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Fathers and Sons, Doors and Prisons

John S. McCain Jr. and George Stephen Morrison lived parallel lives of military service. Both graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy—McCain in 1931, Morrison in 1941. They served in the Pacific in World War II and had careers that lasted into the Vietnam War era. McCain was Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC), commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater from 1968 to 1972. 

Morrison was the commander of the Carrier Division during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin episode. He reached the rank of Rear Admiral in 1967 and retired in 1975. While they were 10 years apart in age, the two men were both admirals from 1967 to 1972.

Besides educational and career similarities, the men both had sons who had notable careers: John S. McCain III, Navy pilot, 2008 presidential candidate and Senator, and Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors.

The death in August of Sen. McCain at age 81 deserved attention, as he rose to the highest levels of American politics. I wouldn't ordinarily associate him with a musician who wallowed in the mire of the dissolute rock lifestyle and died at 27. Morrison died in Paris in 1971 while McCain languished in a North Vietnamese prison, wracked by torture and isolation but bolstered by an iron sense of loyalty to his fellow American prisoners. However, McCain and Morrison shared the personal history as sons of admirals, sons who chose different paths in life. Their fathers, too, had to deal with traumas involving their sons. How did those complex father-son relationships play out?

Jim Morrison and his father, George Morrison, on the bridge of the USS Bon Homme Richard, January 1964 (Photo: US Navy) 

Adm. Morrison, the youngest admiral in the history of the Navy, and his son had a tormented relationship that became no relationship. I winced to read about the primal clash between the boy and the Admiral:

Due to the admiral’s career, the Morrisons were always on the move. By age four, Jimmy had already lived in five different places, coast to coast. Since his father was gone for long periods, his mother Clara became the disciplinarian. Jimmy grew rebellious. Returning home from duty, his father, accustomed to thousands of men obeying his command promptly and without question, had no patience with his first son’s insubordination and backtalk. He spared no effort trying to get the boy on the straight and narrow.
In disciplining his eldest son, George Morrison used a military “dressing down” approach: he would humiliate the boy to submission and apology. When this became less effective with his precocious, increasingly rebellious son, Admiral Morrison got old-fashioned. According to one biographer, Stephen Davis, the father beat his son with a baseball bat. Jim also confided to his lawyer that his father had sexually assaulted him, and that he never forgave his mother for allowing it. Clara dismissed the charge as one of her son’s malicious lies. “In spite of his medals,” said Jim of his father, “he’s a weakling who let her [his wife] castrate him.”

Long after Jim’s death, Adm. Morrison and Jim's two siblings talked to writer Ben Fong-Torres for The Doors by the Doors, an authorized 2006 biography. From the comments, Adm. Morrison’s reflections sounded wistful, and, to my ears, emotionally jarring:

"We look back on him with great delight . . . The fact that he's dead is unfortunate but looking back on his life it's a very pleasant thought," George Morrison says in the book.

Jim Morrison, a difficult teen who rebelled against his father's military lifestyle, went on to become one of the most magnetic performers in rock 'n' roll. But he disowned his family, and once made a throwaway comment that they were dead. He also referenced his parents in the Oedipal rant “The End,” singing that he wanted to kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Yet, the Lizard King pose could have intertwined with familial yearnings. A December 6, 2013 article by Paul Beston in The American Conservative, “Remembering Jim Morrison: The Doors frontman and his admiralfather lived a generation’s turmoil,” explored the father-son relationship and found this story, which I found very touching and believable:

In fact, during Morrison’s time in Paris, the admiral had been on his mind. Alan Ronay, an old college friend, spent weeks with Jim there. “One night we had a conversation that was totally moving,” Ronay told Morrison biographers James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. “It was full of affection … Jim telling funny stories about his dad and so on. The stories were really tender and warm. I wish his parents could’ve heard it. I really felt that he’d totally reclaimed himself.” But a few months later, he was dead.

Adm. Morrison outlived his prodigal son by 37 years. Unable to work things out in life, the father did what he could in the decades that followed. The Morrison family paid for upkeep of Jim’s grave in Paris, and Adm. Morrison “traveled to Jim’s grave in Paris and installed a plaque of his own making. Translated from Greek, it reads: True to his own spirit.” The Greek said: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ.

