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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What the Admiral Needed was a Good Cigar!

By Homer Hirt
For the past couple of weeks I have been busy redecorating my family room. For fifteen years it has looked like the Museum of the Confederacy, North Florida Location. My wife and I had traveled throughout the Old South, visiting battlefields, purchasing books, memorabilia and prints that took up most of the available space. Recently I decided that it was time for the Navy to move in and take over. During my son’s last visit we began hanging the relics that I had accumulated through the years, ones that mean a great deal to me because of my experiences in the U. S. Navy.
Over the mantle we placed a print of the USS SAUFLEY, a Fletcher class destroyer, the second most decorated ship in World War II, boasting sixteen battle stars. I was a young but proud officer in her in the 1950s. Now she is a fishing reef off Key West, resting on the bottom in 100 feet of water.
On an easel near the south wall is my watercolor painting of USS TWEEDY, a destroyer escort. The painting was done for me by Richard C. Moore, a very good friend, a former shipmate and a renowned maritime artist, TWEEDY also is on the bottom of the Atlantic, off Jacksonville, sunk by our own gunfire as a target ship. I am told that it took all day for her to "die".
On the big wall hangs photographs of all four of my ships, and several signed prints of battle actions from World War II, a couple of them autographed not only by the artist but by the participant in that particular engagement. Interspersed among these framed pictures are brass plaques from each ship, giving the shipyard where each was built and when she was launched and placed in service. I have these prominently displayed because we as seamen learned that the success of a ship did not depend entirely on our abilities as we steamed her, but on the skills demonstrated by the men (and sometimes the women) that built her during the 1940s.
Next to the USS MONROVIA, an attack transport that landed troops in many amphibious assaults, we left a space. And today I filled it with a framed photograph of an admiral, wearing his dress blues with gold on each sleeve, his service ribbons from three wars and the dolphins that show he was a submariner. He is resting against a desk and in his right hand he holds a cigar.
The admiral is John S. McCain, Jr., the father of Senator John S. McCain and the son of Admiral Bill Halsey’s right hand man in the Pacific in World War II. He himself commanded two submarines in his own right, earning medals for valor. Then, the war over, he continued his career, eventually being assigned to the MONROVIA as commanding officer. And there is where I met him.
He came aboard one warm day in Little Creek, Virginia, and read his orders, relieving Captain Dimmick. The crew was dismissed, and the officers adjourned to the wardroom. Captain McCain sat at the head of the table, with a coffee cup in front of him, and lit up a cigar. We were quiet. We waited for his first order. Many new commanders would quote John Paul Jones ("give me a fast ship, for I intend to sail into harm’s way"). This was when we would get the first idea of what kind of a "skipper" we would have. He looked around the room, singled me out, one of the junior supply officers and the paymaster, and gave his first order, loud and clear: "Pay, I will need a case of Dutch Masters cigars".
I immediately left the wardroom and headed downtown. We did not have "his" brand on contract, so I found a supplier that had them. In one of the few strokes of foresight on my part, I purchased two cases. And a good thing I did. Within two weeks almost the entire crew was smoking Dutch Masters, just like the captain. And I was one of them!
McCain was dynamic, charismatic, cared for the crew and was very profane in his speech. We called him "G. D," but not to his face.
In a few months I was transferred to another ship, and then released to inactive duty. Remaining in the Reserve, I was recalled in 1961 for the Berlin Crisis and the run-up to the Missile Crisis. McCain was by then an admiral, and one day while the TWEEDY was in port in Norfolk, he asked to come aboard to visit us. He came, praised the crew and then we went to the wardroom. Once again he was seated at the head of the table, and I was at the foot. Once again he lit up a cigar. Then he looked at me, stared for a minute, and then said "Don’t I know you from somewhere, lieutenant". I replied "Yes sir. I was your paymaster in MONROVIA". He smiled and then said, loud and clear: "Yes, that’s right, and a G—D--- fine one, too".
I could not have been prouder if I had been awarded the Medal of Honor!

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