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John McCain’s Pensacola proving ground

John McCain's days at a Panhandle base mirror the personality traits that defined him as a politician.
John McCain at right. (Library of Congress)
John McCain at right. (Library of Congress)
Published Aug. 28, 2018

This article first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 5, 2008.

By Alex Leary

PENSACOLA – The young pilot had a reputation, and it was nothing to be proud of. Fifth from the bottom of his class at Annapolis. Bratty. A carouser. Fellow officers called him "the Punk."

On July 27, 1959, he was at the controls of a propeller-driven T-28 Trojan, flying in patchy skies near Pensacola.

His mission: land the 4-1/2-ton aircraft on a 150-foot long strip of the Antietam, itself a moving target as it steamed into the wind, heaving in the swells of the Gulf of Mexico.

Few pilots have the skill or the nerve to land a plane on a carrier. Some die trying. Others wash out, their egos left on deck with the skidmarks.

On this sweltering day, John Sidney McCain III faced the biggest challenge of his 22 years.

Cruising at 100 mph, he lowered the landing gear, opened the canopy (easier to swim out if the plane crashed) and aimed the T-28 at the ship, his left hand hugging the throttle, his right on the stick, quadriceps straining against the rudder pedals. Below, a sailor waved flags across his chest, signaling McCain to cut the throttle.

The plane slammed down on the Antietam, its tailhook grabbing a thick cable strung across the deck. It lunged forward, barreled toward the end of the ship, then stopped dead. Success.

– – –

The moment was as much takeoff as landing for McCain.

It took him to Vietnam, through 5-1/2 years as a POW, to Jacksonville and the command of the Navy's largest aviation squadron, to Congress and now, half a century later, to the brink of the White House.

"The carrier landing experience is a metaphor for his psyche, the drive he has," said Bob Stumpf, an ex-Navy fighter pilot living in Pensacola. "You can't be a wimp. Carrier pilots are a breed apart."

On the campaign trail, McCain refers to his wild times here, the boozy nights, the Corvette he gallivanted in, the stripper he dated.

It's a colorful tale intended to show his vigor and underscore a path of redemption, from wayward youth to presidential nominee.

What he doesn't talk about is his flying days, the fear and thrill of landing on a carrier and how that may have prepared him for future challenges.

"Here, you let your performance do the talking," said Adm. Robert J. Kelly, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959 and now heads the Veterans for McCain office in Pensacola.

But McCain, 72, still carries that self-assured swagger he possessed all those years ago. "Pensacola," Kelly said, "is where the fire got lit."

As much as the experience accentuated his confidence, some critics wonder if McCain's rapid-fire instincts are a detriment.

"I respect him highly but if John McCain were my blood brother, I wouldn't want him to be my president. It's such a crucial and critical decision I would reserve for someone who is more calm, collected, introspective and not so impulsive and bellicose," said Phillip Butler, who lived across the hall from McCain at the Academy and went on to be a decorated attack pilot and was an eight-year POW. Butler is a Democrat.

– – –

McCain reported to Pensacola in August 1958, having graduated 894th in a class of 899. He was raffish and rebellious, more interested in history than engineering. He elected aviation, something his father, a rising naval officer, had not. But the younger McCain seemed more drawn to image than desire.

"I liked to fly, but not much more than I liked to have a good time," McCain wrote in his memoir Faith of My Fathers.

Pensacola, like the rest of the South, was bearing witness to profound cultural change with the forced integration of public schools. Elvis and Buddy Holly were beginning to crowd airwaves heretofore dominated by AM radio preachers.

The hit movie at the Saenger on Palafox Street that summer was The Fly. Alley Oop and Snuffy Smith graced the comics page of the Pensacola News, near car dealer pitches to new arrivals from Annapolis. A quarter fetched a king-sized lemonade with a scoop of orange sherbet at Walgreens' lunch counter.

McCain's weekend routine went like this: Knock off duty at 4 p.m. Friday and head to Mustin Beach Officers' Club for drinks. At 8 p.m. it was off to Trader Jon's on Palafox.

To pull back Trader's wooden door was to enter an enchanting dump, a warren of smoke and booze filled with other pilots and the few girls who dared step inside. The floor creaked in all directions and aviation memorabilia dripped from the ceiling.

"It was a dingy, dim, grim damn place. And we loved it," said Robert Flynn, a naval cadet in 1958 who is now retired in Pensacola.

Trader Jon’s (Pensacola News Journal)

Everyone wanted to hang around McCain. He drove a white Corvette. He organized jaunts to the Pensacola Kennel Club. He got card games rolling. When bars closed in Florida, he rounded up a crew and headed to Alabama for more drinking.

Girls flocked to him, and none more voluptuous than Marie, a stripper who called herself the Flame of Florida. McCain has never revealed her real name but said they dated for a while.

– – –

The initial weeks in Pensacola amounted to a brutal endurance test. Ensigns boxed, wrestled, swam and climbed their way up the pecking order. The Navy was constantly grading them, laying bare where each stacked up.

