Forty-five years ago Sunday, John McCain woke up in Jacksonville to start the rest of his life.
He was not quite home, but in a hospital. Just the night before, on St. Patrick’s Day 1973, the Navy pilot had been flown back to the place where he had lived before his horrific five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, our Florida Times-Union news partner reports.
It was here that McCain landed after his captivity, where his planning for politics began and where his first marriage started to end. While here he re-learned to fly, built family bonds, threw parties and learned to lead. Other than during a stint at the National War College, Orange Park was McCain’s home in the years after his return from Vietnam. South Ponte Vedra Beach offered an oceanfront refuge. And Naval Air Station Cecil Field was the site of what he would later call “the most rewarding assignment of my naval career.”
“For many years in my life, I lacked a fixed address for any significant length of time,” McCain, now 81 and Arizona’s senior senator, once said. “Jacksonville came closer to being a hometown for me than any place in the country.”
In that same 2008 speech, given here during a second unsuccessful run for president, McCain thanked his Orange Park neighbors for looking after his family while he was away and said he would always be indebted to them.
“They were nothing less than an extended family to my family, and their love and concern were as much a mark of their good character as it was a blessing to the people they helped,” McCain said.
Diagnosed last year with an aggressive form of brain cancer, McCain did not make himself available to be interviewed for this story. But two of his sons, his former doctor, Navy colleagues and others were more than willing to share their thoughts on his years in Jacksonville.
J. Michael Johnson, a retired Navy rear admiral who trained McCain to fly again at Cecil Field, said of the returning prisoners of war, “All of the guys were our heroes, and we didn’t give a darn how they got shot down. We just knew what they had been through and that they had done their duty to their country.
“Some of them wanted to be left alone. John wanted something else.”
As early as 1973, McCain hinted at his national political ambitions, saying in an interview, “I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life — along with a man’s family — is to make some contribution to his country.”
Decades later, in his book “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain would write that before settling in Arizona, ”... I had lived my life on the move, never entirely at ease. And if most lives are episodic, mine has been a series of short stories.”