World War II Navy Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless lost most of his ship’s senior officers during intense combat during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Instead of struggling, he stepped forward to take command. His actions helped win the battle and earned him the Medal of Honor.
McCandless was born on August 12, 1911 in the District of Columbia to Byron and Velma McCandless. The younger McCandless’s affinity for the Navy was probably developed at an early age; his father was in the service and became a rear admiral at a young age, receiving the Navy Cross in World War I.
Like many military families, the McCandless moved a lot as McCandless and his sister Velma grew up. It probably came as no surprise that he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and got a job at the US Naval Academy after high school.
In June 1932, McCandless graduated from Annapolis and spent his early years in the Navy at sea on the USS Louisville, USS Indianapolis, and USS Case. While serving on the Louisville, he met and married Sue Bradley, whose father received a World War I Medal of Honor. The couple had two sons and two daughters.
McCandless eventually attended postgraduate school in Annapolis. After graduating in 1939, he began service on the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco. There he was when World War II began, and there he would be when he received the Medal of Honor.
In the fall of 1942, the ship took part in the massive naval battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands chain in the South Pacific. Their mission was to prevent Japanese ships from delivering troops to the Guadalcanal coast. The naval battle was the latest in a series that forced the Japanese to abandon the island and gave the Allies a strategic victory.
On November 12 and 13, then-Lt. Commander McCandless was the San Francisco’s communications officer when she was fighting Japanese forces off the coast of nearby Savo Island. During the night, a massive bombardment by the Japanese severely damaged the ship and knocked McCandless unconscious. The relentless fire also killed many of the senior officers on the ship’s bridge, including Captain Cassin Young and Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, commander of the ships’ task force, which included San Francisco.
Despite severe injuries, McCandless knew someone needed to take control of the ship, now lacking leadership. He quickly took command and ordered the ship to fire back at the enemy. Not only that, but the 31-year-old was also giving orders to the other ships in the task force who weren’t yet aware that Callaghan had died.
According to a newspaper column by journalist Drew Pearson, McCandless did not want to radio the other ships in the task force that Callaghan had died for fear the messages would be intercepted by the Japanese. Knowing his superiors’ plan of attack, McCandless pressed on, but feared being court-martialed if he survived the battle, Pearson wrote.
McCandless survived, as did the San Francisco. The Japanese eventually halted their attack on Guadalcanal and abandoned the area.
According to Naval Intelligence reports, the battle sank or destroyed 26 Japanese ships and damaged 12 others. But victory was also dearly paid for by the Allies. The US lost nine ships and eleven others were damaged. The naval battle of Guadalcanal was one of the deadliest of the war.
Instead of a court-martial, McCandless was quickly promoted to commander and told he had earned the Medal of Honor. On December 12, he received the nation’s highest decoration for bravery, a month after the incident for which he received it. Admiral Ernest J. King placed the medal around McCandless’s neck aboard the USS San Francisco while she was in port in San Francisco. According to a 1942 Associated Press article, McCandless’ father was in command of a destroyer base in San Diego at the time of the ceremony.
For the remainder of the war, the younger McCandless commanded the USS Gregory during the 1945 Iwo Jima operation and the subsequent invasion of Okinawa, where the ship was badly damaged by a kamikaze aircraft in April. McCandless was awarded a Silver Star for his actions during this period, according to a 1968 Washington Post News Service article.
After the war, McCandless accepted a staff position at a naval base in San Pedro, California, before returning to Washington, DC in November 1946 to serve in the office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. McCandless returned to sea in May 1949 to command a mining division on the USS Shannon before accepting a role at the Naval Academy and being promoted to captain in early 1951.
McCandless was hospitalized for a time due to physical disabilities, so in September 1952 he decided to leave active duty. In honor of his two decades of distinguished service, he was promoted to Rear Admiral on the retired list.
Shortly after his retirement, McCandless learned he had multiple sclerosis, according to the Independent newspaper in Long Beach, California. The diagnosis quickly relegated him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
After he left the service, McCandless and his wife moved to Long Beach, where he attended California State College (now California State University, Long Beach), earning a master’s degree in 1953. Eventually they moved back to Annapolis.
McCandless died of complications from his illness on January 24, 1968. The 56-year-old was buried in the cemetery of his beloved alma mater, the Naval Academy.
The McCandless name lived on. The USS McCandless, commissioned in 1972 and used in the Gulf War, was named after both Bruce McCandless and his father. A community living center for veterans in Florence, Colorado was named after the younger McCandless.
And if you google Bruce McCandless you’ll find a lot of information about the Medal of Honor recipient, but you might find more about his son Bruce McCandless II. The younger Bruce also attended the Naval Academy and later had a successful career with NASA as an astronaut . He was the first human to walk unbound in space.
This article is part of a weekly series called Medal of Honor Monday in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have received the U.S. military’s highest medal for bravery.