The McCains: A military legacy DO NOT USE
WASHINGTON — Six days after Roberta McCain’s Navy pilot son was shot down and taken prisoner in Vietnam, she wrote an urgent letter to President Lyndon Johnson.
As the wife of a four-star admiral, she knew of the McCain military heritage – the men go to war and come back. This time, it wasn’t clear whether that would hold true for John Sidney McCain III – a haunting question for the family during his brutal 5 ½ years of captivity. Yet Roberta did not waiver. The family’s feisty matriarch understood another well-worn McCain tradition to put the country first, even above the well-being of her son.
“As the parent of a son who was shot down in Hanoi last week and is now a prisoner of war, I wonder if you are interested to know that both my husband and I back you and your polices 100 percent in Vietnam?” she wrote in a Nov. 1, 1967, note to Johnson. “One reads so much of other opinions that I just hope that you know the people really making the sacrifice, believe in our country and in you.” By then, relatives of Sen. John McCain were etched into U.S. military history. His father, John Sidney “Jack” Jr., and grandfather John Sidney “Slew” McCain Sr., were the first father-son duo to reach the Navy rank of four-star admiral.
His great-uncle William Alexander “Wild Bill” McCain took part in the chase of Pancho Villa as he fought in the 1916 Mexican Expedition. His great, great-uncle Maj. Gen. Henry Pinckney McCain was a West Point graduate known as the father of the draft for his organization of Selective Service in World War I and the namesake of Camp McCain Training Center in Grenada, Miss. Before them, McCain ancestors fought in the American Revolutionary War and for the Confederacy in the Civil War. By the Vietnam War, a McCain or one of their ancestors had fought in every American war.
“The McCain name and its impact goes back decades and decades and decades before John McCain III was even on the scene,” said former McCain adviser Richard Fontaine, who is now president of the Washington think tank Center for New American Security. “It’s a legendary name through generations of the military. You can read history books on Adm. McCain, you can sail on the USS John S. McCain and there is the annual McCain conference [at the Naval Institute]. It’s almost very rare to meet somebody in the military who doesn’t know John McCain or the McCain name.” By April 1968, more than five months into John McCain’s captivity as a POW, his father was elevated to commander in chief of Pacific Command, which oversaw U.S. forces in the Vietnam.
The elder McCain would hold the post until 1972, the year that he retired from a 41-year career in the service and a year before his son would be released from captivity.
Even now at 106, Roberta McCain looks back on those days without regret.
“I married into the military and I loved it,” she said. “I loved it every day.”
The first McCain joins the Navy
When John Sidney “Slew” McCain of Mississippi took a U.S. Naval Academy entrance exam on a whim, it launched a new military trajectory for his family.
The McCains had always followed a path into the Army, and even the senior McCain had planned to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point until he took the Navy test.
His son, grandsons and great-grandsons would follow in his footsteps.
“When you join a service, it immediately starts to have an impact on you – its ethics, ethos, its systems,” said Navy veteran Joe McCain, younger brother to Sen. John McCain. But “I don’t think we impacted the Navy anywhere near as much as the Navy has impacted us.”
Slew McCain was a slender man dubbed “Popeye the Sailor Man” for his jocular humor, disheveled look and trademark cigar. He came to be known as the pioneer of Navy carrier attacks during his 39-year career.
By the end of World War II, Slew appeared weary as the stress of combat had taken its toll. He died at home during a homecoming party four days after the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
He was posthumously awarded a fourth star, the Navy’s highest rank.
His son, John Sidney “Jack” McCain, who also attended the Naval Academy, became a World War II submarine commander who quickly rose the ranks.
In Sen. John McCain’s 2018 book “The Restless Wave,” the Arizona Republican recalls an early memory of his father as he dashed away to the war.
“I had been a boy of 5, playing in the front yard of my family’s home in New London, Conn., when a black sedan pulled up and a Navy officer rolled down the window and shouted to my father, ‘Jack, the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor,’” McCain wrote. “The news and the sight of my father leaving in that sedan is one of my most powerful memories.”
By the early 1990s, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in the Navy’s 7th Fleet was named for McCain Sr. and McCain Jr.
“From his grandfather in World War II, his father being the Pacific commander during Vietnam while his son is in prison and McCain being prisoner of war, there’s certainly no family history quite like it,” said Fontaine, who was McCain’s national security adviser in the mid- to late 2000s.
However, as McCain sailors excelled beyond many of their peers in their careers, none was the best Naval Academy student. All three graduated at the lowest levels of their class. McCain Jr. and McCain III were known for misfit stunts, hard drinking and defiance.
