A Personal Remembrance: Black Jack Shanahan, VADM (USN Ret.)
By: Franklin C. Spinney | October 30, 2013
Jack Shanahan died on 10 September 2013 at the age of 90 after a long and well-lived life. He and I became friends while I was working in the Pentagon in the 1990s. By then, he was long-retired from the Navy, and he was Director of the Center for Defense Information. His main concerns were wasteful spending by the Pentagon and the unwarranted diversion of taxpayer dollars from domestic needs, especially infrastructure and education. In short, we were fellow travelers, and soon we became soul mates as well. I have fond memories of our collaboration. We co-authored several articles in major newspapers, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and I worked with him in the production of a few TV shows for CDI’s Defense Monitor weekly TV program, which to this day remains one of the most informative and best produced series of TV shows explaining defense policies and boondoggles ever made.
To be sure, I admired Shanahan’s character, but I thoroughly enjoyed his company as well. To me he was your typical self-made, high-spirited Irishman, always full of humor. He raged against corruption, but he (we) laughed happily when he hurled his verbal spears. And like all good Irishmen, he liked his tipple.
But a strong principled character lay behind the twinkling eyes. This became evident early on, in the way Shanahan became a Naval officer. He did it the hard way—i.e., the good way: over the bows; from being among the dirty unwashed to being a success as a gentleman. He enlisted as a seaman in November 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, and had worked his way into the officer corps by 1946, eventually reaching the exalted rank of Vice Admiral. The deck was loaded against him, because he served in a Navy that favored those who had been more carefully prepared at its finishing school, the U.S. Naval Academy. In his latter Navy years, well before I knew him, according to a Navy officer friend of mine who served under him when he was CO of the Second Fleet, the sailors’ nickname for Admiral Shanahan was Black Jack, for his fiery dark temper. I asked Shanahan if he knew about his nickname, and his eyes twinkled. He knew. And without him saying so, I knew the black temper was an act—and, of course, so did his sailors—such theatrics are part of the charm of being in the military. In fact, my Navy friend also told me Black Jack’s Irish temperament engendered loyalty among his sailors, even though being called to his office was often painful.
Of course, this was before my time. When I met him, Black Jack was hanging out with my friend Ben Cohen (Shanahan introduced us) and the actor Paul Newman, both certified lefties coming from very different cultural backgrounds, but also fellow travelers in the futile but happy quest to bring the Pentagon to its senses. But it must be remembered: Shanahan loved the Navy and the military in general, even though he thought, correctly in my opinion, that the Navy (and the other services, to be fair) had gone nuts by the 1990s.
After I retired in 2003, my wife and I moved aboard a sailboat and visited him in Florida in 2005, on our way to cross the Atlantic (the happy old sailor thought I was nuts). Over the ensuing years, we went down different pathways and gradually lost contact. But like Ben and a shrinking number of retired veterans who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him, I will always remember Black Jack fondly—particularly his humanity and humor—and I will miss him. His obituary can be found at this link.