John S. McCain III Has Passed

Lt Cmdr John S. McCain III was a hero to me. I idolized him and wanted to be like him when I reported to Navy AOCS in Pensacola. That was in May of 1975, two years after McCain had been released from a North Vietnamese prison, and just weeks after the fall of Saigon.

I received my commission in November of 1976. One of the traditions in a commissioning ceremony is that the Navy Hymn is sung after the new Ensigns have have taken that oath to “defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” but before the benediction.

It was a proud moment in my life. Receiving that commission and pinning on those gold bars was quite an experience.

The very inauspicious chapter of my Navy career when, four months later, I dropped flight training and was then told by a disposition board that the Navy didn’t need me in the surface fleet was a huge disappointment.

I was as deflated and numb going through that experience as I had been pleased and proud four months before when our band of brand-new Ensigns sang the Navy Hymn together.

For some reason, I still remember the words. But that has nothing to do with my admiration for Senator McCain.

This is hard to explain, but even though the career I had dreamed about for years fell apart when I got into the hard part of Naval flight training, the eight months I was in Uncle Sam’s Navy marked me for life.

I’ve never lost sight of how vitally important it is to be a part of something greater than myself. Working as a team doesn’t come naturally for me, I’m too much of a lone wolf.

But I learned how to do that in those 16 weeks of Aviation Officer Candidate School.

I learned that the rigors of military life and the necessity of putting the needs of your unit, your mates and the folks back home ahead of your own could impose a very high cost on the individual.

I never had to pay any cost for my shipmates. Or my country. I never knew the perils of an angry sea or a determined enemy.

John McCain did. That’s the kind of man he was. That’s the kind of life he lived.

Lt Cmdr McCain completed 22 very perilous missions over the skies of North Vietnam before his A-4 Skyhawk was shot out of the sky in October of 1967.

The story of how he spent 5 1/2 years as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton is well-known. What some may have forgotten is that his North Vietnamese captors offered to release him shortly after they learned that his father, Adm John McCain Jr., was the Commander of American forces in Vietnam.

But John refused to be released under those conditions and finally made it home with his comrades-in-arms in 1973, under the terms of the Paris Peace Accord.

The never-ending maltreatment and torture that McCain endured in his years of imprisonment left him with a lifetime of debilitating injuries. You may have noticed that he was never able to raise his arms above his shoulders when waving to crowds at political events.

That can happen when your wrists are lashed together behind your back, you’re suspended from the ceiling and the sadists who are trying to break you have the ropes so taut that you can’t get both feet flat on the dirt floor beneath you.

These are the kinds of sacrifices that John McCain made. Cmdr McCain and our other POW’s endured hardships and made sacrifices for their country and their loved ones that you and I can’t even imagine.

They did it in fulfillment of the oath they all took. They did it without “reservation or purpose of evasion” just as they had sworn to do.

That’s the kind of man, the kind of hero John McCain was.

The many years of service he gave to his country after he retired from the Navy have been chronicled over and over. One can read reams of information about that part of his service to our country now that he’s passed.

I admire him greatly for his time in the US Senate. He always deported himself with great dignity. He always acted with the courage of his convictions.

I admire him no less as a politician and public servant as I did when his service to country put him in constant peril of life and limb. His fearlessness and his integrity inspire me as much today as they did when I wanted to follow in his footsteps as a 21 year old Officer Candidate.

All told, he rendered more than 60 years of faithful service to the United States. He never shirked his duty, even under conditions that would have broken ordinary men.

I’m not sure why, exactly, but the first thing that happened for me when I heard the news of his passing a few hours ago, is that the strains of the Navy Hymn began to “play” in my head.

I aspired to greatness as a young man so many years ago while singing those words with my mates. Alas, there was to be no greatness in my brief, inglorious military career.

But I, like you, recognize greatness instantly when I see it or hear of it.

I recognized greatness in John McCain more than 43 ago. His selflessness, his devotion to his family, his fellows and his country stand out like that lighthouse at Fort Barrancas on a squally night.

God rest your warrior’s soul, Cmdr McCain. Thank you for your lifetime of selfless service to the country you loved so well.

 

© 2018 Ben Lawrence Basile
All Rights Reserved

The words of the Navy Hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Oh, Watchful Father who dost keep
Eternal vigil while we sleep
Guide those who navigate on high
Who through grave unknown perils fly,
Receive our oft-repeated prayer
For those in peril in the air.

The United States Navy Chorus singing
“Eternal Father Strong to Save”

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