Chuck Larson recalls his roommate staying out all night before the 1-mile swim, done in full uniform, and showing up just in time.

"He jumped in the water and swam a whole mile in less than 40 minutes and got out of the pool, laid down in the locker room and waited for the rest of us," said Larson, 71, who became a four-star admiral and now lives in Annapolis, Md.

Small but scrappy, McCain displayed the same brashness in his earlier years. One night on Pensacola Beach, an older pilot started barking orders, showing off for the girls at McCain's and Larson's expense.

"John stood up and said, 'Look, we're all equal rank, so knock it off and get out of here. If you don't want to do that, we can step outside,'" Larson said. "The guy backed down and left."

The natural selection process had begun months before at the Naval Academy. Fewer than half of the graduates chose aviation. Scores more dropped out during training, by flunking tests or leaving voluntarily for other duty. A handful died, according to former pilots. Formal accident records are not available.

In October 1958, McCain reported to Saufley Field, 10 miles north of Pensacola, for primary flight instruction. He learned how to climb, glide, spin, roll and land, but was by no means an ace. (Before heading to Vietnam, he would crash two planes, both blamed on engine failure.)

"He didn't hit the books as much as he should," recalled his instructor, Woody Clum. "But John was plenty smart and he certainly had the guts. You can tell when you get in an airplane with someone pretty quickly just how good they are, whether or not they are fearless.

"In the aftermath, I guess I charge it up to that his maturity was a bit slower than others."

The pilots practiced dozens of landings on a field painted like a carrier. They had seen films, some displaying horrendous mishaps. Even the coolest guy felt queasy on carrier qualification day.

For McCain, that moment arrived July 27, 1959. He had to make eight successful landings on the Antietam, two touch-and-go's and six arrested stops, a mix of precision and guts.

Hours later, he and Larson were hoisting beers at Trader Jon's.

Pages from John McCain’s flight log while in Navy flight school in Pensacola. Notice date: July 1959, top left, and signature, bottom right. (National Naval Aviation Museum)

– – –

The pals left Pensacola in September, bound for more intense training in Corpus Christi, Texas, before earning their wings in May 1960.

McCain was growing into an aviator. He still partied, but he began to take the job more seriously, friends say. In November 1963, the month JFK was assassinated, he returned to Pensacola to serve on the staff of the chief of air basic training. But he wanted something more.

Downing Gray, a Pensacola native, remembered driving McCain back to the bachelor officers quarters after lunch one day. Sitting in Gray's Ford Falcon, McCain fretted whether he should call his father and ask for help in getting sent to Vietnam.

"I couldn't believe it," Gray said. "Most people were ducking the war and he was trying to get in it. I told him, 'Call your dad. I think he will be very impressed.' "

"He called me back and said, 'I'm out of here.' "

John McCain was sitting in a car outside the bachelor officer quarters when he told a friend he wanted to get his father’s help to be sent to Vietnam. (Alex Leary | Tampa Bay Times, 2008)

In 1966, after marrying his first wife, McCain was sent to Jacksonville and joined a squadron on the USS Forrestal. The following July, an errant missile set off a deadly fire aboard the ship. McCain escaped with burns and shrapnel wounds, but 134 sailors died.

He could have taken time off. But yearning for combat, McCain volunteered for duty aboard the USS Oriskany and was sent to Vietnam. He left behind his wife and three children in Orange Park outside Jacksonville. On Oct. 26, 1967, during his 23rd bombing run, he was shot down over Hanoi and captured.

The rest of the narrative is by now well known.

– – –

In a tight battle for the presidency, every aspect of McCain's life is being pored over to see if he has the DNA of a leader. Most prominent is his experience as a POW or the times he has bucked his own party.

His fighter-pilot experience remains in the shadows. Some critics question whether the aggressive breed is well suited for the presidency. McCain, who has a well-known temper, has drawn criticism for his shoot-from-the-hip, high-risk style.

It was on display when McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, shocking even some of his closest allies. And even more vividly amid the financial meltdown, when he immediately called for the firing of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, a move many saw as rash and naïve. "Both false and deeply unfair," the Wall Street Journal opined. "It's also unpresidential."

It was on display when McCain abruptly suspended his campaign to focus on the crisis, temporarily putting the presidential debate in limbo.

"Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience," the conservative columnist George Will wrote, referring to Obama. "Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?"

McCain acknowledged the shortcomings in his 2002 book Worth the Fighting For. "I don't torture myself over decisions. I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is silhouetted on a flag as he speaks at a campaign rally at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Fellow aviators say the ability to react quickly, using your gut and what information is available, is a decided asset for any line of work. Landing on the carrier involved not only individual skill, they say, but the skills of those on the ship. Teamwork and delegating authority is key. So is enduring intense scrutiny of your performance.

Larson, McCain's Navy buddy, harkens back to those carrier landings in Pensacola, a half century ago.

"Some people tend to walk away from challenges and we were never able to," he said. "It teaches you that sometimes you've got to do something that may not be fun but it's your duty. You have to suck it up."

Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair contributed to this report.