A Brief History
On August 26, 2018, a nation mourns the loss of US Navy veteran John McCain, a prominent US Senator from Arizona and former Presidential candidate who finally succumbed to brain cancer on August 25, 2018, after a courageous fight. As a high profile US politician, McCain became even more famous/infamous when he chose Sarah Palin as his Vice-presidential running mate in 2008. We celebrate John McCain’s life and legacy today by chronicling his fascinating life, a life of incredible highs and lows, triumphs and terrible pain.
Born in the Canal Zone (Panama) to a prominent US Navy family, John S. McCain III was the son and grandson of US Navy Admirals (4 star). He continued this legacy by attending the United States Naval Academy and graduated as an ensign in 1958, entering service as a surface attack pilot of Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, large single engine propeller driven attack aircraft flown from aircraft carriers. McCain had some maturing to do in this early part of his career, gaining a reputation as a party animal and a somewhat nonchalant pilot. In fact, he was involved in 2 crashes during his early years of flying and had another near-crash when he brushed power lines with his airplane.
McCain’s flying skill noticeably improved over time, and in 1965 he had settled down enough to marry a pretty model from Pennsylvania, with whom he had a daughter (and adopted her 2 children from a previous marriage). McCain requested he be assigned to a combat role in Vietnam, and his wish was granted when he embarked on the USS Forrestal and transitioned to flying Douglas A-4 Skyhawk light attack jets. McCain made his combat debut at the age of 30 in 1967, flying extremely dangerous missions over North Vietnam. During the frustration of fighting a limited and micro-managed war, McCain became convinced the political leaders of the United States were “complete idiots.” (He was correct!) While stationed on the Forrestal, McCain had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Commander when the ship suffered its catastrophic fire. McCain was lucky to escape with his life when the A-4 he was in awaiting takeoff became part of the fire. McCain showed his courage under stress by egressing his own A-4 and attempting to save another pilot of a plane burning on the flight deck when a bomb attached to that plane exploded, wounding and nearly killing McCain.
McCain, ever heroic and eager to serve, volunteered for duty aboard the USS Oriskany in order to remain in combat. While flying from the Oriskany, McCain earned the Bronze Star Medal and Navy Commendation Medal for his exploits over Vietnam. October 26, 1967, was a fateful day for John McCain, for on that day he was shot down while flying a particularly dangerous mission over Hanoi. Ejecting from his A-4E Skyhawk, McCain suffered a broken leg and broke both of his arms during the violent ejection (a not uncommon result of ejecting from a cripple jet). He landed in a lake where he nearly drowned, and things only got worse when he was dragged from the lake by North Vietnamese who manhandled the seriously injured pilot, including smashing a rifle butt into his shoulder and bayoneting the helpless American!
McCain was seriously mistreated by the North Vietnamese who beat and tortured the already broken man. Although sent to a “hospital,” McCain got little medical attention and was tortured for information and maybe just for sport. John quickly lost 50 pounds of body weight and his hair turned white. Fellow prisoners did not expect McCain to survive. In March of 1968, McCain was moved to solitary confinement in the “Hanoi Hilton” and remained kept alone for 2 years. Around this time McCain’s father became US Commander of all military forces in the Vietnam zone, and the North Vietnamese attempted to maneuver this appointment to their own propaganda advantage by offering to release John III from captivity. McCain III defiantly refused to be released until other Americans captured before him were all released in the order that they were captured and condemned himself to remain imprisoned for another 5 years. While a prisoner of war, McCain conducted himself in the most exemplary manner, bravely resisting efforts by his sadistic captors to turn him against his own country. Although tortured daily, often multiple times per day, McCain refused to meet with US anti-war activists. At one point McCain did sign a “confession,” but immediately reverted back to his position of defiance as soon as he was able to do so. McCain suffered from dysentery during his torture, making his continued resistance all the more remarkable.
John McCain was released from imprisonment in 1973, his arms permanently partially crippled from his years of torture. While suffering as a POW, McCain also suffered a family tragedy when his wife was crippled in a car wreck in 1969. While McCain endured rigorous physical rehabilitation and once more achieved flying status, he engaged in the only nefarious activity of his life by dallying with other women outside of his marriage. McCain met Cindy Hensley in 1979 and fell in love, convincing his wife to agree to a divorce in 1980, after which he married Cindy a month after the divorce was final. McCain was introduced to Washington politics while assigned as US Navy liaison to the Senate, and in fact 2 senators served in his wedding party. Although he achieved the rank of Captain, McCain realized he would probably not be promoted to Admiral due to his medical problems and lack of seagoing command time. McCain retired from the Navy as a Captain and a hero, having earned an impressive portfolio of medals including a Silver Star, two Legions of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and Prisoner of War Medal. Deciding to enter politics by running for Congress as a US Representative from Arizona, McCain was such a renowned war hero that success was almost guaranteed.
John McCain was elected to Congress in 1982, and the 1980’s brought 3 children to McCain and Cindy. In 1991 the couple adopted a girl they named Bridget in need of medical care from Bangladesh. (During the 2000 Presidential campaign the George W. Bush campaign publicly accused McCain of fathering a “black” child out of wedlock, using Bridget as evidence, an epic low point in American politics to that point.) In 1987, McCain was elected to the Senate, a position he held until his death in 2018. He became a well known and influential Senator, not afraid to deal in a bi-partisan manner. His political aspirations included running for President, and the 2000 primary campaign was particularly brutal. The Bush campaign maligned McCain as a homosexual, as mentally unstable, as a “Manchurian Candidate,” and painted Cindy as a drug addict! (The Bush campaign denied making these false allegations, but political guru and evil witch doctor Karl Rove was most probably responsible for the smears.) In 2008 McCain won the Republican nomination for President to run against the growing popular support for Democratic nominee Barack Obama. McCain made one of the boldest and perhaps worst choices of picking a running mate in Presidential campaign history by choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Obama won the popular vote 53% to 46% and doubled McCain’s electoral votes.
McCain remained in the Senate where he practiced his usual brand of politics, resisting the Obama Administration and at times defying his own party.
In July of 2017, it was revealed that Senator McCain was suffering from a serious form of brain cancer. Shortly after the announcement of his brain cancer, McCain cast the decisive vote that prevented the Republican repeal of Obamacare with no replacement plan.
McCain died on August 25, 2018, and was immediately remembered by prominent Americans as one of the great heroes of his time. How do you remember John McCain? Is he one of your heroes? Please tell us your analysis of the life and careers of this fascinating American legend..
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For more information, please see…
Hawk, Amy. Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam. Regnery History, 2017.
McCain, John. The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations. Simon & Schuster, 2018.