A ‘Maverick,’ Revisited
THE NAVY BRAT
John Sidney McCain III has spent most of his life trying to escape the shadow of greater men. His grandfather Adm. John Sidney “Slew” McCain earned his four stars commanding a U.S. carrier force in World War II. His deeply ambitious father, Adm. “Junior” McCain, reached the same rank, commanding America’s forces in the Pacific during Vietnam.
The youngest McCain was not cut from the same cloth. Even as a toddler, McCain recalls in Faith of My Fathers, his volcanic temper was on display. “At the smallest provocation,” he would hold his breath until he passed out: “I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” His parents cured him of this habit in a way only a CIA interrogator could appreciate: by dropping their blue-faced boy in a bathtub of ice-cold water.
Trailing his hard-charging, hard-drinking father from post to post, McCain didn’t play well with others. Indeed, he concedes, his runty physique inspired a Napoleon complex: “My small stature motivated me to . . . fight the first kid who provoked me.”
McCain spent his formative years among the Washington elite. His father — himself deep in the throes of a daddy complex — had secured a political post as the Navy’s chief liaison to the Senate, a job his son would later hold, and the McCain home on Southeast 1st Street was a high-powered pit stop in the Washington cocktail circuit. Growing up, McCain attended Episcopal High School, an all-white, all-boys boarding school across the Potomac in Virginia, where tuition today tops $40,000 a year. There, McCain behaved with all the petulance his privilege allowed, earning the nicknames “Punk” and “McNasty.” Even his friends seemed to dislike him, with one recalling him as “a mean little fucker.”
McCain was not only a lousy student, he had his father’s taste for drink and a darkly misogynistic streak. The summer after his sophomore year, cruising with a friend near Arlington, McCain tried to pick up a pair of young women. When they laughed at him, he cursed them so vilely that he was hauled into court on a profanity charge.
McCain’s admittance to Annapolis was preordained by his bloodline. But martial discipline did not seem to have much of an impact on his character. By his own account, McCain was a lazy, incurious student; he squeaked by only by prevailing upon his buddies to help him cram for exams. He continued to get sauced and treat girls badly. Before meeting a girlfriend’s parents for the first time, McCain got so shitfaced that he literally crashed through the screen door when he showed up in his white midshipman’s uniform.
His grandfather’s name and his father’s forbearance brought McCain a charmed existence at Annapolis. On his first trip at sea — to Rio de Janeiro aboard the USS Hunt — the captain was a former student of his father. While McCain’s classmates learned the ins and outs of the boiler room, McCain got to pilot the ship to South America and back. In Rio, he hobnobbed with admirals and the president of Brazil.
Back on campus, McCain’s short fuse was legend. “We’d hear this thunderous screaming and yelling between him and his roommate — doors slamming — and one of them would go running down the hall,” recalls Phil Butler, who lived across the hall from McCain at the academy. “It was a regular occurrence.”
When McCain was not shown the pampering to which he was accustomed, he grew petulant — even abusive. He repeatedly blew up in the face of his commanding officer. It was the kind of insubordination that would have gotten any other midshipman kicked out of Annapolis. But his classmates soon realized that McCain was untouchable. Midway though his final year, McCain faced expulsion, about to “bilge out” because of excessive demerits. After his mother intervened, however, the academy’s commandant stepped in. Calling McCain “spoiled” to his face, he nonetheless issued a reprieve, scaling back the demerits. McCain dodged expulsion a second time by convincing another midshipman to take the fall after McCain was caught with contraband.
“He was a huge screw-off,” recalls Butler. “He was always on probation. The only reason he graduated was because of his father and his grandfather — they couldn’t exactly get rid of him.”
McCain’s self-described “four-year course of insubordination” ended with him graduating fifth from the bottom — 894th out of a class of 899. It was a record of mediocrity he would continue as a pilot.
In the cockpit, McCain was not a top gun, or even a middling gun. He took little interest in his flight manuals; he had other priorities.
“I enjoyed the off-duty life of a Navy flier more than I enjoyed the actual flying,” McCain writes. “I drove a Corvette, dated a lot, spent all my free hours at bars and beach parties.” McCain chased a lot of tail. He hit the dog track. Developed a taste for poker and dice. He picked up models when he could, screwed a stripper when he couldn’t.
In the air, the hard-partying McCain had a knack for stalling out his planes in midflight. He was still in training, in Texas, when he crashed his first plane into Corpus Christi Bay during a routine practice landing. The plane stalled, and McCain was knocked cold on impact. When he came to, the plane was underwater, and he had to swim to the surface to be rescued. Some might take such a near-death experience as a wake-up call: McCain took some painkillers and a nap, and then went out carousing that night.
Off duty on his Mediterranean tours, McCain frequented the casinos of Monte Carlo, cultivating his taste for what he calls the “addictive” game of craps. McCain’s thrill-seeking carried over into his day job. Flying over the south of Spain one day, he decided to deviate from his flight plan. Rocketing along mere feet above the ground, his plane sliced through a power line. His self-described “daredevil clowning” plunged much of the area into a blackout.
That should have been the end of McCain’s flying career. “In the Navy, if you crashed one airplane, nine times out of 10 you would lose your wings,” says Butler, who, like his former classmate, was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Spark “a small international incident” like McCain had? Any other pilot would have “found themselves as the deck officer on a destroyer someplace in a hurry,” says Butler.
“But, God, he had family pull. He was directly related to the CEO — you know?”
