Colonel John McKay’s Churchill-inspired life story

Colonel John C. McKay, (United States Marine Corps, retired) lives today in Sacramento, California. He is a Churchillian of long standing, having read Churchill’s joyous book My Early Life (A Roving Commission in the USA) in the early 1950s when he was only nine years old.

He has long been grateful to his father for having ‘introduced’ him to Winston Churchill at an early age. Churchill’s My Early Life has inspired him throughout a long and adventurous career in South America, in Asia, in Europe, and in the USA. It also inspired him to buy other books by Churchill, including the first edition of the Collected Works.

Colonel McKay offered his Churchill-inspired story, his own Roving Commission, in the first instance to the editor of Glow-Worm. The offer was gratefully accepted, being published here in the 2014 Q4 issue of Glow- Worm.

Col McKay, USMC (Ret) was reared in Latin America, enlisting in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1962. He was appointed from the ranks to the S. Naval Academy, and commissioned a second lieutenant of USMC infantry in 1968. He saw action in three wars. He was twice wounded. An Olmsted Scholar (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain), he holds Masters’ Degrees from Georgetown University and the National War College, Washington, D.C. His last command, 1995-96, was Joint Task Force 160 (JTF-160), S. Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He retired from active service in 1999. He consults and writes. An avid Churchillian from an early age he continues to cultivate an active interest in the great man.

How I came to acquire The Collected Works of Sir Winston Churchill

published in 1974, the centenary of his birth


Colonel John C. McKay, USMC (Ret)

I first met Mr. Warren R. Howell of John Howell – Books, San Francisco, in mid-1960. The encounter with Warren Howell, an old-world gentleman from a by-gone era, was serendipitous and fortuitous. At the time, I was a precocious teenager, with a nascent, but as yet uninformed, interest in Winston Churchill. My father would have referred to Warren Howell as ‘a gentleman of the old school’ — a tribute rarely heard today.

I grew up in mining camps, first in Nevada, later in South America. From an early age, during the 1950s, I was given an intriguing if not unusual introduction to the Second World War. My father was chief engineer of Cerro de Pasco Corporation in La Oroya, Perú. His professional interactions were mostly with senior management. As a consequence I was exposed to an adult expat community, principally British and German, all veterans of the Second World War.

I came to know two of these gentlemen well — Victor Sampson, head of the company’s railroad; and Kurt Helriegel, chief surgeon at the company’s hospital. Victor and Kurt, with the enthusiastic support of my father, ‘introduced’ me to Winston Churchill during the early 1950s, when Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the second time, (from October 26, 1951 until his resignation for health reasons on April 5, 1955).

Victor Sampson had served in the Corps of Royal Engineers during the Second World War. He saw action in North Africa, at Salerno in Italy in September 1943, and in Northern Europe from D-Day (June 6, 1944) to the German surrender on May 8, 1945.

Dr. Helriegel had been a member of the Nazi Party for fourteen years. He saw action in Poland, in France, and on the Eastern Front. I clearly recall that Dr. Helriegel’s face was noticeably disfigured from what my mother explained was extreme frostbite. My father was the odd man out — he had served in the Pacific Theater, first in the Aleutian Islands, south-west of Alaska, then in the Central and South Pacific. Churchill was often a topic of discussion. To be sure, perspectives were at variance, but it was clear that Victor, Kurt and my father were, all three, full of admiration for the ‘great man’, Churchill.

Although my father could be unsparing about the loss of Singapore by the British, he bought all six volumes of the Houghton Mifflin 1948-53 edition of Churchill’s The Second World War. My father encouraged me to read the pages of The Grand Alliance (volume III of The Second World War) which dealt with the fall of Singapore. These pages were my introduction to the ‘literary’ Churchill. I must admit that Japanese tenacity and audacity in landing well north of Singapore, forced-marching through the inhospitable terrain of the Malay Peninsula, quickly capturing Singapore, and what that foretold for Western colonialism, eluded me. On the other hand, the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse caused considerable anguish. In the late fifties my parents acquired the American edition of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

In the early 1950s I came across a popular scouting magazine. I was particularly interested in the graphic depictions of Churchill’s early life — his service with the Malakand Field Force, participation in Kitchener’s Sudan Campaign, and then in the Boer War. Perhaps it was through these fascinating accounts that I was made aware of My Early Life.

