McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power

March 11, 2020
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Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power. William Trimble. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019.

Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power by William Trimble, Professor Emeritus at Auburn University and author on naval aviation, is the latest in the Studies in Naval History and Sea Power series. With this project, the U.S. Naval Institute aims to advance our understanding of sea power by publishing significant new scholarship on navies and naval affairs from established authors and historians in the field. Trimble aims to achieve these goals by focusing on innovations in tactics and strategy behind naval operations before and during the Second World War. Admiral McCain (August 9, 1884 – September 6, 1945) was, throughout his career, involved in the politics of the Bureau of Navigation. Therefore, Trimble crafts a compelling narrative between developments in naval aviation, personal relationships between commanders, and Capitol Hill. As stated in the prologue, the book is more than just a biography: “McCain presents an opportunity for a deeper examination of organizational, administrative, operational, and technological change during a formative period in the Navy’s history.”[1] Despite the narrow focus on one person, the natural limit of a biography, the reader will comprehend how and why McCain and naval air power triumphed in the Pacific.

The current book is sixty pages longer than A Leader Born: The Life of Admiral John Sidney McCain, Pacific Carrier Commander, a biography published 13 years ago, and is based on extensive archival documents and oral histories. Trimble’s skillful methodology is shown in his statistical fact-checking of initial damage reports made after the numerous strikes using post-war damage assessments. Following a chronological narrative strengthens the book and its exposition on the evolution of the Navy’s air component. Moreover, the reader gets insight into the quite difficult career of McCain. Despite average grades in the naval academy and several setbacks during operations under his command, McCain rose through the ranks.

John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power is intended for an audience with some prior knowledge of the Pacific War and naval aviation. There are almost no clarifications on the types of planes involved or the wider picture of carrier operations. There are eight maps detailing ship and air movements during operations and destructive typhoons that give insights in how a carrier task force maneuvered in hostile waters and kept the element of surprise. Trimble captures the attention of the reader by skillfully delineating not only the fog of war during operations, but also highlighting day-to-day operational problems. For this reason, the 289-page biography—excluding 70 pages of notes and biography—remains fast paced.
This biography is certainly not a hagiography and Trimble is a fair critic of the admiral. In addition, Trimble addresses long standing historical criticism on certain operational decisions where needed. For example, Trimble enters the academic debate on what went wrong during the disastrous Savo Island battle where McCain failed to provide the necessary scouting intelligence coupled with the devastating direct impact of two typhoons on the carrier task force. Trimble explains for the latter that contradictory weather reports and command instructions by admiral Halsey were recipes for disaster. But the author certainly admits that at these critical moments McCain tended to be indecisive.

McCain’s marks at the Naval Academy were mediocre and he had a slow start to his career serving on armored cruisers, auxiliaries, and later on battleships. Between 1918 and 1921 and again between 1923 and 1926 he toured Washington. His first task was helping the Navy return to a peacetime force by drastically reducing officer and sailor numbers. Afterwards, McCain reformed the Navy officer corps promotion system, giving equal opportunity for promotion between line and staff officers. Hence, he had a major impact on the navy’s personnel system of the interbellum period. McCain became the commanding officer of the ammunition ship USS Nitro in June 1931 as he slowly worked up the ranks. More room for promotion came after earning his wings in 1936, aged 52. The “Johnny-Come-Lately” McCain became commander of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in 1937 due to his experience in both handling a ship and aviation. McCain and other officers like William Halsey, Jr., transformed naval aviation and carriers, in particular, from tactical elements intended for sea control in the rear of the battle fleet to the central strategic force for destructive power projection on sea, air, and land. During the prewar period McCain deviated from most other carrier commanders on the question of armouring the flight deck. McCain warranted the British system of smaller but well armoured carriers instead of the unarmoured flight deck of the Yorktown-class.

