A Proud Tradition
John Sidney McCain III, known as Johnny, was a navy kid from day one. He was born on August 29, 1936, to Roberta and John Sidney McCain Jr., in the hospital at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. Johnny’s father, called Jack, was assigned to a submarine stationed at Coco Solo. His grandfather, John Sidney McCain Sr. was the base commander there.
Base Commander McCain, nicknamed “Slew,” doted on his new grandson. A photo of Johnny and his father and grandfather at Johnny’s christening shows Jack looking serious. But Johnny’s grandfather is grinning from ear to ear as he cradles his tiny grandson in his arms.
Commander McCain was even glad to babysit
Johnny. One night, going out to a party, Roberta McCain instructed her father-in-law to let the baby cry in his crib. Returning home, she was shocked to discover that Grandfather McCain had instead taken little Johnny to bed with him. “Dammit, Roberta,” he tried to explain himself, “that boy has the stamp of nobility on his brow.”
Johnny’s parents weren’t so sure, especially as Johnny became a toddler. He had fits of temper, often becoming so angry that he held his breath until he fainted. His parents were worried, but the family doctor advised them to dunk the little boy in a tub of cold water each time a tantrum began. This treatment seemed to cure Johnny’s temper fits.
A few months after Johnny’s birth, his family—his father, his mother, and his older sister, Jean (called Sandy)—moved to New London, Connecticut. Jack McCain had been assigned to the submarine command headquarters there. This would be only the first of Johnny McCain’s many moves with his family as they followed Jack to various naval posts around the country. In 1939 the McCains moved to San Diego, California, where Jack had been appointed commander of the Naval Air Station. Only two years later, in April 1941, they were back in New London.
One Sunday toward the end of that year, five-year-old Johnny and his family happened to be standing in their front yard. A naval officer pulled his car up in front of the McCains’ house and shouted to Johnny’s father. “Jack! The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!” It was December 7, 1941.
Jack McCain left immediately for the base. The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Soon afterward, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. The United States entered World War II, and Johnny hardly saw his father during the next four years.
Fortunately, Roberta McCain was perfectly capable of running the family, which now included Johnny’s brother, Joseph, born in 1942, by herself. A lively, enthusiastic woman, Roberta loved navy life. She was always interested in new places and experiences, and she made new friends easily.
Roberta had grown up in California as the daughter of wealthy oilman Archibald Wright and his wife, Myrtle. But she didn’t mind making do on her husband’s small salary as a naval officer, and she treated their frequent moves as chances for adventure. In fact, her marriage to Jack McCain had begun as an adventure, when at the age of twenty she’d married
him against her family’s wishes, eloping with him to Tijuana, Mexico.
Although Johnny seldom saw his father or grandfather during the war years, they were important figures in his life. Sometimes his mother would wake him up in the middle of the night to see his grandfather, stopping by on his way to his next assignment. Johnny was always delighted to see Grandfather McCain, a lively, fun-loving man. The two had had a special bond ever since Johnny was a baby in Panama, when the tough, chain-smoking naval commander babysat for him.
Johnny McCain learned as a young boy that a career in the navy was the best life—the only possible life—for a McCain man. His grandfather, who grew up on a plantation in Carroll County, Mississippi, had graduated from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1906. Slew McCain began serving in the navy when Theodore Roosevelt was president.
President Theodore Roosevelt had done a great deal to build up the United States Navy, and the McCains considered him one of the greatest presidents ever. To demonstrate US naval power to the world, Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet,” a parade of battleships
seven miles long, around the globe. When the fleet returned in triumph in late 1908, young Ensign McCain stood at attention on the deck of the flagship, the USS Connecticut, to salute President Roosevelt.
Slew McCain, short and slight, did not fit the image most people have of a military hero. But he made up for his small size with a fierce fighting spirit and unflinching courage, and his men were devoted to him. He rose to the rank of vice admiral during World War II. In the famous battle of Guadalcanal, Johnny’s grandfather commanded the land-based air operations of the United States and its allies in the South Pacific. In the last year of the war, Slew McCain commanded Task Force 38 of the Third Fleet, a carrier task force that took the combat all the way from the Philippines to Japan.
Meanwhile, his son, John McCain Jr., idolized his father and yearned to be just like him. Jack McCain, also a small, slight man, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1931. He fought in World War II as commander of the submarine USS Gunnel, first in the Atlantic Ocean and then in the Pacific. After the war, Johnny listened to his father’s thrilling stories of many narrow escapes.
