Friday, January 22, 2021

Recent Reads: Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power by William F. Trimble


Admiral John S. McCain in the early 1940s (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Reviewed by Dr. Ira Hanna
HRNM Docent

Several books have been written about Admiral John S. McCain but none of them cover all aspects of this unusual naval officer. A Leader Born by Alton Keith Gilbert concentrated on the personality of the man and his accomplishments as a carrier commander. His grandson, Senator John S. McCain III, wrote a memoir that captured what it meant to follow in his footsteps. This book is different! Author William Trimble meticulously described McCain’s rise through the “black shoe” navy, his decision to become a naval aviator at the age of 52, and his leadership as a Fast Carrier Task Force Commander during some of the most important WWII naval battles leading to the Japanese surrender. Descriptions of McCain by his contemporaries, his staff members, squadron commanders and their pilots were particularly important to the total picture of the man. 

Admiral McCain on the bridge of his flagship, early 1945 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

If you are interested in the strategic as well as the technical side of planning and executing wartime fleet operations, this is the book for you. The almost minute by minute description of ship maneuvers during naval battles is enough to make you feel like you are right there. Unfortunately, this causes a problem. Sometimes, the details cloud the overall picture. 

There are even messages that show the pettiness between flag officers in the competition for fleet and task force command. Marc Mitscher still considered McCain a “Johnny Come Lately” to naval aviation. In comparison, Ernest King and William Halsey were friendly and supportive. Because of McCain’s experience with battleships and cruisers, he knew their capabilities and weaknesses. Once integrated into the naval air community, he recognized the usefulness of fast carriers and immediately understood the importance of his carriers to protect the fleet and provide current intelligence for Fleet commanders. He was noted for his aggressiveness and the use of bombers and fighters as deadly attack weapons when enemy ships were in range. His Task Force sometimes numbered thirteen carries that successfully protected the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He saw the strategic importance of carriers and correctly predicted that the super carriers built after WWII would become the expression of America’s power throughout the world.
McCain's Task Force 38 sailing in August 1945 right after the Japanese surrender (Naval History and Heritage Command)

McCain’s journey to become one of the most important task force commanders in WWII was not easy. In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt was anxious to see some naval action to blunt the Japanese victories in the Pacific. He instructed Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox to identify the forty admirals he considered “most competent” (Trimble’s term) to prosecute the naval war. Knox formed a committee of nine “high ranking and experienced” officers as an unofficial “selection board.” King and Harold Stark were immediately selected to be on the board and also the top two on the list. McCain barely made the list with just six votes. So at the beginning of the war, he spent several years working in stateside commands that eventually helped him in his seagoing commands. Still, he longed to be where the action was.

Admirals John S. McCain and William "Bull" Halsey talking aboard USS New Jersey (BB 62) on the way to the Philippines in December 1944 (Wikipedia)

In March 1944, Ernest King (CNO) chose McCain to command Task Force 38, part of Halsey’s Third Fleet. In May, Chester Nimitz (CIC Pacific Ocean Areas) and King agreed to the rotation of fleet and task force commanders and staffs. Bill Halsey’s Third Fleet would trade with Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet at appropriate intervals. This was known as the “two platoon” system and continued till the end of the war. In the rotation that usually occurred after each major mission, Task Force 58 under Marc Mitscher (Spruance’s Fleet) would become Task Force 38 under McCain (Halsey’s Fleet). During these relief times, McCain not only would get a chance to visit his family but often wrote articles that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. He was interviewed often by the press and regaled reporters about battle scenes in his most “colorful” boatswain-mate language. One of these landed him on the front page of Collier’s Magazine. In every speech, McCain guaranteed America’s victory over Japan and was a cheerleader for the Navy’s part in it. He even testified before Congress that the Navy’s air arm was crucial to wining the war.

McCain in his quarters aboard USS Hancock (CV 19) (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The naval battles of WWII took a toll of ships and men and the admirals were no exception. Halsey had shingles so bad that he had to be sent back to the states to recover. McCain just wore himself out. After he was relieved of the command of Task Force 38 on September 1, 1945, he attended the Japanese Surrender Ceremony on the battleship Missouri (BB 63), and then left for Hawaii. When he arrived, the reporters besieged him and wanted firsthand descriptions of the ceremony. As Trimble put it, the “explosive little admiral did not disappoint them.” A few days later, he arrived in San Diego and on September 6, 1945 a homecoming party was organized at his home. About 4pm, he became ill and went to his bedroom. A neighbor who was a naval surgeon was summoned, but despite his efforts, VADM John S. McCain USN died a little after 5pm, just a month past his 61st birthday. Three years later, he was elevated posthumously to full admiral by Congress.

McCain and an operations officer working on an operations plan on USS Hancock (CV 19) (Naval History and Heritage Command)

In his prologue, Trimble described how McCain showed he cared as much for his pilots as their missions. “McCain wanted to hear more than statistics.” After each mission, he personally would ask pilots “What did you see and what did you do?” Then he would tell them “You have performed one of the most dangerous as well as necessary missions. Congratulations. Glad you are back.” McCain cared so much for these junior airmen and their futures that he ordered that they be given opportunities to qualify as officers of the deck underway, later known as Surface Warfare Officers. This is why he was known as “The Airman’s Admiral,” which just as well could have been the title of this book.

Trimble concluded that “few among his peers bore the burden of command in such broad dimensions of naval aviation – patrol aviation, carrier, task group, and task force command, administration, technological change, personnel, and logistics – as did Admiral John S. McCain.”

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