McCain was also involved in war games with carriers. During Fleet Problem XIX in April and May 1938 the White Fleet consisted of four battleships and the carrier Ranger under McCain’s command. His land-based patrol squadrons defended southern California against the Black Fleet, reliant on two task forces consisting of three battleships each centering on the Lexington and Saratoga. Interestingly, the naval warfare simulated was very different from what would follow during the Second World War as carriers were not prone to attack by surface vessels, but in the game Ranger had to fend off an attack by opposing destroyers combined with dive bombers. Later, the Saratoga, part of the Black Fleet, was tardy in launching searches and was sunk by the White Fleet battleships. Though this scenario was rare, it was similar to the sinking of the HMS Glorious in 1940 and the decimation of the under protected escort carriers during the Battle of Samar. New technology, tactics, and greater naval aviation capabilities during the Second World War would propel carriers to emerge as the Navy’s central force easily dealing with the threat of battleships.

With the outbreak of the war, McCain was transferred to lead the scouting effort in the Southern Pacific and Guadalcanal. In an era where RADAR was in its infancy, airplanes were the eyes and ears of the navy in the vast swathes of the ocean to locate enemy fleets. McCain demonstrated his ability to get a functional scouting force up and running despite harsh conditions. Nonetheless, McCain was partly blamed for not spotting the Japanese fleet before the Battle of Savo Island due to a lack of search coordination.

USS Hornet (CV-8) underway in Hampton Roads, Virginia (USA), on 27 October 1941. (U.S. Navy/Wikimedia)

After another mainland tour where he had an important impact on budgeting and planning, McCain became a task force commander with captivating operations against the Philippines, Hong Kong, the Japanese home islands and within the South China Sea. The extensive use of kamikazes by the Japanese, however, became a major challenge as carriers performed missions near these big islands making it easy for the Japanese to calculate the position of the task force. All of the deadly attackers needed to be downed in order to safeguard the Task Force. Combat information centers struggled to deal with single aircraft approaching from different directions and altitudes as illustrated by the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two solutions were developed by admirals Thach and McCain, one defensive and the other offensive. For defensive purposes RADAR picket destroyers were placed fifty to sixty miles in front of the task force to provide early warning and vector their combat air patrols to intercept them. These destroyers would become prime targets for the Japanese planes. When possible, carriers would perform moose-trap exercises where U.S. Navy Helldivers, dive bomber aircraft, would simulate a kamikaze attack after turning off their identification signals. McCain and his operations officer John Thach would rather opt for an offensive solution to tackle the problem at the source, especially when the task force supported landings close to shore. The big blue blanket would be thrown over the enemy’s airfields to prevent enemy air opposition taking off. These fighter sweeps over Japanese airfields, possible because there was no carrier opposition, strengthened the decisive offensive capabilities of the carrier task force. To obtain this result, McCain used his influence in Washington to decrease the amount of anti-ship torpedo and dive bombers on the carriers in order to make room for more multi-use fighters which could also carry up to 2,000 pounds of bombs.

John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power is a serious biography of one of the most important task force commanders in American naval history. Trimble dismantles some of the historical and academic criticism concerning McCain’s scouting during Guadalcanal and his handling of the fleet during typhoons while maintaining fair criticism where needed. McCain comes forward as a real human struggling with the immense challenges posed by handling the navy’s air component combined with managing a huge task force operating in a hostile environment. His offensive thinking, as illustrated during exercises, naval air composition, or his ambitious strikes on Japanese holdings are remarkable. Sadly, the biography rarely compares McCain’s military beliefs with those of his fellow officers. This would have strengthened the narrative on how McCain changed the status quo. As the western Pacific becomes the pivotal place of interest of the U.S. Navy, it is worth reconsidering in detail what role carriers played in breaching the first and second island chains and bringing war to the Japanese islands.

Christophe Bellens holds degrees in History and International Relations from the University of Antwerp. After a period as policy advisor at the European Parliament, the author currently works at the Chamber of Commerce of Antwerp-Waasland.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power, 2.

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