When John McCain made his first bid for public office in 1982, running for a House seat in Arizona, critics blasted him as a carpetbagger, pointing out that he’d only lived in the state for 18 months.
“Listen, pal, I spent 22 years in the Navy,” the exasperated candidate reportedly shot back at one event. Then, after explaining that career military people tend to move a lot, he delivered a retort that made the attacks against him seem ridiculously petty: “As a matter of fact… the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
McCain won the election, launching a political career that earned him two terms in the House, six in the Senate, and his party’s presidential nomination in 2008. But even after four decades in public life, McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam continued to define him in the minds of many Americans, admirers and detractors alike. While he ultimately made his name on the national political stage, the scion of two four-star admirals was, at his core, a lifelong military man. He followed into the family business, becoming a decorated, if at times reckless, fighter pilot who conducted nearly two dozen bombing runs in Vietnam before being shot down, captured and tortured.
In both his military and political careers, McCain earned a reputation for being feisty and combative. “A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed,” he declared in his 2018 memoir The Restless Wave, written with his longtime collaborator Mark Salter, and published after he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that took his life on August 25, 2018.
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.
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.
1958: Birth of a maverick
After graduation, McCain goes on to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and later Corpus Christi, Texas, to train as a pilot. “I enjoyed the off-duty life of a Navy flyer more than I enjoyed the actual flying,” he will remember. “I drove a Corvette, dated a lot, spent all my free hours at bars and beach parties, and generally misused my good health and youth.”
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.
October 1967: Shot down and badly injured
Three months later, on October 26, McCain takes off on his 23rd bombing run over North Vietnam, reportedly on a mission to destroy Hanoi’s thermal power plant. Just as he releases his bombs over the target, a Russian-made surface-to-air missile, described as looking like “a flying telephone pole,” strikes his plane, ripping off its right wing. McCain ejects, breaking both arms and one knee, and parachutes into a shallow lake.
After briefly losing consciousness, he wakes up to find himself “being hauled ashore on two bamboo poles by a group of about 20 angry Vietnamese. A crowd of several hundred Vietnamese gathered around me as I lay dazed before them, shouting wildly at me, stripping my clothes off, spitting on me, kicking and striking me repeatedly…. Someone smashed a rifle butt into my shoulder, breaking it. Someone else stuck a bayonet in my ankle and groin.”
Soon, an army truck arrives, taking McCain as a prisoner of war. He will remain one for five and a half years.
1967-1973: POW hell
North Vietnamese soldiers bring the badly injured McCain to a prison that American POWs have nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” He receives no medical attention but is repeatedly interrogated and beaten. Some days later, after his captors discover he’s the son of an American admiral and realize his potential propaganda value, they transfer him to a hospital, where he receives blood transfusions and injections but little other treatment for his injuries. After six weeks, he has lost 50 pounds and weighs barely 100. He’s told he isn’t getting any better and sent to a prison camp, presumably to die.
With the help of fellow prisoners, McCain slowly regains some strength and is eventually able to stand up and walk with the aid of crutches. He won’t enjoy the camaraderie for long, however; in April 1968, he’s put into solitary confinement, where he’ll stay for the next two years.
In June 1968, however, McCain’s captors make an unexpected offer: They will let him go home. McCain suspects that they will force him to sign a last-minute confession in exchange, that they want to embarrass his father, and that they believe giving him special treatment will demoralize other POWs whose fathers don’t happen to be Navy admirals. He would also be violating what he calls a standard policy among officers to remain behind until those who’ve been held longer are released.
McCain ultimately refuses the offer, telling a North Vietnamese officer that his decision is final. “Now it will be very bad for you, Mac Kane,” the officer tells him.
The beatings and interrogations continue, and McCain makes two attempts to hang himself, earning further beatings as punishment. Unable to take it any longer, he says, he signs a confession dictated by his captors. Told the following day to make a tape recording of the confession he at first refuses but is soon beaten into complying.
“All my pride was lost, and I doubted I would ever stand up to any man again,” he recalled years later. “Nothing could save me. No one would ever look upon me again with anything but pity or contempt.” The confession would haunt McCain for years to come.
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 Times reporter 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 Times notes, 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.”
1973-1981: Back on the homefront
After his return to the States, and while he’s still undergoing therapy for his injuries, McCain requests assignment to the National War College in Washington, D.C. “By the time my nine months at the War College ended, I had satisfied my curiosity about how Americans had entered and lost the Vietnam War,” he later wrote. “The experience did not cause me to conclude that the war was wrong, but it did help me understand how wrongly it had been fought and led.”
In late 1974, after he manages to pass the physical exam to qualify for flight status, he’s sent to Cecil Field, a naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida. A few months later, he’s promoted to commanding officer of a replacement air group, responsible for training carrier pilots.
McCain’s third and final assignment, however, may be the most influential in setting his future course. In 1977, he’s assigned to a liaison office in the United States Senate in Washington, where he serves as the Navy’s lobbyist and gets to see the workings of Congress from the inside. The job marked “my real entry into the world of politics and the beginning of my second career as a public servant,” he later recalls.
In 1981, McCain retires from the Navy with the rank of captain. His decorations include, among others, a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
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 Times calls 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.”
1994: The McCain family destroyer
The U.S. Navy commissions the USS John S. McCain, a destroyer named for both McCain’s father and grandfather. It is the second such honor for the grandfather; another destroyer bearing his name was in service from 1953 to 1978.
2015: A hawk in the Senate
McCain becomes chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, after being the committee’s ranking Republican. He had joined when he was first elected to the Senate in 1986.
2018: Honors for the son
On March 23, John McCain is honored with the Naval Academy Alumni Association’s Distinguished Graduate Award. Unable to attend because of his illness and treatment, he’s represented by a longtime friend and Senate colleague, former Vice President Joe Biden. “John wouldn’t say it, but I will,” Biden remarks. “John is an American hero who has lifted all of us up, lifted his nation up.”
On July 12, the Navy announces that the name of the destroyer USS John S. McCain will now honor Senator McCain as well as his father and grandfather. “As a warrior and a statesman who has always put country first, Sen. John McCain never asked for this honor, and he would never seek it,” Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer says. “But we would be remiss if we did not etch his name alongside his illustrious forebears, because this country would not be the same were it not for the courageous service of all three of these great men.”