The long goodbye to Sen. John McCain will continue through Sunday when he will be laid to rest in a private ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Prior to his death from brain cancer last weekend, McCain was a frequent visitor to the Pensacola area, where his bonds ran deep. The city is tied to his family’s legacy in the naval aviation. McCain also had close friendships in the community.
“I’m very happy to be here with all of you; it’s wonderful to be back in Pensacola,” said McCain on the presidential campaign trail with Mitt Romney in 2012. It was common practice for him to connect with the local audience by fondly recalling and making light of his time here as a young military officer.
“When I was a young Navy pilot, I did my best to help the economy here Mayor,” he joked as laughter erupted. “My entire paycheck was always donated to cultural institutions here.”
It was after graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, that McCain went through pilot training and received his wings of gold at NAS Pensacola.
Two of McCain’s sons also received their pilot training in the area.
But, Hill Goodspeed, historian for the National Naval Aviation Museum, where some of McCain’s military memorabilia is on display, says it all began in the 1930s with his grandfather, John S. McCain, Sr.
“He (McCain, Sr.) came down to Pensacola as a relatively advanced age, compared to the normal flight students who were in their twenties, to learn how to fly, so they could qualify to command,” said Goodspeed.
“They saw it as a great opportunity to expand their careers.”
Goodspeed says that flight training did launch the senior McCain’s decorated career. He rose to the rank of four-star admiral and was commander of Carrier Task Force 38 during World War II.
“And, literally, his grandfather saw the war right to the very end,” said Goodspeed, noting the historic photo on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. “He’s standing on the deck of that battleship as the surrender is signed and he died right after that.”
McCain’s dad, a submariner, also was a four-star admiral.
During his own military career, Sen. McCain he served aboard two ships that have ties to Pensacola, including the USS Forrestal, which was briefly homeported here.
“In July of ’67, Forrestal suffered a catastrophic fire that killed nearly 140 crewmen,” Goodspeed recalled. “McCain’s aircraft was surrounded by smoke and flames and he actually jumped from the cockpit to the flight deck and made his way to safety.”
Just a few months later, McCain would become forever linked to the Mighty O, USS Oriskany, which now serves as an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola.
Goodspeed continued, “He was part of a squadron called VA-163; their nickname was ‘the Saints.’ He flew from Oriskany and that was the mission he was shot down October 26, 1967.”
Captured by the North Vietnamese, McCain became a prisoner of war, and there at the Hanoi Hilton, he would develop a lasting bond with Col. George “Bud” Day. The Medal of Honor recipient, who made his home in nearby Shalimar, was posthumously promoted to the rank of brigadier general earlier this year.
“As many of you probably know, John and I lived in POW camp together. I learned an awful lot about him, a man of great courage, a man of a lot of endurance and a guy who makes the right choices,” said Day, who often campaigned for his friend.
He made these remarks during a Pensacola rally in 2008.
“When the Vietnamese offered him an early release, John said ‘no way.’ He will go home in his order of shoot down and never a day before,” he said to the cheering crowd.
McCain also came through for Day, supporting his effort to restore health care to all military retirees who entered service prior to 1956.
He spoke of their special bond at Day’s funeral at the Emerald Coast Convention Center in 2013.
“I had the honor of being Bud’s friend for almost five decades of his 88 years,” McCain recalled of their meeting in 1967, when the Vietnamese left him to die in the prison cell Bud shared with Maj. Norris Overly. “But, Bud and Norris wouldn’t let me die. They bathed me, fed (choking up), fed me, nursed me, encouraged me and led me back to life.”
As McCain’s military career was winding down in the late 1970s, he was assigned to the Office of Legislative Affairs in Washington, D.C.
“John McCain, a young Cpt. John McCain came to work for my husband, a more senior captain than John in OLA,” said Nancy Fetterman, speaking of McCain and her late husband Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman, who became close friends.
One of McCain’s sons stayed with them briefly during flight training at Whiting Field. They hosted parties for McCain during his presidential runs. And, she was asked to introduce him during one of his rallies at then Pensacola State College.
“Before he got off the bus, his wife helped him comb his hair, you know he could not lift his arm,” she remembered. “That was poignant for me because I so well remember when he left Vietnam he was probably one of the worst one coming off the plane as far as health issues.”
In his later years, Admiral Fetterman campaigned to establish a maritime museum - that was to bear his name - on the Pensacola waterfront. Nancy Fetterman recalls traveling to D.C. and waiting several hours to ask Sen. McCain in person to be an honorary co-chair of the museum’s fundraising committee.
“And, I was getting frustrated and I thought well, I’ll come back tomorrow, so I started walking down this long hall and I saw him coming towards me and he said ‘Nancy, what the hell are you doing here.’ And, I said I’m here to ask a favor of you, and he gave me a big smile and he said, ‘yes.’”
She says it was McCain’s smile, charm, and wit that she’ll remember most about him.
In reference to the irony of McCain asking former presidential opponents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to deliver eulogies at his funeral, Fetterman was not surprised.
“You know that sounds like something he would do; he was not a divider,” she said. “He was a kind, good man who was able to walk across the aisle and do things for the good of our country.”