McCain was undeterred by the crashes. Nearly a decade out of the academy, his career adrift, he decided he wanted to fly combat in Vietnam. His motivation wasn’t to contain communism or put his country first. It was the only way he could think of to earn the respect of the man he calls his “distant, inscrutable patriarch.” He needed to secure a command post in the Navy — and to do that, his career needed the jump-start that only a creditable war record could provide.
As he would so many times in his career, McCain pulled strings to get ahead. After a game of tennis, McCain prevailed upon the undersecretary of the Navy that he was ready for Vietnam, despite his abysmal flight record. Sure enough, McCain was soon transferred to McCain Field — an air base in Meridian, Mississippi, named after his grandfather — to train for a post on the carrier USS Forrestal.
With a close friend at the base, an alcoholic Marine captain, McCain formed the “Key Fess Yacht Club,” which quickly became infamous for hosting toga parties in the officers’ quarters and bringing bands down from Memphis to attract loose women to the base. Showing his usual knack for promotion, McCain rose from “vice commodore” to “commodore” of the club.
In 1964, while still at the base, McCain began a serious romance with Carol Shepp, a vivacious former model who had just divorced one of his classmates from Annapolis. Commandeering a Navy plane, McCain spent most weekends flying from Meridian to Philadelphia for their dates. They married the following summer.
That December, McCain crashed again. Flying back from Philadelphia, where he had joined in the reverie of the Army-Navy football game, McCain stalled while coming in for a refueling stop in Norfolk, Virginia. This time he managed to bail out at 1,000 feet. As his parachute deployed, his plane thundered into the trees below.
By now, however, McCain’s flying privileges were virtually irrevocable — and he knew it. On one of his runs at McCain Field, when ground control put him in a holding pattern, the lieutenant commander once again pulled his family’s rank. “Let me land,” McCain demanded over his radio, “or I’ll take my field and go home!”
TRIAL BY FIRE
Sometimes 3 a.m. moments occur at 10:52 in the morning.
It was July 29th, 1967, a hot, gusty morning in the Gulf of Tonkin atop the four-acre flight deck of the supercarrier USS Forrestal. Perched in the cockpit of his A-4 Skyhawk, Lt. Cmdr. John McCain ticked nervously through his preflight checklist.
Now 30 years old, McCain was trying to live up to his father’s expectations, to finally be known as something other than the fuck-up grandson of one of the Navy’s greatest admirals. That morning, preparing for his sixth bombing run over North Vietnam, the graying pilot’s dreams of combat glory were beginning to seem within his reach.
Then, in an instant, the world around McCain erupted in flames. A six-foot-long Zuni rocket, inexplicably launched by an F-4 Phantom across the flight deck, ripped through the fuel tank of McCain’s aircraft. Hundreds of gallons of fuel splashed onto the deck and came ablaze. Then: Clank. Clank. Two 1,000-pound bombs dropped from under the belly of McCain’s stubby A-4, the Navy’s “Tinkertoy Bomber,” into the fire.
McCain, who knew more than most pilots about bailing out of a crippled aircraft, leapt forward out of the cockpit, swung himself down from the refueling probe protruding from the nose cone, rolled through the flames and ran to safety across the flight deck. Just then, one of his bombs “cooked off,” blowing a crater in the deck and incinerating the sailors who had rushed past McCain with hoses and fire extinguishers. McCain was stung by tiny bits of shrapnel in his legs and chest, but the wounds weren’t serious; his father would later report to friends that Johnny “came through without a scratch.”
The damage to the Forrestal was far more grievous: The explosion set off a chain reaction of bombs, creating a devastating inferno that would kill 134 of the carrier’s 5,000-man crew, injure 161 and threaten to sink the ship.
These are the moments that test men’s mettle. Where leaders are born. Leaders like . . . Lt. Cmdr. Herb Hope, pilot of the A-4 three planes down from McCain’s. Cornered by flames at the stern of the carrier, Hope hurled himself off the flight deck into a safety net and clambered into the hangar deck below, where the fire was spreading. According to an official Navy history of the fire, Hope then “gallantly took command of a firefighting team” that would help contain the conflagration and ultimately save the ship.
McCain displayed little of Hope’s valor. Although he would soon regale The New York Times with tales of the heroism of the brave enlisted men who “stayed to help the pilots fight the fire,” McCain took no part in dousing the flames himself. After going belowdecks and briefly helping sailors who were frantically trying to unload bombs from an elevator to the flight deck, McCain retreated to the safety of the “ready room,” where off-duty pilots spent their noncombat hours talking trash and playing poker. There, McCain watched the conflagration unfold on the room’s closed-circuit television — bearing distant witness to the valiant self-sacrifice of others who died trying to save the ship, pushing jets into the sea to keep their bombs from exploding on deck.
As the ship burned, McCain took a moment to mourn his misfortune; his combat career appeared to be going up in smoke. “This distressed me considerably,” he recalls in Faith of My Fathers. “I feared my ambitions were among the casualties in the calamity that had claimed the Forrestal.”
The fire blazed late into the night. The following morning, while oxygen-masked rescue workers toiled to recover bodies from the lower decks, McCain was making fast friends with R.W. “Johnny” Apple of The New York Times, who had arrived by helicopter to cover the deadliest Naval calamity since the Second World War. The son of admiralty surviving a near-death experience certainly made for good copy, and McCain colorfully recounted how he had saved his skin. But when Apple and other reporters left the ship, the story took an even stranger turn: McCain left with them. As the heroic crew of the Forrestal mourned its fallen brothers and the broken ship limped toward the Philippines for repairs, McCain zipped off to Saigon for what he recalls as “some welcome R&R.”