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Investigating John McCain’s Tragedy at Sea
Posted on Oct 7, 2008
McCain’s book skips over the weeks after the Forrestal fire, but Timberg says that the young naval officer spent the months of August and September 1967 “unsure of his status.” Following McCain’s application for a transfer to the Oriskany, his orders were delayed, and in September he returned to his home in Jacksonville, Fla. There, an old friend, Chuck Larson, saw a change in McCain: The pilot was discouraged about his future. McCain confided to Larson that he might have to get out of the Navy because, in the words of the Timberg biography, “his past had become a burden” and “whenever he joined a new outfit he was dismayed that his reputation for mayhem had preceded him.”7 Aside from any questions about his Forrestal actions, McCain had, in his short Navy career, crashed two planes and flown a third into power lines in Spain because of, as he put it, “daredevil clowning.”8
The investigation into the Forrestal fire was in the hands of Adm. Thomas Moorer, chief of naval operations and a close friend of McCain’s father. (Their friendship was why Moorer would personally convey the news to Adm. Jack McCain three months later that his son had been shot down in Vietnam.) Moorer gave the investigation to Rear Adm. Forsyth Massey, who handed in his report on Sept. 19, 1967. McCain received orders to report to the Oriskany on Sept. 30.9
During the period when John McCain was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, less than a month after being assigned to the Oriskany, recent events—the Forrestal fire and his possible role in its growth, misgivings about “dropping more of that stuff” on Vietnam, his decision to leave the stricken ship for some “R&R” in Saigon, anxiety about his naval career—were fresh in his mind. What had been going on in McCain’s life may cast light on some of the decisions he made later as a prisoner of war. While he was a POW, he famously refused to be released early, electing not to leave his comrades behind.
After McCain made his first run for the presidency, in 2000, Gregory Freeman wrote a book on the fire, “Sailors to the End.” Freeman’s 2002 book appears to be mostly reliable, but it ignores key parts of the official report and hews closely to McCain’s claim that the Zuni rocket struck his plane, not Fred White’s, causing the two thousand-pound bombs to drop into the burning fuel.
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After erasing White, Freeman’s sketch presents an incorrect line between the original position of the Zuni rocket and McCain’s plane, instead of showing the actual line that the rocket took in striking White’s plane. This sketch alone will cause the unwary reader to believe there is visual evidence to support the claim that the Zuni rocket hit McCain’s plane, not that of White, the pilot lost on the Forrestal and now airbrushed out of history, at least in Freeman’s book.
McCain wrote a glowing blurb for Freeman’s book, drawing and all, calling it a “riveting account.” The presence of his enthusiastic blurb on the book cover raises another issue: Freeman relied heavily on interviews of survivors who were close to the Forrestal events but he never quotes McCain directly or mentions having requested an interview with him. Because his book pushes McCain’s misleading and unsubstantiated account, Freeman should make public whether McCain, or people around him, played a role in the genesis of “Sailors to the End.”
“I’m an old Navy pilot. I know when a crisis calls for all hands on deck,”10 Sen. McCain said recently in explaining why he was temporarily suspending his presidential campaign and calling for postponement of the first debate between himself and Democratic candidate Barack Obama, which eventually occurred as scheduled. At the one time in his life when he was faced with a real crisis on deck, we now know, McCain left the crisis to others and descended to safety below. As to the question of whether the first bomb to explode on the Forrestal dropped from his plane through pilot error, it is not reassuring to hear him describe his attitude as a Navy pilot toward safety procedures. He told reporters during his 2000 presidential campaign that his motto in those days was: “Kick the tires and light the fires [jet engines]. To hell with the checklist. Anybody can be slow.”11
McCain has gone much further than most veterans in using his military experiences for political purposes, but he has not allowed his military records to be released, save for the list of his awards and medals, all of which were given only after he became a prisoner of war. It is appropriate that he release those records before the election. If his actions contributed to the magnitude of the Forrestal disaster and if he left the burning ship under less than honorable circumstances, that information should be available to voters as they choose their next president. At the very least, John McCain should be asked to explain his actions in the summer of 1967 and tell American voters why he has repeatedly given a false account of Robert Zwerlein’s death.
Mary Hershberger is a historian and the author of “Jane Fonda’s War” and other books. She is a recipient of the Binkley-Stephenson Award, given annually for the best scholarly article in the Journal of American History.
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