John McCain’s Final Flight

The U.S. Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, MD hadn’t changed one icon or stained glass window since I marched in there 58 years ago with John’s brother, Joe McCain. It was 1960, and we were brand new plebes. Today, it is exactly as I had remembered it; 193 foot high dome, gorgeous stained glass windows, a massive organ with exposed golden pipes, and the Latin words on the huge metal external doors saying “Non sibi sed patriae” – “Not for Self but Country.” The crypt of the father of our Navy, John Paul Jones, still lying at rest in the basement. But this time, Joe and I weren’t there for a church service; we were there to say our final goodbyes to his brother, my friend and fellow prisoner of war, Senator John Sidney McCain III.

Today’s events were the culmination of a long week of ceremonies, in Arizona and Washington, D.C., where the nation responded en masse; republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, young and old, saying goodbye to this American politician, military officer, United States Senator, hero, statesman, and humble maverick.

John’s adult life started on this exact spot, in this very chapel in 1954. He was the third in his family to attend the Academy. His father and grandfather were defiant Midshipmen before him and became four-star Admirals. John and Joe were to follow suit… at least the defiant part! It seemed to be in the McCain DNA to be “Mavericks,” and that attitude forged their characters.

A year after I graduated, John became one of my instructors in Navy jet flight training in Meridian, MS. He was intent on making every one of his students a warrior, and he sometimes broke the rules to do so. If we didn’t measure up to the standards of honor, courage, and commitment, he had no qualms in inviting us to pursue a different career. John probably saved the lives of many flight students, but didn’t make a lot of friends doing so. We all feared the final “check ride” with this instructor.

My next interaction with John was in 1967 when he showed up in the “Plantation” prison camp just five months after I was shot down over Vietnam. He was the most severely wounded man I saw in my nearly six years there; the captors were twisting his seven broken bones to torture him. He was near death. John had arrived in the camp on a stretcher with bloody rags covering his entire body. No one knew his identity. For several days we used our secret codes trying to communicate with this “new guy.” It wasn’t until the enemy had piled his newly cut hair on the ground outside his cell that I realized who this man was. At 31, John was one of the few prematurely gray Navy jet pilots I knew. They had cut his hair preparing him to see a delegation of anti-war activists to tell of the “good treatment” in the POW camps. Knowing the stern Naval tradition of the McCain family, the next chance I was within earshot, I whistled the first bar of “Anchors Aweigh”, he responded by whistling the second bar. “Nuts,” I thought, “My old flight instructor had been shot down.”

When the North Vietnamese discovered that John’s father was an Admiral, and was about to assume command of all U.S. Forces in the Pacific, they named John the “Crown Prince” and offered him early release as a propaganda ploy. With his typical rebellious demeanor, he told his brutal captors to “Shove it! I would never give up on my brother POWs, or those men who have been here longer than I. And I would never embarrass my father by disobeying the Code of Conduct.” The Vietnamese beat him up pretty badly after that, and put him in a solitary confinement cell for the next two years for refusing to go home early.

Today, at John’s interment, I sat in the third row pew of the Navy Academy Chapel behind Secretary of Defense “Mad Dog” Mattis, Senator Lindsey Graham, General Petraeus, former Vice President Joe Biden, and several other dignitaries. I was one of four Ex-POWs invited to this private and solemn occasion; John Fer and Everett Alvarez were pallbearers.

As the Naval Academy Choir sang, “Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave” my thoughts went to John’s final book entitled, “The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights”. My silent prayer was that God would put His arms around this “restless wave”.

We followed the horse drawn caisson three quarters of a mile to the Naval Academy Cemetery, where John had chosen his final resting place. The journey was lined with a thousand midshipmen, their white uniforms gleaming in the afternoon sun. As we passed, each young officer rendered one final slow salute to their shipmate and hero, repledging their sacred honor to the cause John McCain had so nobly advanced.

The burial ground overlooks the Severn River where I had long ago rowed crew and sailed the boats of our Naval Academy. The cannons and rifles were fired, and a faraway bugler played a haunting rendering of Taps; ancient military traditions symbolizing the fading away of an “old soldier.” Then, a newer tradition, a four-plane “Missing Man” flight formation; the Navy’s Blue Angels F/A-18s screamed overhead with the number three jet pulling up and out of the formation, symbolizing the departure of this Navy pilot, my flight instructor and fellow combat veteran from long ago.

The United States flag draping John’s coffin was carefully folded into a “Cocked Hat”; General Mattis presented it to John’s widow, Cindy McCain. Another flag was presented to John’s mother, 106 year old Roberta McCain as my pal Joe assisted his mom.

I pulled an old buffalo nickel from my pocket and tossed it in the grass beside my buddy’s grave (an old fighter pilot tradition,) signifying my final goodbye to this one-of-a-kind man.

As I left the ceremony my thoughts returned to our secret communications in the prison camps; at the end of each clandestine session we would sign off by tapping out three letters of the alphabet; G B U, our prayer for our buddies, God Bless You. So, for John Sidney McCain III, I sign off saying:

GBU JSM & RIP

Captain Charlie Plumb

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