“For two centuries, the men of my family were raised to go to war as officers in America’s armed services,” McCain said in his 1999 tome “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir.” “It is a family history that, as a boy, often intimidated me, and for a time, I struggled halfheartedly against its expectations. But when my own time at war arrived, I realized how fortunate I was to have been raised in such a family.”
As Jack McCain chased his fourth star, he became a Navy legislative liaison on Capitol Hill, a role that his son would hold 20 years later. From his home with Roberta near the Cannon House Office Building, they hosted social gatherings for top political and military figures, from Carl Vinson, the iconic Georgia Democrat who directed one of the Navy’s largest expansions, to Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader from Illinois who championed the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
Dealmaking took center stage at the home, which later became the Capitol Hill Club, as Jack McCain successfully pushed for increased funding for aircraft carriers, a program that was under threat of new spending cuts.
But it was son John McCain III who took a direct line into politics after his time as a Navy legislative liaison. After marrying Cindy Lou Hensley of a wealthy family that ran a large Arizona beer distribution company, he won his first congressional election from that state in 1982.
“He started all the trouble,” Roberta McCain quipped of her son’s political career. “We were OK until he came along.”
Roberta, dubbed by some as a “fireball” for her determination and wits, inspires her son’s interests to navigate the political arena. As relatives and friends tell it, Roberta was the family’s secret weapon and the original maverick whom her son would model in his political ascension.
“You just never met a more alive person in your life,” said retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a McCain family friend and fellow Vietnam War POW. “I am sure she was the cheerleader and held things together” for the McCain family.
A new generation
When Sidney McCain first heard her father was running for president, her first reaction was dread, she said.
Her father had survived as a Vietnam POW, but was left with injuries that brought his military ambitions to a halt.
He turned his attention to politics, and a meteoric rise followed.
“I felt the cat was going to be let out of the bag of how powerful my dad was,” Sidney, McCain’s daughter from his first marriage to Carol Shepp, said of his 2008 presidential run. “It sounds so selfish, but I got really nervous how much my world was about to flip. And luckily, it didn’t.”
The father of seven and grandfather of five saw children from his first marriage – Sidney, Douglas and Andrew – tackle interests inside and outside the military. His children Meghan, John, James and Bridget from his marriage to Cindy McCain did the same.
“It’s wonderful, it’s tall shoes to fill because he’s a unique individual,” Douglas McCain said of following in his father’s footsteps. But the McCain ties to the military are “just positive. It’s the family business.”
Douglas joined the Navy as a pilot after attending the University of Virginia, and then flew for American Airlines. Sidney went into the music business. Last year, Andrew McCain became president of Hensley Beverage Co., the Arizona beer distribution company founded by Cindy McCain’s father. Meghan McCain, a conservative commentator, joined the cast of ABC’s “The View” in October.
Two of McCain’s sons who entered the military still serve today. Navy Lt. John Sidney “Jack” McCain IV serves as a helicopter pilot and James “Jimmy” McCain is a Marine Corps veteran who served several tours in Iraq and is now a member of the Army National Guard.
“It’s an incredible history and I think that it’s going to shine through with Jack and Jimmy as well,” Sidney said. “It’s nice to see how it continues, even my brother Doug, who was a pilot in the Navy, as well.”
Jack McCain IV made headlines in 2016 when he publicly fought back against racist remarks involving an Old Navy advertisement featuring an interracial couple. He is married to Air Force Reserve Capt. Renee Swift McCain.
“He wants to say the right thing, he wants people to do the right thing,” Renee said of her husband. “It is tough in the military, what you can or can’t say, and social media makes that harder. But for him, he felt like his family was being attacked and we’re in love and he doesn’t want to have to hide that.”
The two now have a toddler, John Sidney McCain V, whom they call “Mac.”
“I see the McCain family through the lens of my husband,” Renee said. And the family has shown “longevity, courage, heroism. It’s the standard that in the military we can aspire to. In the Air Force, there’s just a great deal of respect there for that name, that legacy, that service.”
But Jack McCain has set a new tone for the next generations of McCains, his father noted last year.
More than three months into his battle against brain cancer, McCain, in an emotional speech, revisited family memories in a talk before a brigade of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. He joked that while the academy was likely glad to rid themselves of his antics, it was different for his son.
“My father was here, and his father before him,” McCain said in the Oct. 30 speech. “Like me, their standing was closer to the bottom than the top of their class. My son, Jack, is the nonconformist in the family. He managed to reach the upper half of his class, even to be a midshipman officer. His forebears, though less accomplished midshipmen, nevertheless left here to devote the rest of their lives to our country – in war and peace, good times and bad. And each of us considered himself to be the luckiest man on Earth.”