McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power

Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power. By William F. Trimble. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2019.

Reviewed by David Hobbs

WILLIAM TRIMBLE is a professor emeritus at Auburn University in Alabama whose previous books for the US Naval Institute include ‘Hero of the Air’, a biography of Glen Curtiss that examined the birth of naval aviation and ‘Admiral William A. Moffett’, a biography of the first Director of the USN Bureau of Aeronautics among others that focus on the development of the US Navy’s air arm.  With his deep knowledge of how the air navy developed he was well placed to write a biography of ‘Slew’ McCain and the result is a masterpiece of historical biography.

McCain graduated from the Naval Academy in 1906 and, after brief service in larger warships as a midshipman, he served in the old gunboat PANAY under Ensign Chester W. Nimitz USN in 1907.  During a conventional career as an executive officer he earned respect for a study into officer selection and promotion written while he was serving in the Bureau of Navigation in 1923.  In 1928, while serving as executive officer of the battleship NEW MEXICO at the age of 44 he volunteered for pilot training after developing a keen interest in the development of naval aviation.  He passed the fitness tests but was eventually rejected because he exceeded the Navy’s then-current age limit for pilot training. A number of other senior officers were trained as pilots at about that time including Ernest J. King, Charles A. Pownall, Richmond Kelly Turner and Aubrey Fitch.  However, McCain’s ambition was achieved in 1935 when he was 51.  The Vincent-Trammell Act laid down that only qualified pilots or naval flight officers could command an aircraft carrier or naval air station and by then there simply were not enough of them to meet growing demand.  Despite his age, McCain was accepted for pilot training at NAS Pensacola.

He was regarded by some of the early aviation pioneers, including John Towers, as a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ or JCL but after qualification he put his heart and soul into the succession of air appointments that form the bulk of this book.. In turn he commanded the fleet air base at Coco Solo in the Panama canal Zone followed in 1937 by command of the aircraft carrier RANGER, CV-4.  Following his promotion to rear admiral, he commanded shore-based naval aviation assets and the flying boat operations based on tenders, flying his flag in the US TANGIER, one of the latter, after was broke out against Japan.  He was closely involved in the Guadalcanal Campaign. His wartime appointments included Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics at a critical time of vast expansion and as the first Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) in 1942-1944.  His intimate involvement in the development of the fast carrier task force from its limited beginnings in 1942 into a strategic task force able to strike the enemy with surprise and devastating effect over vast distances culminated when he took command of Task Force 38, the Pacific Fleet’s fast carrier task force with Halsey as his C-in-C in 1945.  As a vice admiral in the last weeks of the war he also had Task Force 37, the British Pacific Fleet under his direct command.

Many histories of the Pacific War tend to concentrate on the evolved US fleet deployed by late 1944 without delving too deeply into the developmental problems it encountered as it expanded with unprecedented speed.  Trimble certainly cannot be accused of that he balances McCain’s outstanding successes as a carrier task force commander with events that did not go as well, notably the typhoons that overwhelmed several ships in 1945.  This is a balanced work that also describes how he earned the undying respect of the Marine Corps for his leadership of air assets in the Guadalcanal Campaign.  It also provides interesting background details of numerous operations that involved British and Australian warships in the Pacific Theatre.  McCain was one of only a handful of senior officers who shaped the evolution of naval air power and Trimble has done credit to him in writing this excellent biography which brings the development of naval air warfare into sharp focus.  

After the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945, McCain and his staff handed over to Admiral Towers as the Third Fleet became the Fifth.  He was prevailed upon by Halsey to stay for the surrender ceremony on the USS MISSOURI on 2 September but several officers including Captain Thach, his operations officer, noted that he did not look well.  Flown out of Tokyo for the USA that evening, he arrived at his home at Coronado on 5 September and died at a party held in his honour on the afternoon of 6 September, a moving end to an outstanding career into which he had literally given all he had.

This book has a broad focus but is full of finely-researched details which are especially relevant to the way in which the Pacific War was fought by the USA and its Commonwealth allies.  It has a bibliography that fills thirteen pages, the detailed source notes that one would expect and a carefully-compiled index. I thoroughly recommend it to historians, naval professionals and even those who take an interest in how a great man led his life in the Navy.  My review copy has been placed in my library alongside Trimble’s other books.  

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