agreed.
McCain enthusiastically took the assignment and trained alongside men more than half his age. He set a record as the oldest person to land a plane on a pitching carrier deck. he earned his golden wings at the age of 52, in September 1936.
4. McCain Served as a Commander in the Pacific During World War II
John Sidney McCain Senior was promoted to the title of Rear Admiral in February of 1941. He had already spent time commanding two naval air stations and the RANGER carrier. After the United States officially entered the war following the attack at Pearl Harbor, McCain’s force was the one ready to defend the mainland in case the Japanese kept coming.
In May of 1942, McCain was made the commander of all land-based naval aircraft in the South Pacific. He was briefly ordered back to Washington, D.C. where he was named the Chief of Naval Aeronautics. It was during this stint that he was rewarded his third star. Following that stint, he returned to the Pacific. In the summer of 1944, he commanded the Second Fast Carrier Force Pacific. In the final months of the war, McCain commanded the Fast Carrier Task Force. He was also awarded the Navy Cross.
His grandson, Arizona Senator John McCain wrote in his memoir that his grandfather did not want to stay for the surrender of the Japanese. The elder McCain reportedly told Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, “”I don’t give a damn about seeing the surrender.” Halsey’s answer apparently was, “Maybe you do, but you’re not going. You were commanding this task force when the war ended, and I’m making sure history gets it straight.” The surrender took place on the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
According to the biography written by Robert Timberg, Rear Admiral Robert Carney believed that McCain Senior had a heart attack at some point at sea. But he believed McCain somehow hid it so that he could keep commanding his force. The biography quotes Carney as saying, “He knew his number was up, but he wouldn’t lie down and die until he got home.”
5. John Sidney McCain Senior Died Hours After Returning Home from World War II
John Sidney McCain Senior did not get a chance to enjoy being back home at the end of the second world war. He reportedly sat down during the welcome-home party, suffered a heart attack and passed away. His grandson wrote in his memoir that the Navy physician that the heart attack was brought on by “complete fatigue resulting from the strain of the last months of combat.”
After his death, Congress promoted him to full admiral out of respect for his service. His obituary was also featured on the front page of the New York Times. McCain is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The USS John S. McCain, a destroyer first launched by the U.S. Navy in 1992, was named in honor of both John Sidney McCain Senior and his son, John Sidney, Jr.