You’ve probably seen the photo: a young John McCain standing in front of a Navy plane next to another pilot, with two others above them in the cockpit of the T-2 Buckeye Trainer.
It’s been in magazines and on television, part of it showed up on the cover of McCain’s first memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.” Celebrities posted the photo to social media after it was announced last week that McCain would be ending his cancer treatment and, again, after he died a day later.
But you might not have known that it’s a Bend resident standing next to McCain, who went on to become a distinguished United States senator from Arizona for more than 30 years, as well as the 2008 Republican nominee for president.
And Gary Hill has lived an extraordinary life of his own.
Hill grew up on a ranch east of Terrebonne near Smith Rock before graduating in 1959 from Redmond Union High School.
He was instructed by McCain in the Navy Flight Training Program on the final flight of Hill’s division formation stage of aviator training, in which four aircraft fly together as one.
“So when we finished the stage, the public affairs officer comes out and takes a group picture,” said Hill, 77, in an interview at his Bend home Aug. 25, hours before it was announced that McCain had died at 81 of cancer. “They did it for every group that finished the stage flight of four.”
The public affairs officer likely sent the photo of the men who had passed the stage to local newspapers, just as he would have with anyone who completed the training.
But this turned out to be no ordinary photo. The combination of McCain’s military heroics, in which he spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and his legislative career, along with the lack of other photos of McCain as a Navy pilot, meant that Hill showed up in that photo in a wide variety of places.
He doesn’t know why, but Hill said he is aware of no other photos of McCain wearing flight gear.
A Google search for “John McCain” and “uniform” comes up with some photos of him in formal officer wear, but the only one of him in flight gear is his photo with Hill. It is often cropped to show only McCain or McCain and Hill, with aviator Steve Woolery’s leg between them.
Already well known
McCain was well known even then. In fact, the Meridian, Mississippi, airfield they flew out of that day in the mid 1960s is named for McCain’s grandfather, John S. “Slew” McCain Sr., who, like McCain’s father, John S. “Jack” McCain Jr., rose to the rank of admiral in the Navy.
After graduating in 1958 near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, the younger McCain did not appear to have a career as an admiral ahead of him, Hill said. After returning from a fleet tour aboard the USS Enterprise, the younger McCain was sent to train squadrons. McCain had even appeared on the quiz show “Jeopardy!”
“And he was a pretty wild character, he had a good time,” Hill said. “He had a reputation amongst the students, as well as the instructor pilots.”
While he knew McCain and McCain knew Hill by name, Hill said they were not particularly close. After moving on from the flight training program, Hill did not see McCain again.
“It certainly wasn’t any special bond or anything,” he said. “I am familiar with Naval career patterns and culture, and am in awe of his patriotism and accomplishments, even before he became a senator.”
Photo becomes famous
But the link between Hill and the senator became known (at least to those who recognized Hill) when McCain ran for president for the first time in 2000, challenging then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican nomination. A college fraternity brother called to tell Hill that he’d seen the picture of him with McCain on “60 Minutes.”
“A few nights later, my wife saw it on the ‘CBS Evening News,’” he said. “The first time it was disbelief, the second time was, ‘Oh, what a coincidence.’ As time went on, I started seeing it in all the other publications.”
Since then, the photo has appeared in magazines from “Time” to “Rolling Stone” and even “Good Housekeeping,” Hill said.
Tom Daniels, a navigator on Navy flights who was best friends with Hill when Daniels lived in Bend, said he noticed the photo in several newspaper obituaries for McCain.
“It makes me think back to the training days, and how you never know how our lives are going to turn out or whose paths we’re going to cross,” Daniels said from his current home in Arizona.
Publications using the file photo haven’t always gotten the story right, with some claiming the four men were squadron mates instead of an instructor and pupils, that they were on an aircraft carrier deck instead of in Mississippi or even that it was shot just before McCain’s 23rd combat mission in 1967, in which he was shot down, landing in a lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he was captured.
“Average people look at it, and I’m nobody, and it’s no big deal,” Hill said of the photo. “But people that know me say, ‘Oh!’”
Hill was hardly a nobody. The son of school board member and rancher Lloyd Hill and Ervalyn Hill, a nurse, he was inducted into the Redmond High School Hall of Fame as a member of its only state wrestling championship team in 1959. Hill went on to win a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics district title as a wrestler at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
“Because I had good grades in math and physics, everybody said, you need to go to college, you need to become an engineer, which I did,” Hill said.
He worked in Sunnyvale, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, after graduating college with an engineering degree. With the dawn of the space race, Hill took a job at the Lockheed Missile and Space Company, where he worked for a year and a half before entering the Navy Flight Training Program.
Hill served for five years on active duty in the Navy, including as a pilot in the Vietnam War on two cruises based on the USS Ranger in the Gulf of Tonkin. He remained in service for 25 years as a member of the Naval Reserve.
After completing active duty, Hill returned to Northern California to work at NASA’s Ames Space Center as a pilot and engineer, which was his career for 27 years.
Hill retired from NASA to return to Central Oregon in 1996 as the owner of the East Lake Resort at the Newberry Crater National Monument south of Bend. His family ties to the site go back to 1923, when his father made his first trip there, a two-day trek from The Dalles.
Hill spent his summers growing up at the resort, camping with “aunts, uncles, cousins and pseudo-cousins,” so he jumped at the chance to return and own it with his wife, Debbie, who he has now been married to for 38 years, he said.
Their daughters, Tamara and Nicole, graduated from Bend High.
“They worked (at the resort) in the summers, just like we did,” Gary Hill said.
Hill retired for the third and, most likely, final time when he got an offer to sell the resort he couldn’t refuse after six years of ownership, he said.
Respect for McCain
As a pilot, Hill was well aware of McCain’s capture and imprisonment in what was known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Because of the resulting torture, Hill said capture was a fate he feared more than death, though, as the pilot of a two-person plane, he knew death was not an acceptable option.
Hill was impressed with the way McCain was able to build coalitions of legislators from both parties, starting in his time as military liaison in Washington, D.C., before he ran for the House of Representatives. More than anything, Hill admired the way McCain, whose father was the commander of the United States Pacific Command, handled himself.
“Gen. Westmoreland worked for him, that was how powerful he was,” Hill said of Jack McCain. “And because of that, North Vietnam offered to give (Sen. McCain) a release from prison. Of course, they wanted to do that for publicity for themselves. Realizing this, Sen. McCain turned them down, despite the fact that he was really, really in need of medical attention.”
Then there was the way McCain acted in the face of his captors.
“The guy was being held in the Hanoi Hilton in isolation,” Hill said. “When they would drag him out of his cell for his daily beating, which they called an interrogation, he would scream obscenities as loud as he could at his captors. What he was really doing was telling his fellow prisoners, ‘Keep up your morale. You can resist.’”
— Reporter: 541-548-2186, gfolsom@redmond spokesman.com