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John Sidney McCain III (August 29, 1936 – August 25, 2018) was an American politician, statesman, and United States Navy officer who served as a United States Senator for Arizona from 1987 until his death in 2018. He previously served two terms in the United States House of Representatives and was the Republican nominee for president of the United States in the 2008 election, which he lost to Barack Obama.
McCain graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1958 and received a commission in the United States Navy. He became a naval aviator and flew ground-attack aircraft from aircraft carriers. During the Vietnam War, McCain almost died in the 1967 USS Forrestal fire. While on a bombing mission during Operation Rolling Thunder over Hanoi in October 1967, he was shot down, seriously injured, and captured by the North Vietnamese. McCain was a prisoner of war until 1973. He experienced episodes of torture and refused an out-of-sequence early release. During the war, McCain sustained wounds that left him with lifelong physical disabilities. He retired from the Navy as a captain in 1981 and moved to Arizona.
In 1982, McCain was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served two terms. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, succeeding the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and conservative icon Barry Goldwater upon his retirement. McCain easily won reelection five times. While generally adhering to conservative principles, McCain also gained a reputation as a “maverick” for his willingness to break from his party on certain issues, including LGBT rights, gun regulations, and campaign finance reform where his stances were more moderate than those of the party’s base.
McCain was investigated and largely exonerated in a political influence scandal of the 1980s as one of the Keating Five; he then made regulating the financing of political campaigns one of his signature concerns, which eventually resulted in passage of the McCain–Feingold Act in 2002. He was also known for his work in the 1990s to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam. McCain chaired the Senate Commerce Committee from 1997 to 2001 and 2003 to 2005, where he opposed pork barrel spending and earmarks. He belonged to the bipartisan “Gang of 14”, which played a key role in alleviating a crisis over judicial nominations.
McCain entered the race for the Republican nomination for president in 2000 but lost a heated primary season contest to Governor George W. Bush of Texas. He secured the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, beating fellow candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, though he lost the general election to Barack Obama. McCain subsequently adopted more orthodox conservative stances and attitudes and largely opposed actions of the Obama administration, especially with regard to foreign policy matters.
In 2015, he became Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He refused to support then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016; McCain won re-election to a sixth and final term that same year. McCain was a vocal critic of the Trump administration. While McCain opposed the Obama-era Affordable Care Act (ACA), he cast the deciding vote against the ACA-repealing American Health Care Act of 2017.
After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, he reduced his role in the Senate in order to focus on treatment. He died in 2018 aged 81. Following his death, McCain lay in state in the Arizona State Capitol rotunda and then in the United States Capitol rotunda. His funeral was televised from the Washington National Cathedral, with the former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama giving eulogies.
Below, a timeline of his military life
1936: To the Navy born
John Sidney McCain III is born on August 29 at a U.S. Navy base in the Panama Canal Zone. His father, John S. McCain, Jr., is a submarine officer who will later rise to the rank of admiral and become commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific during much of the Vietnam War. His grandfather, John S. McCain, Sr., also an admiral, would come to command the Navy’s Fast Carrier Task Force in the Pacific during World War II. “They were my first heroes, and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life,” McCain would later write in a 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers.
Prior McCains had opted for the Army rather than the Navy and fought in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War. Several were West Point graduates, including his grandfather’s uncle, Major General Henry Pinckney McCain—sometimes called the “father of the Selective Service” for his role in organizing the World War I draft.
1936-1954: Peripatetic life of a ‘navy brat’
McCain and his two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, move frequently, following the trail of their father’s military career. He attends some 20 different schools by age 18, according to USA Today’s later count.
Future US Senator John S. McCain III (center) as a young boy, with his grandfather Vice Admiral John S. McCain Sr. (left), and father Commander John S. McCain Jr., circa 1940s.
1954: An indifferent Naval Academy student
John McCain enters the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1954 and graduates with the class of 1958. He’s the third generation in his family to attend the Academy; his father had been class of 1931; his grandfather, class of 1906.
By all accounts, especially his own, the young McCain is an indifferent and rambunctious student, prone to pranks and occasional disobedience to authority. He graduates fifth from the bottom of his class. “My four years here were not notable for individual academic achievement but, rather, for the impressive catalogue of demerits which I managed to accumulate,” he admitted to the graduating class of 1993 in a commencement speech.
1960-1965: A series of crashes
McCain develops, by his own telling, a reputation for being undisciplined and fearless. During his early years as a naval aviator, he is involved in three flight accidents.
