As John S. McCain Jr. started down the road toward four-star admiral, he hit a bump.
McCain, the father of presidential candidate John McCain, was smitten by a pretty blond coed, Roberta Wright. The 22-year-old ensign left his ship, without permission, to elope.
"Showed lack of judgment," his commanding officer concluded. "He might have readily obtained such permission to get married." McCain was suspended for five days.
This youthful indiscretion went into McCain's official military personnel file, a 4-inch-thick stack of documents released to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
McCain apologized for his infraction, writing, "I contacted a messmate and asked him to inform my division officer as to my intentions and that I would be absent from quarters the next morning."
"This method was irregular but the urgency of the situation and the absolute secrecy necessary made this seem the only solution at the time," he wrote. "I thoroughly realize that the manner in which I handled the situation was wrong and I would like to say that it will never occur again."
High-strung and underweight
The papers show that McCain's path quickly straightened out, and he went on to earn the same four-star rank as his illustrious father, Adm. John S. "Slew" McCain Sr.
But first, McCain had to get through the stress of submarine training and the early years of his marriage. A fitness report in 1934 said he was high-strung and underweight — so underweight, he was being treated for weight loss at Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital. "It is thought that with added experience in submarines more self-confidence will result eliminating the noticeable nervousness that is evident," his commanding officer wrote.
In fact, McCain blamed his new wife's cooking, or lack of it, for the weight loss. "My wife doesn't know how to cook, and my meals are very irregular," McCain wrote in response to his fitness report. (This response does not appear in the documents released by the Navy, but Slew McCain obtained a copy and, much amused, kept it to show friends, according to the 1999 book "Faith of My Fathers," written by John S. McCain III, the presidential candidate.)
Rising from the bottom
McCain, like his father and later his son, had been in his share of trouble at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., graduating 18th from the bottom of his class. Then in Submarine School, he stood No. 28 in a class of 29.
But while McCain was not afraid to break rules, he seemed very anxious to succeed, a desire that impressed his superiors. "This officer is extremely tactful and loyal," Lt. Herman Sall wrote in a September 1934 fitness report. "His military duties are done in a highly satisfactory manner. He is in all aspects qualified for promotion. He exhibits a varying degree of nervousness which should be lost with increase of age and experience."
This is the last reference to any sign of nervousness in the newly released documents; subsequent fitness reports were ever more glowing, noting his interest in new submarine tactics as the United States entered World War II.
"His zeal in the investigation and development of new submarine tactics and weapons has been outstanding," Lt. Cmdr. R.M. Peacher wrote in 1944 after McCain had won the Silver Star as commander of the USS Gunnel.
'Little man with the big cigar'
Aside from military skill, McCain was known for his personality and sociability, important traits in the insular world of the Navy.
"There is only one Jack McCain!" Adm. H.P. Smith wrote in 1965. "Vice Admiral McCain, by his enthusiasm, honesty and delightful personality makes many friends, not only officially but socially. He is energetic and enthusiastic in all his undertakings. The 'little man with the big cigar' is known to everyone."
While the documents help to sketch a picture of the man, they are notable for what is omitted.
Missing from the documents is any reference to McCain's drinking. His son, the presidential candidate, has written that his father drank too much. "He didn't drink at work, and was never completely incapacitated by his weakness," McCain wrote in "Faith of My Fathers." "But he would often ease his way into social settings by drinking too much. And, as with most people, drinking changed his personality in unattractive ways. When he was drunk, I did not recognize him."
Also missing is any reference to his Navy fighter pilot son, not even when he was shot down over Hanoi and taken prisoner in October 1967. A fitness report that year, before his son's capture, notes McCain's "boundless energy," his promotion to the rank of admiral and his appointment to commander in chief of U.S. naval forces in Europe.
That the papers are silent about his son seems in keeping with a stoicism his son has described. In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain wrote that his parents were in London, dressing for a dinner party, when they got word their son had been shot down; the Navy didn't think he had survived.
"My father informed my mother of what had happened," he wrote in the book. "They kept their dinner engagement, never mentioning to any of the other guests the distressing news they had just learned."