By Lt. John S. “Jack” McCain IV, U.S. Navy
Editor’s note: Anyone who has ever worn a military uniform is no stranger to sacrifice; their normal is weeks and months of long working hours under arduous conditions in sometimes inhospitable locations while separated from loved ones. People who have worn military uniforms also understand that, despite those day-to-day sacrifices, they, like many of their predecessors, may one day be asked for so much more. For Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, that day came on Oct. 26, 1967 when his A-4E Skyhawk, on a bombing mission over Hanoi, was shot down. He spent the next five and a half years as a prisoner of war during which he was tortured and suffered life-long injuries. We asked McCain’s son, Lt. John S. “Jack” McCain IV, to tell us how growing up in a Navy family, with the service of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather to guide him, impacted his understanding of service and sacrifice.
At the core of almost every family are the traditions to which they hold, whether large or small. Some American families hold tightly to the traditions from where they emigrated, some keep special recipes passed down through generations, and still others pass on heirlooms such as firearms or furniture. In my family, the tradition that binds us is military service. This is not said with any sort bombast or self-aggrandizement; rather, it is best described by a long-running family joke, that we are some of the most uncreative people in the country, utterly unable to divine a new job description. We are born, we join a chosen branch—which has included every service with the exception of the Coast Guard—and afterward, we may do some other things, and then we die. This thread that runs through us all has become a near mnemonic in my own naval career, as I constantly encounter, discover, or am confronted by my own family’s history in the military, and the Navy, more precisely. Instead of simply listing well-worn events, I would like to share a few personal moments that stand out, with the hope of connecting them to some of the lessons that were imparted onto me from my relatives, both living and dead.
My first encounter with the Navy, in earnest, was when I was eight years old and attended the commissioning ceremony for USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), the second ship bearing the name McCain, although I did not know it then. It was named for my grandfather and great-grandfather, both having been four-star admirals, both fighting Sailors in World War II, one a carrier task force commander under Admiral Halsey, and the other a diesel submariner in the Pacific. My grandmother, Roberta, was in attendance, which gave me the opportunity to listen to her reminisce about the days when she met my grandfather, John S. McCain, Jr., the two later eloping in Caesar’s Bar in Tijuana, and of the excitement, romance, and difficulty of being the wife of a submariner, at the time one of the most dangerous jobs in the Navy. It was here that I learned my great-grandfather, “Slew” McCain, preferred bourbon and branch, had a constantly rumpled uniform, and that “Bull” Halsey had considered him indispensable. However, what struck me most was how my grandmother talked about service and its importance to the family. Despite how young I was, this lit a desire to begin to learn everything I could about the great men whose names were emblazoned on the ship I saw before me.
The second memory that stands out is my own attendance at the Naval Academy, which was far less remarkable than that of my father. Rather than one single event, this memory is the aggregation of four years of little encounters. The name McCain is not on any building on the Yard, but my family can attribute almost everything it has become to the lessons imparted by the institution. I grew up with the same undercurrent of expectation—but no coercion–as to whether or not I would attend the Academy as my father did. From plebe summer through graduation, there was always a near assumption that I would be the same hellion that John III had been. If you read The Nightingale’s Song—a book I was forbidden to read until I had been accepted to the Academy—you will get a good sense of what I mean by hellion. My father’s rebellious attitude, disdain for authority, reckless liberty stunts, and low standing in his class are legendary within the halls at Annapolis. He admits that it was a lack of maturity, coupled with a fearless streak that led him to be as he was. However, I have gotten the sense over the years that without the defiance and roguishness, he would not be the person he became. Whether or not I followed in these raucous footsteps is a story for another time.
My most potent memory relates to the events that happened 50 years ago this week, my father’s shoot down and subsequent five and a half years as a prisoner of war. It was not until I completed Navy SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training that I gained some small semblance of the sheer magnitude of those events, and even then barely even a glimmer. And while I cannot share the details of the school, it’s safe to say that ever since SERE, I have never watched the American flag being raised, or heard the national anthem without fighting back tears. I grew up with equal parts of historical myth and fact where my father’s time in captivity is concerned. I knew many of the other POWs as I grew up, men like Orson Swindle and Bud Day, the men my dad attributes the saving of his life. Much of the story has been told far better than I ever could do, so instead I will share some of that story which not everyone knows.
The best way I can describe my father’s view on his time as a prisoner of war, is that, to him, it’s as if that time is a chapter of a book that has already been read, the pages turned, and now it is just another lesson imparted by life. He does not talk about it unless asked – not out of unwillingness, but rather a lack of fixation. He holds no malice about his captivity or even his torture, and—again—not due to thoughtlessness, but perspective. It was the separation from his country in the hands of another, which truly brought him to understand the United States, and to love it with a ferocity that I have never experienced elsewhere. If asked, my father will answer that the comradeship of the men around him and the necessity to return home with honor, despite suffering gravely for refusing early release, was what sustained him. But I also believe that his ability to confront authority—the same trait he displayed as a young midshipman—played no small part in his capability to endure. Despite everything, he has never faulted the Vietnamese people. He was one of the first military officers to return to the country, helping to forge the strong relationship the two nations share today. And finally, without irony, one of his favorite cuisines, which I grew up eating nearly weekly, is that of Vietnam.
I have had other experiences when I keenly felt the thread of my family among them, three years spent in Guam among the battlefields of World War II, seeing my great-grandfather’s name on a plaque on USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), and returning to the Naval Academy to teach just as my grandfather had. But the three events described above hold the most meaning. Distilling all of it, especially when trying to contextualize events from the biased position of a son, is no easy task, but here are a few lessons I see that have broader than personal application:
Serve something greater than yourself. This is an often-repeated line of my father’s, one I have heard all my life, but at the end of the day, it holds so much wisdom. My family’s service has been rooted in the military, but this is not the only way in which to give back. From raising your hand to support and defend, to volunteering at a local animal shelter, suborning personal interest for an external ideal is always a worthy pursuit. To do so is not only personally enriching, but societally uplifting. You can never go wrong helping others, and you can almost always go right.
History is important. This is not meant to sound trite, or to play to the audience of the Naval Heritage and History Command. Whether it is your own personal history, the traditions and experiences of your family, or even the larger arcs that drive human-kind, knowing and being connected to that history is invaluable. History gives us the context with which to make sense of the events happening around us. History gives us the depth to see the larger picture, keeping both the forest and the trees in perspective. Looking back often brings the future into sharper focus making it possible to progress forward with confidence.
No man is a monolith. This is the most difficult and poignant lesson for me to write. In the last several months, since my father’s diagnosis of glioblastoma, there has been a reflex to speak in terms of legacies. Legacies are important, remembering is important, but it is not forgetting the human that matters most. No one is born great. Instead, it is the assimilation of all of our experiences, and what we choose to do with those experiences that has the capacity to make us great. None of us is perfect, and we all must continually conquer fear, self-doubt, and ambiguity and rebound from the mistakes we make in order to prevail in life. To pretend otherwise is to mischaracterize the human experience, and dilutes the understanding of what truly makes us great, our humanity. To me this has not been echoed better than in the simple statement “The Old Man,” as I call him, gave when asked in an interview about his grim prognosis; that he could “. . . celebrate with gratitude a life well lived.”The important part about living is living a good life, not building or desiring to be monoliths.
Want to know more about Senator McCain’s U.S. Navy service? Visit our Notable People page featuring a biography, photos and additional reading regarding his service.