When John McCain limped home from a Hanoi prison camp in 1973 with a badly injured knee that he could not bend, Navy doctors gave him the bad news: His 15-year career as a jet pilot was over. He would never fly again.
But McCain surprised his doctors by making a dramatic comeback. With a ferocious determination to fly again and a tough physical therapy regimen, he got his wings back and not long after was awarded command of the Navy’s largest aviation squadron, VA-174, at Cecil Field in Florida. Blue-chip connections in the Nixon administration helped.
These days, when the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is asked about his qualifications to lead and manage, he points to his command of that squadron as proof he has the right stuff to be president.
“I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy, not for profit, but for patriotism,” McCain said at a candidate forum in New Hampshire. “I’m proud of that record of leadership.”
McCain’s bravery during his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war is a well-told story. But how he regained his career after the Vietnam War has received less attention in his autobiography and other writings about his life.
A review of Navy records and interviews with more than a dozen of his former colleagues paint a picture of a commander who was lionized by his troops as a war hero and respected by aviators as a fair and effective manager. He had rugged good looks and a common touch, and was fiercely loyal to those who worked for him, his former colleagues say.
But those Navy records also cast some doubt on the importance of a claim McCain makes in his autobiography -- that he took bold steps to improve the readiness of the squadron. Some of McCain’s contemporaries don’t recall key parts of a management initiative that he describes in that book. And although the squadron was well-run under McCain, it appeared to be no better managed than before he arrived or after he left, according to interviews and records.
But there’s no doubt it was a big job. Running the squadron, with its 1,000 personnel and fleet of 75 jets, was like managing a small corporation.
“It speaks for itself,” McCain said in a recent interview. “You implement the principles of leadership. You address issues. You work hard. You try to inspire the people under your command. It is not any different from any other leadership role. It all boils down to treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself. It is one of the essentials of leadership.”
‘An unlimited future’
McCain’s confidential military fitness reports, which were released to The Times by his campaign staff, judged him an “exceptional naval officer with an unlimited future” and “unequivocally recommend him for accelerated promotion to captain and major command.”
The fight to put his career back on track started almost as soon as McCain returned from Hanoi.
He first angled for a position at the prestigious National War College, but the Navy balked because he was only a lieutenant commander. So McCain gained entry by appealing directly to John Warner, then secretary of the Navy and a close friend of McCain’s father, an admiral commanding Pacific forces during the Vietnam War.
“John wasn’t the only one who got some consideration,” said Warner, now a Republican senator from Virginia. It was Pentagon policy to assist returning POWs in reestablishing their careers.
While attending the war college, McCain focused on fixing the knee injured when he was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam. Through a friend, he met Diane Lawrence, a physical therapist, and told her that he needed to bend the knee 90 degrees to pass a flight physical. She said it was the worst knee injury she had ever seen.
“I told him, ‘I know what your goal is, but can you stand the pain?’ ” Lawrence recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, honey, I can stand the pain.’ ”
So, hour after hour, McCain would lie on his stomach as Lawrence rested McCain’s leg against her shoulder and bent the knee degree by degree.
Even when McCain could bend his knee a little more than 90 degrees, convincing doctors that he could fly was another challenge.
“I think he threatened every Navy doctor he met,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain supporter who spent 25 years as a military attorney. “Every doctor told him, ‘John, forget it. You won’t fly again.’ But he was going to get into a cockpit if it killed him.”
Ultimately, he passed a flight physical at the Navy field in Pensacola. He went back to Lawrence’s clinic in Virginia to deliver the news in person. “We both cried,” she said.
McCain’s arrival at Cecil Field in August 1974 coincided with a difficult period in the U.S. military, punctuated by discipline problems, drug use, racial tensions, funding shortfalls, equipment defects and morale problems left from the Vietnam War.
The VA-174 squadron he joined was responsible for training pilots in the A-7 Corsair, a single-engine light attack jet. McCain was promoted to executive officer in 1975 and took command for nearly 13 months, starting July 1, 1976.
Loyal to his troops
McCain is recalled as a boss who knew everybody and casually visited with his troops every day. He cut a larger-than-life image on the base, among both men and women.
“All the women thought he was the bomb. He was a good-looking man,” recalled Bonita Duncan, an enlistee in the personnel office.
