John McCain, the Arizona Senator and son of a Navy Admiral, who never lost his will to fight–from Vietnam to one of the few Republicans willing to stand up to Donald Trump–finally succumbed to cancer, today (Aug. 25). It was the one battle he could not win. He was 81.
McCain, who struggled with skin cancer in his later life, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer last July. He underwent treatment, before announcing this week that he would forego further medical intervention.
The announcement was an acknowledgement that cancer had finally gotten the better of him. He died at his ranch near Sedona, Ariz., his office said in a statement.
His death marks the end of a remarkable career in which McCain was front-and-center to many of the seminal events of his generation. He was born in 1936 at a U.S. naval air base in the Panama Canal Zone.
At the time his father John S. McCain Jr. (1911–1981) was a naval officer. Later, he rose to the rank of Admiral. His paternal grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., was also an Admiral, and John grew up at various military outposts around the United States and the Pacific.
McCain followed in their footsteps and attended the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He recalled his enrollment as “an immutable fact of life, and accepting it without comment.” He entered the academy in 1954.
As an underclassman, he earned his reputation as a “maverick” and non-conformist. Each year, he received more than one hundred demerits for such infractions as not having shined shoes, formation faults, disordered room and talking out of place.
“It was bullshit, and I resented the hell out of it,” he once said, according to a biography, “The Nightingale’s Song.”
He would say in his later years that he always had trouble with regimentation.
At a diminutive 5-foot 7 inches tall and 127 pounds, he was, nonetheless, a scrapper. He boxed for three years as a lightweight. His biographer Robert Timberg described his personality as “manic, intuitive, highly idiosyncratic.”
He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class, with a rank of 894 out of 899. But as the son of an admiral, he had his choice of assignments and picked flight school, destined to fly from carriers.
During his time in training, he exhibited all the attributes of a hot-shot Top Gun. Cocky and self-assured, he was known as a party man, drove a Corvette and dated an exotic dancer named “Marie the Flame of Florida.”
He spent all his free time on the beach, and his excessive exposure to the sun may have been the precursor to the skin cancer he would contract years later. Heavy sunburns early in life are one of the triggers for skin cancer, according to medical references.
He was described as a “sub-par” flier and crashed one of his planes during a training flight. He escaped with only minor injuries. But his record kept him from flying fighter jets. Instead, he was assigned to an attack aircraft, another move that would prove fateful.
In all, he crashed three airplanes before he requested a combat assignment in Vietnam in October 1966. He was 30 years old, well above the combat age of World War II pilots, when 21 or 22 was about the average age; 25 was considered mature and 30 positively old.
By then, his father was a four-star admiral and Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe. As such, he could pull strings, and McCain was assigned to duty aboard the USS Forestall aircraft carrier.
After surviving a near fatal accident, escaping from his plane on the deck with minor injuries after it caught fire in a accidental missile explosion, he joined a squadron on board the USS Oriskany that had suffered heavy combat losses.
He volunteered to fly the squadron’s most dangerous missions right away, rather than work his way up to them, and piloted his plane on missions over Hanoi where anti-aircraft fire was heaviest.
On a Hanoi bombing run in October 1967, he ignored warning signals that his A-4E Skyhawk was being tracked by enemy missile radar and finished his bombing run. As he pulled out of a dive, his plane was hit by a missile.
McCain was forced to bailout at high speed and fractured his right arm in three places, his left arm, and his right leg at the knee. He was captured and spent the next five years as a prisoner. He was tortured and near death when the North Vietnamese learned he was the son of an admiral.
He was transferred to a hospital and nursed back to health, but chose to remain with other prisoners when he was offered an early release as a goodwill gesture. He was finally released March 14, 1973 after enduring beatings, torture, and two years of solitary confinement.
McCain’s military service became a source of controversy during the 2016 presidential race. Trump, then a Republican candidate, questioned his status as a war hero because he’d been shot down under enemy fire.
“I like people who weren’t captured,” said Trump, who dodged the Vietnam draft, himself, by receiving a medical deferment from a family doctor for “bone spurs” in his feet.
He retired from the Navy in 1981 and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives the following year. He was elected to the Senate four years later. By then a celebrity, he easily won.
He went on to serve six terms in the Senate and served as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee and scored numerous legislative victories. He became a strong opponent of waterboarding and other torture techniques to interrogate prisoners of war during the administration of George W. Bush, whom he challenged for president in 1999.
In a precursor of the type of campaigning employed by Trump against Hillary Clinton, McCain was falsely accused of fathering a black child out of wedlock. It cost him the Republican primary.
In 2008, he finally won the GOP nomination, but made the fateful choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his runningmate. Palin proved to be a polarizing figure. Freshman Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), won the election, followed by a second term in 2012.
During his administration, Obama faced unprecedented obstruction from Republicans in Congress and a withering assault on his character by Trump, other hard-right Republicans and Fox News. During the election, however, McCain rebuked those who claimed Obama was dishonorable, a Muslim and foreign-born.
In one dramatic moment on the U.S. Senate floor, McCain, by then suffering from brain cancer, cast a key vote defeating a Republican proposal to gut the Affordable Care Act. The measure would have thrown millions off of health insurance. It was a signature act of defiance against Trump.
Yet, he remained a staunch war hawk throughout his career, urged greater military action to defeat ISIS and was a sharp critic of Obama’s foreign policy.
True to his style, McCain said in an interview that he found his brain cancer liberating and said it added clarity to the end of his life. “I’m freer than colleagues who will face the voters again. I can speak my mind without fearing the consequences much. And I can vote my conscience without worry,” he wrote in his book “The Restless Wave.”
McCain fell seriously ill last December with a viral infection, likely contracted because his immune system had been ravaged by cancer treatment. In April, he required surgery to treat an intestinal infection. He was mostly bedridden, since then.
McCain is survived by his second wife, Cindy, and seven children. Below is Megan McCain’s tribute.