Vice Admiral John L. McCrea
John Livingstone McCrea was born on May 29, 1891 in Marlette, Michigan, a farming town near Detroit. His father was a doctor. Consumed by a passion for school athletics, McCrea graduated dead last in his high school class, but when given the opportunity to take the Naval Academy entrance exam, he buckled down and passed the test. He graduated from the Academy in 1915, having demonstrated a gift for leadership and a taste for command.
McCrea’s first ship assignment was the battleship USS New York. When the U.S. entered WW1, New York was one of a division of battleships loaned to the British for service in the North Sea. McCrea watched from the bridge as the German High Seas Fleet surrendered on November 21, 1918, and he had the honor of recording the event in New York’s log.
From July 1919 through mid-1921, McCrea was assigned to the battleship USS New Mexico, where he served as a very junior member of the staff of Admiral Hugh Rodman, the first commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet. Although only a lieutenant, McCrea acted as the fleet personnel officer. Returning to more rank-appropriate duties in July 1921, McCrea served in a series of ships and attended the Naval War College.
McCrea’s first command in 1924-1926 was the minesweeper USS Bittern, operating in China and the Philippines. He received a letter of commendation for his rescue of passengers off a steamship aground off Chefoo, China.
In November 1925 he married Estelle Murphy in Manilla. In 1926 as the couple traveled to the U.S. for his next assignment, their daughter Meredith was born prematurely on board the naval transport USS Chaumont.
In the fall of 1926 McCrea embarked on the navy’s postgraduate educational program in law. For the next three years, he worked full time in the Office of the Judge Advocate General while attending law school at night, earning a Bachelors of Laws degree from George Washington University in June 1929., In a second tour of duty in the JAG Office, he earned a Master of Laws degree from George Washington University in 1934. During a third tour in 1937 and 1938 he served briefly as assistant judge advocate general.
In April 1934, assigned to the new heavy cruiser, USS Astoria, McCrea helped put the ship into commission and served as navigator on an exotic shakedown cruise to Australia and the South Pacific.
In October 1935, McCrea and his wife had a second daughter, Annie.
Starting in March 1936, McCrea spent a year and a half on the island of Guam as aide to the governor for civil administration. There he helped Pan American Airways set up its transpacific flight service and conducted a successful fresh water well drilling program that freed the island from its dependence on rain water.
In November 1938, McCrea was assigned to the prestigious position of executive officer (second in command) of the battleship USS Pennsylvania, flagship of the U.S. Fleet.
In September 1940, he returned to Washington to the office of Admiral Harold R. Stark, the chief of naval operations. There he carried out a top secret mission to deliver the navy’s war plans to the fleet commanders in the Pacific. He advanced to the rank of captain, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor he served as the navy’s secretary at the meetings of the U.S. and British chiefs of staff during the Arcadia Conference in December 1941.
In January 1942, McCrea was appointed naval aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As naval aide, he set up the White House Map Room and Shangri-La (now known as Camp David), and accompanied Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference where FDR, Winston Churchill, and British and U.S. military leaders planned the next phase of World War II. McCrea performed a host of other services for the president, including supplying material for Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.”
In February 1943, McCrea become the first commanding officer of USS Iowa, the first of the largest class of battleships ever built by the United States. In Iowa he transported the FDR and the U.S. joint chiefs of staff to North Africa for the Cairo and Teheran Conferences and fought in the Pacific.
In August 1944, McCrea was promoted to rear admiral and assumed command of a task force based in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands that made bombardment attacks on northern Japanese islands. On the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945, McCrea was recalled to Washington.
At the Navy Department from May 1945 through 1947, McCrea advanced to the rank of vice admiral, and held a series of positions, ultimately rising to one of the top seven officers in the department. Afterwards he served briefly as deputy commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, and held a personnel policy position in the Department of Defense.
In February 1952, McCrea was one year short of the navy’s mandatory retirement age of 62. Rather than leave his beloved navy, he took cut in rank to rear admiral to serve as commandant of the First Naval District in Boston. On his retirement in 1953, he regained the rank of vice admiral based on his service record.
After leaving the Navy, McCrea immediately joined the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company in Boston as a vice president in public relations, retiring in 1966.
After the death of his first wife, McCrea married Tobey’s mother in 1965.
McCrea was interviewed extensively by novelist Herman Wouk. Pug Henry, the main character in Wouk’s The Winds of War and War And Remembrance, was loosely based on McCrea.
McCrea died on January 25, 1990 in Needham, MA, at the age of 98.
Julia C. Tobey
When Julia C. Tobey (a/k/a Judy) first met Vice Admiral John L. McCrea, she never dreamed she would one day edit his memoirs. When he started to pay court to her widowed mother in 1962, she regarded him with suspicion. He was 71 at the time and an admiral, a title holding member of the military industrial complex. She was a college student who fancied herself as a ‘60s flower child. But he treated her mother like a queen, and as she got to know him and heard his amazing stories, she warmed to him. They grew closer over shared an interest in music, and his appreciation of her struggles as a beginning cellist. By the time Judy became the Admiral’s stepdaughter, she thought he was a wonderful addition to the family.
But let’s return to the Admiral’s amazing stories–“yarns” as he called them– for they are the heart of Captain McCrea’ War.
So how did this book come to be?
The Admiral was a gifted storyteller, and his tales about his life were rich with firsthand accounts of famous people, epic events, two world wars, the sea, and humor. The stories were fascinating. After much prodding, during the 1970s and ’80s the Admiral dictated a lengthy memoir about his life and career for his family, producing 48 cassette tapes of material. The McCrea family in Boston listened to the tapes, but Judy lived in New York City and didn’t have time to listen, so she made arrangements to have the tapes transcribed. After the Admiral’s death, she began to read the tape transcripts as way to catch up on the stories she had missed. What she discovered was historical pay dirt and the chance to know her stepfather much more deeply than she had during his lifetime. Over the next 15 years, she corrected the transcripts, and then organized, edited, and fact-checked the material. The result was A Naval Life, an 800-page unpublished memoir completed in 2012. Captain McCrea’s War (2016), about the Admiral’’s experiences during WW2, was taken from the longer memoir.
In the extended McCrea family, the Admiral wasn’t the only person with interesting ports of call on his resume.
During Judy’s personal voyage, research and writing have been a constant. She taught at the Dalton School in New York City. At the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation in the Offices of Conservation and Cultural Affairs, she wrote the text for the animal signs at the Department’s zoos and developed nature education programs in parks. Afterwards she spent two years as a researcher, writer and editor of college textbooks for Appleton, Century, Crofts in NY. Entering the field of law, she was a teaching assistant in the moot court legal writing class at law school. After a federal district court clerkship in the district of New Jersey, she was a litigator and trusts and estates attorney at the NYS Attorney General’s Office and in private practice in New York City. Upon retiring from the law, she pursued her interests in gardening and the cello while working on the McCrea memoirs. Raising funding through grants, she helped set up an educational garden for the Booker T. Washington Learning Center in East Harlem. She gave a solo cello recital at New York’s CAMI Hall, and continues to perform chamber, orchestral and operatic literature in the New York area. She received her JD from Rutgers School of Law-Newark, her B.A. in zoology from Barnard, and attended Bryn Mawr College, the Manhattan School of Music (cello major) and the N.Y. Botanical Garden (ornamental horticulture).
Judy was raised in the Boston area. She currently resides with her husband in New York City.