LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Lt. John McCain, right, posed with members of his squadron in 1965. Two years later, he would become a Vietnam POW.
John Mccain: From a family of fighters
From his office in Halawa Heights, Adm. John McCain Jr. faced a stark personal reality as he assumed command of U.S. Pacific forces on July 4, 1968.
His son, Lt. Cmdr. John McCain III, had been shot down over North Vietnam the previous fall and was being held captive in Hanoi.
Now the admiral's job included calling the shots in the Vietnam War.
Neither officer was aware of the other's precise circumstances on that Independence Day in one of the 20th century's most tumultuous political years.
Young McCain, badly injured and incommunicado at a prison camp, knew nothing of his father's promotion. Nor did he know the war had become contentious at home, leading in part to President Johnson's decision against a second full term.
He knew nothing of the assassinations of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy, a New York senator who had stepped into the presidential race.
Today, of course, that POW is U.S. Sen. John McCain, who last week became the all-but-certain GOP standard-bearer in the 2008 election.
Although McCain works in Washington and calls landlocked Arizona home, his military family's roots run deep in the Pacific. And the values that drive him today, by his own admission, were forged by his legacy as a naval officer and a prisoner who survived five and a half years of pain and degradation.
McCain's grandfather, Adm. John "Slew" McCain Sr., was a legendary aircraft carrier strike force commander in the Pacific during World War II. Earlier, his command of land-based aircraft around Vanuatu won mention in James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."
He was among the brass who in 1945 witnessed the surrender of the Japanese aboard the battleship USS Missouri, today a floating museum at Pearl Harbor.
The senator's father, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping "Jack" McCain, commanded the submarine Gunnel in the Pacific during World War II and went on to become the first son of a Navy four-star admiral to achieve that same rank.
The Pacific Fleet destroyer USS John McCain is named for both admirals.
In his 1999 memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain recalls that a tradition of service weighed on him from an early age.
His father, for instance, was an enthusiastic member of the Society of the Cincinnati, descendants of George Washington's officers.
"His evident pride in claiming such distinguished ancestry gave me the sense not only that I had a claim on my country's history, but that it would fall to me to represent the family when the history of my generation was recorded," he writes.
Several fellow Vietnam POWs likewise turned to politics, including retired Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee of Honolulu, who briefly ran as a Republican against U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in 2006; and Orson Swindle, a retired Marine, who challenged U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie in 1996.
U.S. NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER / COLLECTION OF ADM. JOHN S. MCCAIN JR.
AS PART OF NAVY life, McCain's parents moved from base to base every few years and landed at Pearl Harbor in the 1930s.
"Every Saturday night," he writes, "my father and mother, dressed in formal attire, attended a party at the Pearl Harbor Submarine Club, after spending their afternoon at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's four o'clock tea dance."
There was never a question that he would attend the Naval Academy and, although admittedly a poor student, he graduated in 1958 and went on to become an aviator like his granddad.
McCain was flying an A-4 Skyhawk off the carrier Oriskany on Oct. 26, 1967, when a missile blew off his right wing. As he ejected, he broke his right knee, left arm, and right arm in three places.
Fractures notwithstanding, McCain was beaten and tortured for information, then inexplicably offered his freedom in 1968.
"Although I did not know it at the time, my father would shortly assume command of the war effort as Commander in Chief, Pacific," McCain writes. "The Vietnamese intended to hail his arrival with a propaganda spectacle as they released his son in a gesture of 'goodwill.' I was to be enticed into accepting special treatment in the hope that it would shame the new enemy commander."
Even with the promise of medical care if he cooperated, McCain refused to go home ahead of those who had been in captivity longer.
And although he suspects he received less-brutal beatings than some other POWs because of his father's position, McCain still endured atrocious treatment, sometimes forced to sleep in his own vomit and feces after an interrogation session.
For years afterward, the sound of "jangling keys" at odd moments made him sit bolt upright at the feared approach of guards.
After McCain's release from the notorious Hanoi Hilton in March 1973, he talked to his father, then retired, about the war. The elder McCain insisted that it could have been won without boneheaded civilian interference.
"My father wasn't much of a believer in fighting wars by half- measures," writes McCain. "He regarded self-restraint as an admirable human quality, but when fighting wars he believed in taking all necessary measures to bring the conflict to a swift and successful conclusion. The Vietnam War was fought neither swiftly nor successfully, and I know this frustrated him greatly."
The elder McCain believed the United States had missed an opportunity to win the war in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive of 1968; and he chafed at the civilian reins that kept him from taking the fight into North Vietnam.
Finally, the Nixon administration relented.
"Late in the war, my father would give the order that sent B-52s to rain destruction upon the city where I was held prisoner," writes McCain. "That was his duty, and he did not shrink from it."
At left, Vice Adm. John McCain Sr. and his son Cmdr. John McCain Jr. share a moment aboard the submarine tender USS Proteus in Tokyo Bay, just hours after Japan's surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. It was the last time they would see each other. The elder McCain, who returned home to San Diego days later, collapsed during a welcome-home party and died. The younger McCain, father of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, went on to command Pacific forces during the Vietnam War. Above, Annapolis midshipman McCain with his father, then a captain, in 1956.
HOW THOSE experiences might shape a McCain administration remains open to debate. A supporter of last year's "surge" in Iraq, he has hailed progress there even as the fifth anniversary of the conflict approaches.
Perhaps there is a clue in his book's final pages, in a sentiment that could apply equally to American forces and their avowed foes:
"Ironically, I have never felt more powerfully free, more my own man, than when I was a small part of an organized resistance to the power that imprisoned me. Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone."
Jim Borg is a Star-Bulletin assistant city editor.