The spoiled son of military privilege got a free ride throughout his military career despite repeated instances of sex scandals and screw-ups
By Ted Sampley
U.S. Veteran Dispatch
January 27, 2008
John Sidney McCain III entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in 1954. Young McCain wanted to become an admiral. He planned to be the “first son and grandson of four star admirals” to achieve such a distinction. But that was not to be. McCain III possessed none of the innate character and discipline traits that helped mold his father and grandfather into great military leaders.
His father, John S. “Junior” McCain, and grandfather, John S. McCain, Sr., were famous four-star Admirals in the U.S. Navy. His father commanded U.S. forces in Europe before becoming commander of American forces fighting in Vietnam. His grandfather commanded naval aviation at the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Both men became highly influential in U.S. Navy operations.
At the Academy, aside being known as a “rowdy, raunchy, underachiever” who resented authority, Midshipman McCain became infamous as a leader among his fellow midshipmen for organizing “off-Yard activities” and hard drinking parties. Robert Timberg wrote in his book, The Nightingale’s Song, that “being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck.”
McCain’s grades were “marginal.” He drew so many demerits for breaking curfew and other discipline issues that he graduated fifth from the bottom of the class of 1958. Despite his low “class standing,” and no doubt because of the influence of his family of famous Admirals, McCain was leap-frogged ahead of more qualified applicants and granted a coveted slot to be trained as a navy pilot.
Good Party Animal – Bad Pilot:
He spent the next two and a half years as a “naval aviator in training” at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas, flying A-1 Skyraiders.
While a pilot trainee, McCain continued to party hard. He drove a Corvette and dated an exotic dancer named “Marie the Flame of Florida.” Timberg wrote that McCain “learned to fly at Pensacola, though his performance was below par, at best good enough to get by. He liked flying, but didn’t love it.”
McCain Lost Five Military Aircraft
McCain, the “below par” pilot, eventually lost 5 military aircraft, the first during a training flight in 1958 when he plunged into Corpus Christi Bay while trying to land. The Navy ignored the crash and graduated McCain in 1960.
While deployed in the Mediterranean, the hard partying McCain lost a second aircraft. Timberg described the crash: “Flying too low over the Iberian Peninsula, he took out some power lines which led to a spate of newspaper stories in which he was predictably identified as the son of an admiral.”
Unscathed, McCain returned to Pensacola Station where he was promoted to flight instructor for Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi. The airfield at Meridian, McCain Field, was named in honor of McCain’s grandfather.
In 1964 McCain became involved with Carol Shepp, a model from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he had met at Annapolis. They were married in Philadelphia on July 3, 1965.
Flight instructor McCain lost a third aircraft while flying a Navy trainer solo to Philadelphia for an Army-Navy football game. Timberg wrote that McCain radioed, “I’ve got a flameout” before ejecting at one thousand feet. McCain parachuted onto a beach moments before his plane slammed into a clump of trees.
The Navy dismissed the crash as “unavoidable” and assigned McCain to the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in December 1966, which was patrolling the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. In Spring 1967, the Forrestal was assigned to join the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
McCain lost his fourth plane on board the Forrestal on July 29, 1967 when a rocket inadvertently slammed into his bomb laden jet. McCain escaped, but the explosions that followed killed 134 sailors. McCain was transferred from the badly damaged Forrestal to the USS Oriskany. Shortly afterwards, on Oct. 26, 1967, he was shot down and captured by the Vietnamese.
Post-POW Years: Political Ambition and a New, Young, Rich Wife
Upon his release from North Vietnam and return to the United States in 1973, McCain reunited with his wife, Carol, who had been permanently crippled in a car accident while he was a POW.
Still yearning to become an admiral, McCain enrolled in the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. and underwent physical therapy in order to fly again. The Navy excused his permanent disabilities and reinstated him to flight status, effectively positioning him for promotion.
Timberg described McCain’s advancement: “in the fall of 1974, McCain was transferred to Jacksonville as the executive officer of Replacement Air Group 174, the long-sought flying billet at last a reality. A few months later, he assumed command of the RAG, which trained pilots and crews for carrier deployments. The assignment was controversial, some calling it favoritism, a sop to the famous son of a famous father and grandfather, since he had not first commanded a squadron, the usual career path.”
While Executive Officer and later as Squadron Commander McCain used his authority to arrange frequent flights that allowed him to carouse with subordinates and “engage in extra-marital affairs.”
This was a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice rules against adultery and fraternization with subordinates. But, as with all his other past behaviors, McCain was never penalized; instead he always got away with his transgressions.
Timberg wrote, “Off duty, usually on routine cross-country flights to Yuma and El Centro, John started carousing and running around with women. To make matters worse, some of the women with whom he was linked by rumor were subordinates . . . At the time the rumors were so widespread that, true or not, they became part of McCain’s persona, impossible not to take note of.”
In early 1977, Admiral Jim Holloway, Chief of Naval Operations promoted McCain to captain and transferred him from his command position “to Washington as the number-two man in the Navy’s Senate liaison office. McCain was promptly given total control of the office. It wasn’t long before the “fun loving and irreverent” McCain had turned the liaison office into a “late-afternoon gathering spot where senators and staffers, usually from the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, would drop in for a drink and the chance to unwind.”
In 1979, while attending a military reception in Hawaii, McCain met and fell in love with Cindy Lou Hensley, 17 years his junior, who was the daughter of James W. Hensley, a wealthy Anheuser-Busch distributor from Phoenix, Arizona. McCain filed for and obtained an uncontested divorce from his wife in Florida on April 2, 1980 and promptly married Cindy on May 17, 1980.
He resigned from the Navy in 1981 and went to work for his father-in-law in Phoenix; where he used the opportunity to make powerful and wealthy friends in Arizona including banker Charles Keating and Duke Tully, the editor-in-chief of the Arizona Republic. Keating was later convicted of fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy and Tully was disgraced for concocting a phony military record of combat in Korea and Vietnam including medals for heroism.
McCain ran for Arizona’s First Congressional District in 1982. McCain won the congressional seat. In 1987 McCain was elected to the Senate.