McCain, John Sidney (1884-1945)

Photograph of John S. McCain

National Archives #80-G-43065. Cropped by author.

"Slew" McCain was born in Mississippi and attended the University of Mississippi before transferring to the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1906. He sailed with the Great White Fleet on battleship Connecticut and participated in convoy escort duty during the First World War. He served on a number of other battleships, graduated from the Navy War College in 1929, and held several important positions in the Bureau of Navigation.

Like a number of other senior officers, McCain took flight training (in 1936) to qualify for an aviation command. (He was a captain at the time.) He commanded two naval air stations and the Ranger before being promoted to rear admiral in February 1941. He was just assuming command of 11 Naval District when war broke out. He was appointed commander of all land-based naval air forces in the South Pacific in May 1942, and was criticized sharply by Turner for failing to conduct land-based air searches up "The Slot" following the Guadalcanal landings and then failing to notify Turner that the searches had not been carried out. However, McCain was a favorite of King and escaped censure for the debacle at Savo Island. McCain was also one of the first senior officers in the South Pacific to recognize that Guadalcanal could become a "sinkhole" for Japanese air and naval power (Smith 2000).

McCain served as chief of naval aeronautics from October 1942. In August 1943 he was promoted to vice admiral and named as deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air.

McCain returned to the Pacific in the summer of 1944 and was an observer at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After briefly commanding Task Group 38.1, he relieved Pownall as commander of Task Force 38, and led Halsey's carrier forces through most of the rest of the war. He died just after the surrender and was posthumously promoted to rank of full admiral.

McCain was not popular with more experienced aviators, such as John Towers, Nimitz' air chief, who thought he was a sloppy administrator and a Johnny Come Lately (JCL) to naval aviation. Bogan compared him unfavorably with Mitscher (Tuohy 2007):

Pete Mitscher was a consummate master of naval air power. When he ran it, it was a professional outfit, doing a professional job, in a professional way. When McCain ran it, it was a [expletive] circus. He'd come up with one screwy idea after another. One night we changed the bomb load three times for morning strikes. Those kids had been working 24 hours on the flight deck, and when you have to change a load of bombs on 47 planes three times during the night, because he thought that different bombs might be better on the targets we were going to hit, it was disgusting to me, but there was nothing you could do about it.

On the other hand, McCain took the brunt of the first kamikaze campaign following the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and identified a number of tactics for dealing with the kamikazes that were important later in the war. He led the push for using Hellcats as fighter-bombers, an idea that was not immediately well-received, but won the support of ace fighter leader John Thatch:

This is one of those rare miracles where you get something for nothing. You drop your bomb; then you've got the world's best fighter.

McCain's custom cap

U.S. Army. Via

McCain rolled his own cigarettes, leaving shreds of tobacco on his uniform, and often acted on impulse. Like a number of other prominent military leaders in the Second World War, he wore distinctive headgear, including a fatigue cap to which his wife had sewn a black headband and a visor encrusted with gold braid. McCain's immediate superior, Halsey, sometimes bypassed McCain to take direct tactical control of the fast carriers. McCain  shared much of the blame with Halsey for twice sailing 3 Fleet into a typhoon, but McCain did not have the heroic reputation that allowed Halsey to shrug off the findings of the Court of Inquiry, and McCain was relieved by John Towers at about the time of the Japanese decision to surrender.

Service record


Born at Teoc, Mississippi
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 80th in a class of 116

San Diego
Executive officer, BB New Mexico

Navy War College

Commander, AE Nitro

Head, Planning Division, Bureau of Navigation
Flight training

Commander, CV Ranger

Commander, San Diego Naval Air Station
Rear admiral
Commander, Aircraft, Scouting Forces, Pacific Fleet

Commander, 11 Naval District

Commander, Aircraft, Scouting Forces, Pacific Fleet

Commander, Patrol Wings, Pacific Fleet

Commander, Aircraft, South Pacific

Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics
Vice admiral
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air

Deputy commander, Fast Carrier Force

Commander, 2 Fast Carrier Task Force


Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Morison (1959)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2008-3-3)
Pettibone (2006)

Sears (2008)

Smith (2000)
Tuohy (2007)

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