A 1917 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, McCann had been given command of a submarine group and was in a stateroom aboard the submarine tender, Pelias. The vessel had arrived at Pearl Harbor in November just days earlier after sailing from San Diego to be fitted out for service.
McCann was senior officer on board and was doing his daily calisthenics when he received an alert that he was wanted on the bridge. He rushed there, still in his pajamas. What he saw when he got there “turned my stomach upside down.”
The Pelias was situated in a backwater area of the Pearl Harbor Base. A former passenger liner, it towered above the nearby submarines and offered a panoramic view of battleship row where seven battleships were clustered: California, Oklahoma, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada.
The first seamen to see the incoming Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor mistook them for friendly aircraft. But as McCann watched, there was no mistaking what was happening. McCann expected the planes to attack the Pelias, but they did not. In planning the attack, the Japanese had photographed the ships it planned to target. Because the Pelias was newly in port, the Japanese probably didn’t know it was there and had made no decision about whether to target it or not.
Instead the Japanese focused their efforts on the big battleships, sinking four of them outright, killing more than 2,400 people. They ignored the submarines and the fuel depot. As the attack unfolded, McCann and Captain William Wakefield considered their options. They contemplated putting to sea to get out of the harbor, where the ship would at least make for a moving target. But the harbor was quickly blocked with the flaming wreckage of ships and was impassable.
McCann and Wakefield were at first reluctant to have the men on board the ship respond. For starters, the ship had only eight antiaircraft guns, four outdated 23-caliber guns and four 50 caliber guns.
To make matters worse, the men were new recruits. They had not had any training on the weapons they did have access to. McCann and Wakefield feared that the men would wind up hitting U.S. ships rather than the Japanese planes.
As the scope of the attack became clear (the Japanese had more than 400 planes on the way), the sailors were given the orders to begin firing on the Japanese planes with the limited weapons and training they did have. They were joined by sailors on a nearby submarine firing with a deck machine gun.
The results were predictable. The crew reported that they perhaps shot down one plane and may have hit another, forcing it to return to the aircraft carrier that had brought it.
McCann was disgusted by the incident, not because of his men’s performance. Virtually none had been in any kind of combat before and few had been to even a target practice. It was the “unbelievable” and “shabby” and “absurd” notion of the Japanese attacking with no declaration of war that disgusted him, according to Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan.
To the 25-year plus veteran, it was an unthinkable act of cowardice. McCann, who is best known for his years in the submarine service, including playing a major role in rescuing the sailors trapped in 1939 in the U.S.S. Squalus, would serve a number of roles as the war continued.
He would distinguish himself as commander of the battleship Iowa in the Pacific and retire a rear admiral. He was also chosen to transport President Harry Truman to the Potsdam Peace Conference, and as part of that mission he personally informed Truman of the success of the U.S. mission to bomb Hiroshima. He died in 1978.