While training in Texas in March 1960, he narrowly escapes when his AD-6 Skyraider crashes into Corpus Christi Bay and he’s knocked unconscious. After the plane settles on the bottom of the bay, he comes to, then manages to free himself and swim to the surface, where he is rescued by a helicopter. After an investigation, the official Navy report attributes the accident to operator error: “the preoccupation of the pilot coupled with a power setting too low to maintain level flight.”
During his early years as a pilot, McCain serves on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and Caribbean as well as at several stateside bases. In December 1961, he flies another Skyraider too low into electrical wires in Southern Spain, causing a local blackout. “My daredevil clowning had cut off electricity to a great many Spanish homes and created a small international incident,” he would later write in his autobiography.
In November 1965, McCain has a third accident in a T-2 jet trainer, suffering an engine flame-out that causes him to eject from the aircraft over the Eastern Shore of Virginia. According to his official Navy biography, the Naval Aviation Safety Center was unable to pinpoint the accident’s cause.
“John was what you called a push-the-envelope guy,” Sam H. Hawkins, who flew with McCain’s VA-44 squadron in the 1960s, told The Los Angeles Times in 2008.
October 1966: Combat deployment
In late 1966, he joins a squadron of A-4E Skyhawk pilots that will deploy on the U.S.S. Forrestal, a carrier that soon heads to the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of North Vietnam. They arrive at the peak of President Lyndon Johnson’s Operation Rolling Thunder campaign of massive sustained aerial bombardment.
July 1967: The deadly Forrestal fire
On the morning of July 29, 1967, McCain has another brush with death. As he awaits his turn for takeoff from the USS Forrestal, for a bombing run over North Vietnam, another plane accidentally fires a missile. It strikes either his plane or the one next to him (accounts differ), igniting a raging fire on the ship’s deck. McCain manages to extricate himself from his plane, only to be hit in the legs and chest by hot shrapnel.
“All around me was mayhem,” he would recall years later. “Planes were burning. More bombs cooked off. Body parts, pieces of the ship, and scraps of planes were dropping onto the deck. Pilots strapped in their seats ejected into the firestorm. Men trapped by flames jumped overboard.” By the time it’s over, more than 130 crew members are dead.
A 1967 photograph showing U.S. Navy Air Force Major John McCain in a Hanoi hospital as he was being given medical care for his injuries after his Navy warplane was downed by the Northern Vietnamese army and was captured.
1973: Released from captivity
McCain remains a prisoner until the U.S. and North Vietnam sign a peace accord in late January 1973, ending the conflict. He is released in March, along with 107 other POWs, and boards a U.S. transport plane headed to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
A New York Timesreporter describes McCain’s arrival at the air base: “His hair was gray, almost white in patches, after almost five and a half years as a prisoner, and as he limped off the plane he held the handrail.” The men, the Timesnotes, were taken to the base hospital and given a dinner of “steak, eggs, fried chicken, corn on the cob, vegetables, salads, fruits and ice cream.”
Ten days later, the returned POWs are honored at a White House reception. McCain is photographed shaking hands with President Richard M. Nixon, while standing with the aid of two crutches. In the coming months Navy surgeons will attempt to repair his arms and knee and he’ll endure what he describes as “a difficult period of rehabilitation” with a “remarkably determined physical therapist.” Eventually he’s fit enough to pass the physical exam required of Navy pilots, but he’ll never regain the full use of his arms or injured leg.
Later, during his run for president in 2008, he’ll joke that he has “more scars than Frankenstein.”
Navy Lieutenant Commander John McCain arrived at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, after his release from Hanoi during the Vietnam War in 1973. Richard Nixon personally welcomed him home after McCain’s five and a half years as a P.O.W.
1986: A political career with a military bent
On November 4, 1986, after two terms in the House, McCain is elected to the U.S. Senate, where he becomes an unusually visible freshman senator, with a focus on military and foreign-policy issues. In a 1988 profile, The New York Timescalls him “the Senate’s young man in a hurry,” adding that, “Cheated of five and a half years of his life by the North Vietnamese… John McCain runs a little faster, pushes himself a little harder than most people.”
Drawing on his POW experience, he also becomes the Senate’s most vocal and credible opponent of the use of torture on prisoners, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
More than a dozen years into his Senate career, McCain observes in his 1999 memoir that his public image is still “inextricably linked” to his POW experience. “Whenever I am introduced at an appearance, the speaker always refers to my war record first.”
Although he didn’t want Vietnam to “stand as the ultimate experience of my life,” he writes, he was also grateful for it. “Vietnam changed me, in significant ways, for the better. It is a surpassing irony that war, for all its horror, provides the combatant with every conceivable human experience. Experiences that usually take a lifetime to know are all felt, and felt intensely, in one brief passage of life.”
What age do you have to be to sign with the military?
Depends which military.