The author, in August 1958, eleven years old, in Casaracra,
 a small mining town high in the Peruvian Andes mountains, where I first read
 "My Early Life" — my introduction to Winston Churchill.
The author, in August 1958, eleven years old, in Casaracra,
 a small hacienda high in the Peruvian Andes mountains, where I first read
 “My Early Life” — my introduction to Winston Churchill.


In those days, in a Peruvian mining camp, high in the Andes, there was no TV reception. English-language radio broadcasts were difficult to hear because of scratchy static. Spanish-language broadcasts were not much better, though regularly accessible. The company maintained what, to my young mind, was an excellent library, in an institution quaintly named the Inca Club. Here I found, and avidly read, My Early Life, at the age of nine. This book made me reflect on how wonderful it would be to emulate Churchill. While I neither appreciated nor understood The Second World War, nor A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill’s book My Early Life has inspired me to this day.

At the age of fifteen, my head was full of visions of grand adventure and glory. Enrolling in a public high school after returning to the United States did not hold out much chance of grand adventure or glory. Succor was found in being able to escape to San Francisco on weekends, appropriately attired in a suit and tie. Being correctly fitted out had impressive powers of entrée. Moreover, my primary interest was old books. Thence I soon came upon the old house of John Howell – Books on Post Street. I entered an enchanted and elegant world of old books and prints, presided over by Warren R. Howell, son of John Howell who founded John Howell – Books in 1912. I was also fortunate in being greeted on my first visit by Mr. Warren R. Howell. A big man, formally attired in slacks, blazer and tie, he was always polite, courteous and helpful. Thus began a relationship, and to a degree a mentorship, which lasted until Mr. Howell’s death in 1984.

As our relationship developed, Mr Howell always went out of his way to help me. Works about Churchill came to be the subject of many subsequent visits to John Howell – Books. During that year and a half or so, before I finished high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps, I visited John Howell – Books almost every week.

The first item I bought from Warren Powell was a hand-written letter, dated April 1905 from Winston Churchill to a Captain H. Graham discussing a book and a poem, both of which Captain Graham had sent to Churchill. Mr. Howell claimed that he had purchased it with me in mind. He was willing to part with the letter for $250, a sum that I most certainly did not have, although I worked both summer and Christmas vacations for Utah Construction’s Dredging Division, which my father then headed. I asked Mr. Howell if I might give him $50 that day and arrange future payments as my financial circumstances permitted. “You may,” he replied, and then he shook my hand. I soon cleared my debt with Mr. Howell — and acquired my first piece of Churchill memorabilia. I was, and remain, extremely proud of my acquisition of a letter written in Churchill’s own hand.


1962. Burlingame, California. Author as USMC PFC (United States Marine Corps, Private First Class) with my mother, Maxine H. McKay
and our Irish Setter ‘Red’ at the family residence.
1962. Burlingame, California. Author as USMC PFC (United States Marine Corps, Private First Class) with my mother, Maxine H. McKay
 and our Irish Setter ‘Red’ at the family residence.

I enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps in January 1962, and shipped out to Boot Camp in June of the same year. Prior to President Kennedy’s ‘Cuban Missile Crisis Speech’ of October 22, 1962, I had joined the Marine Corps’s 1st Field Artillery Group at Twenty-nine Palms, in San Bernardino County, California. Preparations for combat deployment by the Field Artillery Group were well underway before the President’s speech. The Group embarked at Coronado, California; sailed through the Panama Canal; broke out live ammunition; and made final arrangements to support the First Marine Division’s amphibious landing at Tarara Beach ten miles east of Havana, Cuba. That the crisis was resolved peacefully is more than fortuitous: recent historical research by Michael Dobbs demonstrates that Tarara Beach was targeted by Soviet tactical nuclear weapons. (Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

