John Sidney “Slew” McCain defied the image of the senior naval officer. Bony, wizened, with a hooked nose and sunken cheeks, he turned 60 during World War II and looked at least 10 years older, according to naval historian E.B. Potter. He had a distinctive, herky-jerky gait that was easily identifiable aboard ship.
Despite graduating from the Naval Academy in 1906 at a lackluster class ranking of 79 out of 116 midshipmen, “There were few wiser or more competent officers in the Navy than Slew McCain, but whenever his name came up, somebody had a ridiculous story to tell about him — and many of the stories were true,” said Potter.
Death by Dentures?
Among the ridiculous? The then-vice admiral suffered mightily, as had his forefather George Washington, in the dentistry department.
Throughout his life, McCain had been chronically plagued by ill-fitting dentures.
And perhaps even more distinctive than his herky-jerky gait? The frequent whistling that accompanied his speech due to the implants.
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But unlike Washington, McCain’s dentures almost cost the vice admiral his life during battle.
In 1943, while stationed near Canton Island — 1,660 miles southwest of Hawaii on the supply line to the South Pacific — Adm. Chester Nimitz, McCain and their men came under siege during a Japanese air raid.
According to the U.S. Naval History and Heritage, while hurrying to the bomb shelter Nimitz noticed that McCain was not with him.
An aide was dispatched to find the missing McCain and stumbled upon the vice admiral in a rather jocular scene.
During the attack it appears that McCain had been surprised whilst in the commode and had dropped his false teeth into the toilet. It was there that the aide found him, still trying to fish his dentures out.
Once Again, to the Commode!
Just months prior McCain found himself in another, rather fetid situation — albeit this time not due to his teeth.
During a January 1943 inspection tour of Guadalcanal with Nimitz, South Pacific commander William F. “Bull” Halsey and Navy secretary Frank Knox, McCain once again found himself at the mercy of Japanese bombers. While the island had been secured, Japanese aircraft still lingered in the area making themselves a nuisance to Marines on the island.
According to Potter, “that night, as the visiting dignitaries slept in a hut, they launched a vicious bombing attack. Nimitz, exhausted and afraid of mosquitoes, stayed inside, but the others, half-naked, raced from the shelter and dove for the nearest trench.”
McCain, among those half-naked racing men, leapt into an availing trench only to belatedly realize that it had served as a portable latrine for the Marines only a few hours earlier — many who were suffering from diarrhea and dysentery at that time.
McCain died four days after the Japanese surrender in September 1945, although the stubborn sailor refused to meet his maker until he was in American waters.
According to Robert Timberg, “Halsey’s chief of staff, Rear Admiral Robert Carney, later insisted that McCain had suffered an earlier heart attack while at sea but had somehow managed to hide it so he wouldn’t be forced to relinquish command. ‘He knew his number was up,’ said Carney, ‘but he wouldn’t lie down and die until he got home.’”
Claire Barrett is a digital media editor at HistoryNet and a World War II researcher with an unparalleled affinity for Sir Winston Churchill and Michigan football.