Farewell to a Legend
John S. McCain III Passes Away
Senator and retired Capt. John S. McCain III, former prisoner of war, passed away Aug. 25 at the age of 81. McCain had been battling an aggressive type of brain tumor known as a glioblastoma since at least the summer of 2017.
Born in the Panama Canal Zone, Aug. 29, 1936, the son and grandson of men who would become four star admirals, McCain's future seemed preordained. He resisted it, "from time to time," he said in an oral history for the Veterans History Project, "but I was pretty sure that's what was going to happen."
He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958 - fifth from the bottom of his class - and headed for flight school, according to a Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) biography.
"I thought it was the most glamorous and exciting life anyone could choose," he said of his decision to become a pilot. "And my grandfather had been a Navy aviator."
As a new pilot, McCain was guilty of self-confessed "daredevil clowning." He had several misses and near misses, and once knocked out power lines in Spain. A "small international incident" resulted, according to his memoir, "Faith of my Fathers."
But when war came, he was ready. McCain deployed to Vietnam in 1967 as an A-4 Skyhawk pilot with VA-46. There, in addition to his bombing runs, McCain was witness to one of the Navy's most devastating fires, which occurred aboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59), July 29, 1967, when a rocket misfired, then hit a fuel tank. This set off a chain of explosions that eventually resulted in the loss of 134 lives.
Then-Lt. Cmdr. McCain's plane was next to the initial explosion: "In a very short period of time, there was a huge conflagration. ... I shut down the engine on my airplane, felt the shock, saw the fire, jumped out by going down the refueling probe ... and rolled through the fire and went across the other side of the flight deck," he recalled. "I saw the pilot in the plane next to mine jump out of his airplane, only he didn't jump as far and when he rolled out, he was on fire. I started toward him and just as I did, the first bomb blew off and knocked me back."
Reluctant to cut his tour short, McCain volunteered to transfer to USS Oriskany (CV 34), which he said had the highest losses of any air wing in Vietnam. That October, he "pleaded with the squadron operations officer to put him on the roster for a large Alpha strike scheduled the next day. Four Navy squadrons participated in the raid [on a thermal power plant]. It was McCain's twenty-third mission and his first attack on Hanoi," according to NHHC.
McCain and his fellow pilots took off on Oct. 26, 1967, and were picked up by North Vietnamese radar almost immediately. McCain soon had an SA-2 Guideline missile "the size of a telephone pole" on his tail.
As he released his own bomb, the missile "blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber," he told U.S. News & World Report in 1973. "It went into an inverted, almost straight-down spin."
McCain bailed out upside down at a high speed. The force of the ejection broke his right leg, both arms, tore his helmet off and knocked him unconscious. He landed in a lake.
"I hit the water and sank to the bottom," McCain wrote in his U.S. News account. "I did not feel any pain at the time, and was able to rise to the surface. I took a breath of air and started sinking again. Of course, I was wearing 50 pounds, at least, of equipment and gear. I went down and managed to kick up to the surface once more. I couldn't understand why I couldn't use my right leg or my arm. I was in a dazed condition. I went up to the top again and sank back down. This time I couldn't get back to the surface. I was wearing an inflatable life-preserver-type thing. ... I reached down with my mouth ... and inflated the preserver and finally floated to the top."
A mob of angry civilians attacked McCain, stripping and beating him. He was quickly interred in Hỏa L Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. His captors refused to take him to a hospital unless he divulged military secrets. McCain declined, so his injuries went untreated for days. It wasn't until the North Vietnamese realized his father was Admiral John S. McCain Jr., soon to be commander of U.S. Forces in the Pacific, that they relented. The hospital was primitive, filthy and prone to flooding, and McCain received only the most rudimentary of care. Doctors spent hours attempting to set his bones without giving him painkillers, for example. He eventually underwent a botched operation on his leg as well.