Jack McCain’s worst ordeal took place in the
East China Sea, as the Gunnel was being hunted down by three Japanese destroyers. The Gunnel managed to torpedo and sink one of the destroyers, but the remaining two attacked the submarine with depth charges. Commander McCain took his submarine down to three hundred feet, out of reach. After eighteen hours underwater, the carbon dioxide level of the air rose dangerously. The crew nearly suffocated, but Jack McCain managed to bring his ship and men through safely.
On September 2, 1945, the Japanese formally surrendered to the United States and its allies. Vice Admiral McCain had the honor of being one of the officers present at the ceremony on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Jack McCain was also in Tokyo Bay, now commanding a captured Japanese submarine, and the father and son met for a private talk after the ceremonies. Vice Admiral McCain was extremely thin, having worn himself out in the stressful last months of the war, but he was in high spirits. It was a privilege, he told his son, to die for your principles and country.
Four days later, in the middle of a welcome-home party in Coronado, California, Johnny’s grandfather dropped dead from a heart attack. He was buried
with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery, the historic military cemetery outside Washington, DC, and President Harry S. Truman sent condolences to Johnny’s grandmother. Soon after his death, Congress honored John S. McCain Sr. with the rank of full admiral.
After the war, Jack McCain continued to devote himself to his career in the navy. During these years he worked at the Pentagon, in Washington, DC, and the McCains had a house on Capitol Hill. Jack McCain was happiest when he was working. Even on Christmas Day, after Sandy, Johnny, and Joe had opened their presents, he’d put on his uniform and leave for the office.
As a young boy, Johnny wished his father would spend more time with him. Still, he understood, from his mother as well as his father, that it was an honor to have a father who served such a noble cause. A navy officer’s family, by supporting him and his work, also shared in that proud tradition of serving and sacrificing for one’s country.
Johnny also learned, as a boy, to respect the officer’s code of honor. An officer did not lie, steal, or cheat. An officer kept his word. An officer knew his duty and did it, no matter how difficult. An officer accepted
responsibility for his men and took care of them.
Johnny could see for himself how serious his father was about the code. His brother, Joe, commented in later life that he’d never heard his father tell a lie. Once, Roberta teasingly accused her husband of lying during a card game. He was very disturbed that she would suggest such a thing, even as a joke.
Roberta McCain set an example for her children by wholeheartedly supporting her husband’s career. Beautiful and charming, she filled the social role that hardworking Jack McCain ignored. She knew that wherever they happened to move, there would be other navy families to welcome them and to look out for one another when the husbands were away.
But Roberta worried about her children’s education. They moved so often that the McCain children might be either behind or ahead of the curriculum in each new school. Worse, the schools at navy bases were almost always substandard. Classes might be held in an old hangar. Teachers came and went, and sometimes no teacher at all showed up.
None of this bothered Johnny very much, because to him school was mainly a place to make friends. Like his father and grandfather, he was small for his age, but athletic and tough. He often got into a fight during
his first days at a new school, just to show that he couldn’t be pushed around. He was a natural leader among the children, and a favorite among adults for his good manners and cheerful temperament. In each new home, Johnny proudly showed his friends a photo of the Japanese surrender on the Missouri, with his grandfather in the ranks of the American officers.
To make up for the inferior navy base schools, Roberta McCain used the family’s trips across the country to educate the children herself. On their way to new homes she took Johnny, Sandy, and Joe to national parks such as Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. She planned the route so as to visit art museums, historical sites, and beautiful old churches.
When Roberta was a child in Southern California, her father had taken her and her twin sister, Rowena, on similar long road trips. Young Roberta and Rowena had learned geography, natural history, and other subjects by actually seeing the source of the Mississippi River, marveling at the Hoover Dam, and exploring Yellowstone National Park. Now Roberta wanted to give her own children the same opportunities.
When Johnny was twelve, the family had to move yet again, from Washington, DC, to Coronado, California. On this cross-country trip, Johnny and
Sandy squabbled endlessly in the backseat. Their mother ordered them to stop fighting, but Johnny answered her with a smart remark.
Finally out of patience, Roberta McCain grabbed a banana as she drove and threw it over her shoulder at Johnny. The banana hit Sandy instead, which made Johnny laugh. Really angry now, Roberta grabbed an aluminum thermos and threw it at Johnny. He wasn’t hurt (aluminum is light), but he was indignant, especially when she laughed at him.
Johnny’s mother, writing a letter to his father that night, reported that his namesake had become “a real pain in the neck.” Up to that time, he’d been polite and cooperative, at least with adults. It was the first sign (aside from his two-year-old tantrums) of the rebellious, defiant streak for which he would become famous.