While Jim Morrison pursued his muse, the future Sen. McCain was trying to stay alive. How did his parents react to his plane being shot down? Here is one story about it:

McCain's son, naval aviator Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain III, became a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in October 1967, after being shot down and badly injured during a bombing raid over Hanoi. McCain's prominence made the downing of his son front-page news. McCain and his wife Roberta treated the news stoically, attending a dinner party in London without indicating anything was wrong even though initial word indicated their son was unlikely to have survived the shoot-down. McCain would later say little about his son's captivity in public, other than that they had indications he was alive and "that is something to live for.”

Like Adm. Morrison, Adm. McCain did not let family issues override his military orientation. He ordered the April 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, including the Hanoi area where his son was held prisoner. Ultimately, after the Paris peace accords, Sen. McCain was released in 1973.

John McCain meets his father for the first time after his release from a North Vietnamese prison, March 31, 1973

A column in Forbes magazine from December 31, 2017, provides an extended look at Adm. McCain’s career and his response to his son’s capture. Titled “On Senator John McCain, Son of Admiral John McCain,” it deserves quoting at length. This passage shows his focus on military over family matters:

Admiral John McCain was named Commander in Chief of the Pacific during the time when his son, Lieutenant Commander John McCain, was held as a Prisoner of War by the North Vietnamese. His son’s captivity could have colored decisions that Admiral McCain might have made. Admiral McCain, Rowland believes, dutifully made a commitment that he would isolate the fact that his son was a POW so that it would never affect any of his decisions as Commander. Rowland:
 "Admiral McCain made it crystal clear that no one would mention Lt. Commander John McCain’s name in his presence. The day I signed in I was told in no uncertain terms that the quickest way to get fired and kicked out before sunset you would be to do so. My job was POWs,” recalled Rowland. 'I handled enemy prisoners. My duties also transferred over to the Geneva Convention and American POWs. I never, ever, briefed Admiral McCain but for one time on a very distantly related issue which I will share.”
“Many years later,” said Rowland, “when Senator John McCain was running for president his mother was interviewed on TV. It was revealing to me that when she was presented with the observation, ‘That must have been some experience for you to have your son released from captivity after Admiral McCain left the command.’ Roberta McCain said, ‘It was as if he had come back from the dead.’

And yet, as with Adm. Morrison laying a plaque at his son’s grave, Adm. McCain had deep human feelings for his son in captivity. How could he not? While these were men raised in a time where many emotions were reserved for the private sphere, they experienced love, regret, longing and happiness like all of us. In an article published in the Atlantic during the 2008 presidential campaign, “The Wars of John McCain,” Jeffrey Goldberg reports a telling anecdote from retired Army General John Nelson Abrams, son of Gen. Creighton Abrams, Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. It says,
“You could see there was genuine fondness between them, and maybe in part because of the family commitment to the war, they were absolutely focused on winning,” John Abrams said, speaking of the relationship between his father and Admiral McCain. McCain, however, did not speak of his son’s captivity. “He would never show his emotions like that,” Abrams told me.
After John McCain was released, in 1973, he learned that on several Christmases during his captivity, his father had traveled to the northernmost reaches of American-held territory, to be as close to him as physically possible. And only in 1973 did Admiral McCain learn that John McCain III had been singled out by the North Vietnamese for especially rigorous torture because he was the son of an important admiral. The North Vietnamese, in fact, referred to Admiral McCain’s son as the “prince.”
I wonder how a meeting between John McCain, the Senator, and Jim Morrison, the Lizard King, would have gone; they never met in real life and for all I know never knew of each other's existence. Fate had other plans for both of them. But had the fates decided otherwise, I like to think of McCain and an older, sober Morrison getting together to talk about their naval upbringing, their hard-charging fathers, and their lives in public service and public entertainment. They'd share some laughs and reflections, argue about politics, maybe listen to Doors albums and then go sailing on the ocean blue.


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