McCain won high marks for loyalty and commitment to his troops.
When Ross Fischer, an instructor pilot, helped talk down an injured student pilot to a safe landing, McCain said: “I owe you one.” Years later, when Fischer was leaving the Navy and searching for a pilot job, he received a call from McCain, then the Navy’s liaison officer in the Senate.
“Continental Airlines will call you in a few hours with a job offer,” McCain told him. He had arranged the job through Continental’s lobbyist, Fischer surmised.
McCain also had to deal with discipline problems in the unit that grew out of what he termed “the Vietnam thing.”
“The tactic I used was that I tried to scare the daylights out of them, but the punishment for any first-time offender would be light,” he said in the recent interview. “I would try to give them some very stern leadership, but at the same time give everybody as much as possible a second chance.”
Oscar Carbajal, a mechanic in the unit, remembers the day he got in trouble for a minor watch violation and was sent to see McCain. He braced for the worst.
“McCain listened to me and then gave me a little extra duty,” he recalled. “And that was it. He was not high and mighty.”
McCain arrived at Cecil Field without the experience usually required to command the VA-174 squadron, and his promotion evoked controversy, he later acknowledged in his book.
Once in charge, he set a priority on repairing about a fourth of the squadron’s jets that had been grounded for more than 60 days for lack of spare parts. When the unit’s maintenance officers told McCain that nothing could be done to solve the problem, McCain fired them, according to Carl Smith, a Washington attorney who was then a pilot.
McCain promised his commanding officer, Marvin Reynolds, that he would get the planes back in the air if he could move parts from one grounded plane to another. To execute the plan, he obtained special permission from the Navy’s Atlantic command. According to Smith, it was a risky bet. “What McCain did was put his career on the line,” Smith said.
If a plane flew once every 60 days, even by shuttling parts around, it wasn’t considered grounded anymore. Whether more planes were actually flight-ready as a result of his effort is not clear from Navy records.
On the day before his command ended, McCain met his goal. Smith took off in the last of the long-term grounded A-7s, according to both McCain and Smith.
For a new commanding officer, credit for such a management initiative can look impressive on a resume. But in this case, there are questions about the importance of the effort.
Some who were there don’t even remember it. Half a dozen pilots, mechanics and others who worked with McCain at Cecil Field said they did not recall that the unit was chronically short of aircraft or that it was any different from other squadrons.
“We were flying all the birds pretty regularly,” recalled Carbajal, the mechanic.
Reynolds, a captain who was the wing commander for 14 squadrons, describes McCain as “a very good” commander. But he doesn’t recall McCain’s management initiative and says the squadron was well-run both before and during McCain’s command.
“I don’t remember the story quite like that,” Reynolds said. “There have been spare parts problems ever since Wilbur and Orville Wright flew. I do not remember anything about Sen. McCain getting into the cannibalization business.”
If more planes were in the air under McCain’s command, it didn’t translate into a higher level of activity under McCain, according to records at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C.
Flight hours, a key measure of operations, declined by 27% from 1975 to 1977. And the squadron trained fewer pilots, dropping from 117 to 98 over the same period, according to annual histories of VA-174. McCain’s tenure as commander ran from July 1, 1976, to July 28, 1977.
A statement issued by McCain’s office said any decrease in performance during his command “is explained by factors unrelated to the senator’s performance as the commanding officer of that squadron.”
The squadron history for 1976, also kept at the naval center, mentions a number of programs, milestones and official communications but does not note McCain’s spare parts program.
A Meritorious Service Medal later awarded to McCain does cite the unit’s morale, training and his spare parts effort. It was signed by longtime McCain family friend Adm. Isaac C. Kidd Jr., who had worked under McCain’s father in politically sensitive matters.
A success at safety
Without question, McCain succeeded in one top priority: safety. The squadron went the entire 13 months without a loss of life or a loss of aircraft, and the squadron won its first Navy commendation for safety.
“He put the fear of God in us,” recalled Bob Stumpf, who trained under McCain and went on to lead the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team. “He told us, ‘As long as I am here as commanding officer, you are not going to deviate from the book and you are not going to lose any planes.’ ”
Said Jim Weatherbee, who trained under McCain and later flew into space six times as a NASA astronaut, “It was definitely a well-run ship.”
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