Honor and Devotion to Duty

by John Delach

John McCain received in death honors and accolades on a scale that makes me wonder how Bob Dole, another war hero and a senator of even greater accomplishment will be honored when he meets his demise. Will he lie in state in the capital rotunda and be remembered by congressional leaders and past presidents? And what of George Herbert Walker Bush and Jimmy Carter? I am not suggesting that the respect and admiration that McCain received was undeserved. I am asking instead; will these heroes be treated likewise?


The McCain men can truly cast their family shield with the motto: “Honor and Devotion to Duty.” Both principles are difficult to abide by even in the best of times. The late senator remained true to duty, country and the navy a code he inherited from his father and his grandfather. They all steadfastly stayed the course despite troubled waters and great storms.


We all know the story of his ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous North Vietnamese prison and how he refused to accept an early release.


McCain spoke of this in a recent documentary. About a year into his captivity, the NV powers realized that he was the son of the admiral in charge of the navy’s forces in the Pacific. McCain recalled being led into a room where an interrogator who spoke perfect French and English explained to him that he would be released shortly on humanitarian grounds. McCain replied that the service didn’t allow for that and the interrogator countered that it didn’t apply because of the extent of his injuries. McCain again refused and explained his injuries weren’t that severe. The interrogator grew angry and said: “Things will be very difficult for you from now on.”


And they were; torture and solitary confinement. But McCain endured and remained captive for five years until all his mates were also freed.


His grandfather suffered a different ordeal at the hands of the US Navy and his son, Senator McCain’s father, became caught up in it.


During World War II, operations of the Pacific Fleet were so complex and the fleet so large that it was treated as two fleets, the 3rd Fleet and the 5th Fleet. It operated as the 3rd Fleet when under the command of William F. Halsey and as the 5th Fleet when under the command of Raymond A. Spruance. While one admiral and his staff commanded the fleet for approximately a six-month tour, the other admiral and his staff planed future operations for their next tour of duty.


The same ships but two different command structures. Halsey’s second in command was John S. McCain who commanded Task Force 38 that included most of the fighting ships in the fleet; the aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and escorts.


On May 17, 1945, Halsey relieved Spruance and the 5th Fleet became the 3rd Fleet. At that time the fleet was still supporting the invasion of Okinawa, preparing further strikes against Japan and the upcoming invasions of the home islands that fall. Early the next month, a typhoon was reported heading on a course to intercept the fleet. Based on inadequate forecasts, Halsey and McCain made several changes in course that led to a substantial part of the fleet sailing directly into the eye. Fortunately, no ships were lost but many suffered damage and lives were lost. Several aircraft carriers lost airplanes and the forward parts of their flight decks. Smaller ships suffered hull damage and the USS Pittsburgh, a heavy cruiser, lost its entire bow.


A court of inquiry found Halsey to be primarily at fault and McCain secondarily at fault. The court recommended that consideration be given to assigning both men to other duty.


Senator John McCain published a memoir in 1999 called “Faith of my Fathers.” In the book’s opening chapter, he relates that his father, then commander of a submarine met up with his grandfather in Tokyo Bay. The book contains a famous photo of the two men standing side by side in kaki uniforms on the deck of a submarine tender. The senator’s father stands erect with folded arms looking fit and ready. His grandfather is leaning against a rope barrier with his arm on the top rope. He slouches and looks weary and drawn.


Senator McCain recalled that his grandfather didn’t want to stay for the surrender and asked Halsey to allow him to skip it and fly home. McCain writes: (Halsey replied,) “Maybe you do, but you’re not going. You were commanding this task force when the war ended, and I’m making sure that history gets it right.”


The senator doesn’t explain with any detail why these two admirals had this debate. But his grandfather left for home following the surrender and the meeting with his son only to collapse and die the evening he arrived home during a house party held in his honor.


The admiral was furious, depressed and suffering, Upon the fleet’s arrival in Tokyo Bay, Halsey was ordered to tell McCain that James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy, had relieved McCain  of command of Task Force 38 because of his actions and errors during the typhoon.


Halsey only received a slap on the wrist, not because he wasn’t responsible, rather because Halsey, who was known to the American people as, “Bull Halsey,” was a national hero who stopped the Japanese at Guadalcanal in the war’s darkest days. McCain was just another admiral, relatively unknown, so Forrestal handed him Halsey’s gilded lily and it killed him.


I don’t know if the senator’s father knew this when he last saw his father and the photo was taken but he continued his brilliant naval career and both the late senator and his son, John, followed. The son is now a naval lieutenant.


The McCains’ have kept that faith. Honor and devotion to duty above all else and protect the Navy at all costs.


RIP John McCain