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The Unusual Career Path Of Navy Capt. John McCaull

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Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2015 6:18 pm

Though now considered an archaic English idiom, the phrase ‘Hail fellow, well met’ applies perfectly to 82-year-old Coronado resident John McCaull. If we both had more time after our interview concluded, one or several beers might have been consumed as we continued our conversation. While I was listening to McCaull’s presentation regarding his professional career during a recent meeting of the Military Officer Association of America, Silver Strand Branch, I knew a John McCaull feature was imminent.

McCaull is a native of Van Nuys, graduated from Redondo Union High School and matriculated to Occidental College, where he majored in physical education. As importantly he met a cheerleader named Laurie and the couple will celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary in December. The couple has three children John Jr., Kristy and Jeff, plus they also have five grandsons, who John affectionately describes as, “My own basketball team.” As McCaull said, “It really annoys our children that we’re such a cliché. I played forward on the basketball at Occidental. ” Later McCaull added that he was an All-American Volleyball player.

McCaull served as a Los Angeles County lifeguard for five years in Hermosa Beach before he was drafted. When asked how his Navy career started, McCaull recounted, “I used to sit and watch planes taking off from LAX and wondered where they were going. I was sitting in a bar one night with a friend who was going through flight training. He said, ‘Go down to Los Alamitos and they will fix you up.’ I didn’t intend to stay in the Navy; I wanted to be an airline pilot. They offered me a regular commission and I was in the Navy for 31 years.”

McCaull continued, “My career was bumping along in 1963 as a lieutenant based at North Island, with three kids. I got a set of orders one day and I thought, ‘what the heck is this?’ I went off to Washington and truly the guy said, ‘Stand on the southeast corner of this specific intersection and a black car will pull up and you get in,’ that’s how it all started. My commanding officer recommended me as a flight instructor. They wanted a recommendation on somebody who would do well overseas and knew the P2V7 airplane.”

‘They’ as it turned out was the Central Intelligence Agency, and the job entailed relocating to Taipei, Taiwan with his entire family, to train Chinese pilots to fly over Mainland China. McCaull provided the geopolitical overview of Asia at the time he arrived. “Mao Tse-tung had taken over China and two million Chinese with an allegiance to Chiang Kai-Shek joined 10-12 million Taiwanese on their home island. Basically I was helping the Chinese Resistance to fly reconnaissance and intelligence missions over China. Some of the pilots were very good and the top guys were pretty darn good. They got extra pay for being in the 34th Squadron. They had to apply to be in the squadron and then I would teach them to fly the P2V7. I washed two guys out because they couldn’t hack it.”

The Company’s Skunkworks operation based in Burbank provided state of the art electronics for the planes that flew over China, the same location that developed the U2 and SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ spy planes. The electronics in the planes flown by the Black Bats, as the 34th Squadron was informally known, were capable of jamming virtually all defense equipment on the ground. Despite that fact the casualties in the unit were high. Over an eight-year span, the Black Bats flew 850 missions and lost 150 men. In total the intelligence gathering mission ran from 1955-1967.

McCaull elaborated on the dangerous conditions facing the Black Bats, which originated in Hsinchu, Taiwan, which at the time was a small fishing village. “As long as nobody could see us, we were okay. That means the only thing that could hurt us was the eyeball. We couldn’t jam the adversaries’ eyes. If they could see us, our chance of survival was slim. We cruised along at 190 knots. They would send up a MIG and vector another plane behind to drop flares so they could see the P2V7. Those two together were a formidable enemy to deal with. The program was shut down because the Chinese Communists got too good. The risk was no longer worth the intelligence they got out of it. Then they started using satellites and other stuff. We kept prodding them and they got better and better at finding us.”

In fact the Chinese Communists were so good, they had a spy embedded somewhere in the system who could identify the Chinese pilots and later on McCaull, by name, while they were in the air. At one point the Chinese Communists offered a $50,000 reward for the reconnaissance plane and McCaull. After serving in the Black Bat training position from March 1964 to October 1966, McCaull returned to active duty in the Navy. Unfortunately he had a two and one-half year gap in his career resume that he couldn’t and wouldn’t explain.

When he rejoined the Navy, McCaull had logged more than 5,000 flying hours in the P2V7 aircraft, the most of anybody in the service. McCaull laughed and said, “Since nobody knew where I had been, I had to go through six months of P2V7 training, conducted by the guys I had checked out before I left.” He was later assigned to fly out of the Philippines and Viet Nam.

His other tours of duty included being flag secretary for the Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific. “That was a very good job,” recounted McCaull. “We went to Hawaii for four years and I made Captain while we were there. Then we went to Bangkok for two years where I was chief of the Navy Military Advisory Group. I retired as chief of staff for the commander of Patrol Wing Pacific. All of the patrol aircraft were under one admiral at Moffett Field.”

In 1987, John and Laurie McCaull were visiting Canton, China via Hong Kong, which led to a harrowing experience. “I was still on active duty and we took a couple of weeks off. We were standing in a line in Canton to get on a train, Laurie, me and another couple, when two armed guys grabbed me. They took me into a little room and there was a guy who spoke very good English. He said they had to hold me for a minute because I was holding some oranges. I was a little concerned.”

While he was still in the Navy, McCaull earned a BS degree in psychology, physical education and military science from San Diego State University.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until we reached question No. 39 in the interview, about his post-Navy activities, that McCaull revealed that he is one of the best senior over 80 tennis players in the country. He is currently ranked No. 1 in San Diego; No. 2 in the state of California; and No. 9 nationally, in the U.S. Tennis Association’s Seniors Division. McCaull plans to compete in the North-South Senior Challenge in Fresno next month and he estimates that he plays tennis four days each week. His regular opponents include Jim Perley, David Wilson, George (Jeep) Rice and Phil Hunsaker.

“I grew up on the beach being a surf bum,” McCaull said of his younger days. “The Navy stopped that, thank heavens. I got married and joined the Navy. And they gave me time to go to the beach, which was wonderful.”

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