Before the US Senate: John McCain's years in Jacksonville

McCain was Navy pilot, later commander at now-shuttered NAS Cecil Field

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – John McCain, the man America knew as a survivor of a North Vietnam POW camp who then led a long, public life as a U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate, called greater Jacksonville home for nearly a dozen years, including the time he was held in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”

Taking after his father and grandfather, McCain joined the Navy and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduation, McCain was assigned to NAS Cecil Field, the now-shuttered base on Jacksonville's Westside, in October 1966 to train on the A-4 Skyhawk single-seat attack aircraft. He was promoted to lieutenant commander the following January and joined VA-46 and deployed for Vietnam in June 1967 aboard the Mayport-based USS Forrestal.

McCain's first five attack missions over North Vietnam went without incident. In his autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” he wrote that he gained a reputation of a serious aviator, but was frustrated by micromanagement from Washington. 

"The target list was so restricted that we had to go back and hit the same targets over and over again,” McCain wrote in the book. “ Most of our pilots flying the missions believed that our targets were virtually worthless. In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn't have the least notion of what it took to win the war.”

In late July, McCain survived a rocket accidentally fired across the deck of the aircraft carrier that killed 134 sailors, injured many others and destroyed at least 20 aircraft.

”I thought my aircraft exploded. Flames were everywhere,” McCain wrote. 

McCain escaped his burning jet and said his flight suit caught fire as he crossed the burning deck, but was able to put it out and help another pilot escape the flames.

When the Forrestal headed to port for repairs, McCain volunteered to join the VA-163 Saints squadron on board the USS Oriskany. After a leave with time back home in Orange Park, he returned to the carrier in September 1967. The next month,  Oct. 26, 1967, on his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, he was shot down over Hanoi and badly injured. McCain was left permanently incapable of raising either arm more than 80 degrees.

McCain was held prisoner for five and a half years and endured periods of torture. In 1968, he refused a North Vietnamese offer of early release, because it would have meant leaving before other prisoners who had been held longer. He was released in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords.

McCain returned to NAS Jacksonville in March 1973, reunited with his wife, Carol, and three sons. He underwent three operations and other treatment for his injuries, spending three months at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Jacksonville. McCain told mental health examiners that he withstood his ordeal by having "faith in country, United States Navy, family, and God,” according to biographer Paul Alexander.

McCain’s oldest son, Doug, was 7 and youngest, Sidney, was 6 months old when he left for Vietnam, according to an article reporter Jessie-Lynne Kerr wrote for the Florida-Times Union in 2008, during McCain’s presidential run.

When he returned from war, Doug was a teenager and Sidney was attending Orange Park Elementary School.

Kerr wrote that the boys went on to attend Episcopal High School and McCain spoke at the school’s graduation in 1977, the year Doug graduated.

Carol McCain suffered life-changing injuries from a serious car crash during her husband’s imprisonment. By the time McCain saw her, she was four inches shorter, walking with crutches and had put on a considerable amount of weight.

In the first months after his release, McCain was the subject of front-page stories in the New York Times and other newspapers, participated in parades in Orange Park and elsewhere, was given a key to the city of Jacksonville and made numerous personal appearances.

McCain was promoted to commander in July 1973 and attended the National War College in Washington, D.C, for one year. While few people thought McCain could fly again, he was determined to try and engaged in nine months of grueling, painful physical therapy. He managed to pass his flight physical and have his flight status reinstated.

In August 1974, he was assigned to the VA-174 "Hellrazors,” an A-7 Corsair II training squadron located at Cecil Field, at the time the largest aviation squadron in the Navy. He became the squadron’s executive officer in 1975.. In July 1976, McCain was named commanding officer of VA-174 and, with the help of some junior officers, qualified for A-7 carrier landings.

During their time in Jacksonville, the McCains' marriage began to falter, author Robert Timberg wrote in “The Nighingale’s Song,” a book about Naval Academy graduates.

"My marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine,” McCain told The Arizona Republic in 2007.

IMAGES: John McCain's years in the Navy

McCain told the Washington Post in 2000 that he thought about entering politics after his return from Vietnam. He has told various newspapers that briefly thought of running against longtime Jacksonville Congressman Charles Bennett in 1976 and that had the support of some local figures in Jacksonville, but was convinced by other Republican Party leaders that he did not have enough political experience, funding or support to defeat a popular incumbent.

Instead, he worked hard to support Ronald Reagan's 1976 Republican primary campaign – so hard that he later told the Boston Globe that he was reprimanded by Cecil Field’s commander for being too politically active for his naval position.

McCain left Jacksonville the following year and the family, still together, moved to Washington, where John McCain worked for the Senate Liaison Office within the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs. Carol McCain became a personal assistant to Nancy Reagan and later Director of the White House Visitors Office.

The couple divorced in 1980. John McCain retired from the Navy in 1981 as a captain.

McCain was elected in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District in 1982. After two terms in the House, was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he was reelected five times. During his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, McCain made campaign stops in Jacksonville, including touring the Atlantic Marine naval repair yard.

WATCH: News4Jax interviews John McCain in 2012

U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, who holds the Jacksonville congressional seat that McCain considered running for 42 years ago, was among dozens of to honor his passing Saturday night.

"I am saddened by the passing of Senator John McCain and thank him for his service to our nation both in the Navy and in Congress," Rutherford wrote on Twitter. "For decades, his dedication to his country, his family and his principles have served as an example to us all."

Sources for this story included the Library of Congress and Wikipedia