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McCain, like others before, rests in peace with a military academy friend

Posted at 8:24 PM, Sep 01, 2018

The idea of being buried next to a friend likely never crosses the mind of most Americans.

But for Sen. John McCain and Adm. Chuck Larson and many others, the decision to rest eternally by the side of a fellow military academy graduate is not an unusual choice.

McCain, who died just over a week ago at 81, was buried Sunday afternoon next to Larson, his US Naval Academy classmate and friend, near a bluff that overlooks the confluence of the Severn River and College Creek in Annapolis, Maryland. The ceremony at the academy's nearly seven-acre cemetery was private.

The cemetery reflects other such friendships.

Close to where McCain rests are the remains of another US Navy hero, William B. Cushing, a daredevil officer who led units that were essentially the Navy SEALS of the Civil War, undertaking bold raids and sinking a Confederate ironclad by detonating a torpedo at close range. Near Cushing's elaborate sarcophagus are the graves for two of his friends who attended the academy and were killed during the Civil War.

Although he has not been able to find documents, James Cheevers, retired curator at the Naval Academy Museum, said he believes Cushing, who died at 32 nearly a decade after the war, may have had his pals reinterred in Annapolis so they could be together.

Others who have chosen to be beside friends include World War II Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, who is buried near high-ranking academy comrades at Golden Gate National Cemetery just outside San Francisco.

"This is not uncommon," said Cheevers.

Larson and McCain were classmates in the graduating class of 1958. But while Larson graduated toward the top of the class, McCain graduated fifth from the bottom.

The two forged a bond in youth that withstood the test of time, personal and family sacrifice and, in McCain's case, spending more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Sarah Larson, who was married to Chuck for 52 years before he died in 2014, said she first learned 20 years ago that McCain and her husband wanted to be buried next to one another. The admiral, who twice served as superintendent at the academy, had selected four plots for the officers and their spouses.

"Chuck came home one day and he said, 'I picked out my grave, and I went 'Oh, OK,'" Sarah Larson told CNN's John Berman in an interview on "New Day" on Friday. "So I just said, 'That's fine, good,' and he said, 'By the way, John is going to be next to me.'"

After graduation, McCain and Larson earned their wings together at the Naval Air Station Pensacola and shared living quarters during their advanced flight training at NAS Corpus Christi, before Larson entered submarine service.

"Chuck has his wingman back now," Sarah Larson said.

About 500 midshipmen lined the route from the academy chapel to the cemetery Sunday, as McCain's casket was carried by a horse-drawn caisson. Relatives walked behind. Navy jets executed a "missing man" formation in the blue sky in honor of the former military aviator.

In October 2017, just three months after his cancer diagnosis was made public, McCain spoke at the Naval Academy and began his talk by admitting to breaking rules during his time there.

"My superiors didn't hold me in very high esteem in those days," the senator said. "Their disapproval was measured in the hundreds of miles of extra duty I marched in my time here."

Cheevers said the midshipmen "love him (and) anybody that gave the academy a hard time, particularly in the plebe year."

(Cushing -- the Civil War hero -- also was known as a prankster and maverick. But, unlike McCain, he was forced to leave the academy and did not graduate.)

The McCain procession on Sunday passed other US Navy heroes, many of whom died in combat or in military accidents. Among those buried at the academy are Adm. James Stockdale and Fleet Adm. Ernest King, chief of naval operations during World War II.

To some, it may be ironic that McCain was laid to rest at an institution with which he admitted to having a "complicated relationship."

Cheevers, the retired museum curator, said the Arizona senator's description of his time at Annapolis speaks for many academy graduates.

"Most of them ... find it very difficult while they are there to accept the place, to be accustomed to it and be happy," Cheevers said. He has observed that most form a strong attachment to the academy after they leave it.

Over the years, McCain came to appreciate his Naval Academy education and lessons about courage, humility and sacrifice.

"My appreciation for those lessons and for the friendships I made here bring me back often," he told midshipmen last year. "So does my gratitude for the life of adventure the Naval Academy prepared me for, and for the privilege of being a bit player in the story of America that the Navy made possible."