The remainder of my time as an enlisted Marine was eventful. I was granted a Secretary of the Navy appointment from the ranks to the U. S. Naval Academy, followed by two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Marine Corps infantry officer. Following my second wound I was returned to the San Francisco Bay area for a two-year period of being put-back-together. Though I never lost contact with Mr. Howell I was now in a position to re- establish personal contact with someone I had come to consider a mentor. I bought several books by Churchill and about Churchill from Mr Howell. One day I asked him if he could find a fine copy of a first edition of The River War (Winston Spencer Churchill, The River War, An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, 2 volumes (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899)). He was successful. I subsequently acquired the Silver Library edition of The Story of the Malakand Field Force (Winston Spencer Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, An Episode of Frontier War (London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899)) for a very reasonable price.

April 1972. Marine Barracks, U. S. Naval Station, Treasure Island, San Francisco, after my discharge from hospital from combat wounds received in Vietnam.
April 1972. Marine Barracks, U. S. Naval Station, Treasure Island, San Francisco, after my discharge from hospital from combat wounds received in Vietnam.

After I left hospital, I returned to full duty as an officer of the Marine Corps infantry, minus one eye. Prior to posting to Madrid, Spain, in 1973, as an Olmsted Scholar under the auspices of the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation, I paid a farewell visit to Mr. Howell. During this meeting we spoke extensively about my future; and he strongly encouraged me to write about my experiences. He also gave me, as a token of our relationship, one of 250 copies of Winston Churchill Addresses: (Addresses delivered in 1940 in the House of Commons to the People of Great Britain, and of France, by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 250 copies printed for Ransohoffs of San Francisco by The Grabhorn Press, 1940)).

While studying in Spain I contacted International Churchill Societies (ICS) in the UK. Through ICS I came to hear about the proposed publication of The Collected Works of Sir Winston Churchill, Centenary Limited Edition, but ill afford the $2500.00 asking price.

Upon completion of a scholarship at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, I was ordered to the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, Japan. Since I would be passing through San Francisco, en route to the Western Pacific, I was keen to meet up again with my friend Warren Howell. When I entered John Howell – Books one day in August 1975, I immediately sighted one of Mr. Howell’s clerks carefully unpacking The Collected Works of Sir Winston Churchill, Centenary Limited Edition.

Portrait photo of Warren Howell
Portrait photo of Warren Howell
John Howell - Books
John Howell – Books

When Mr Warren Howell saw me entering his beautifully appointed bookshop, he immediately invited me into his office. He asked me to sit down while he reached into the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk to pull out a thick semi-bound document marked TOP SECRET in red letters across the top. “Do you know what I’ve got here, John?” he inquired with an uncharacteristic twinkle in his eye. I told him that I did not have the slightest idea. “It’s the battleship gunfire support plan for the invasion of Okinawa,” he replied. I was aware of Mr. Howell’s proud service with the U. S. Navy in the Pacific during the Second World War, so I was not at all surprised at his recent acquisition. We then launched into what would be looked upon by a layman as an arcane discussion about the battle of Okinawa — a battle in which my father had also participated.

I then made a tentative reference to the Churchill Collected Works, which I had seen upon entering the shop. He said, yes, he had acquired one set while on a recent trip to the United Kingdom. I asked if it was his intention to hold onto the set or to sell it. He said he would offer it up for sale, as he had not purchased it with any prospective buyer in mind. I told him that I would very much like to purchase the set. “It’s yours, John.” Now came the hard part — money. I explained that I was on orders to the Western Pacific and would like to propose that I pay the asking (and original) price of $2,500 over the thirteen months I would be deployed. I remember his immediate reply, “That won’t be a problem, John.” I asked him if he would like a written confirmation. “Not at all, John; our hand-shake is quite enough for me. Send what you can during your deployment and the set is yours.” I assured him that I would have the set paid for before returning to the United States for further duty. As I arose to take my leave, still thanking him profusely, he wished me ‘fair winds and following seas’, and asked me if I wanted to have the set boxed up so that I could take it with me to Okinawa. I politely declined his kind offer.

The 34-vol set of The Collected Works of Sir Winston Churchill, (Editorial note: in a splendid bookcase designed by John McKay.)

The 34-vol set of The Collected Works of Sir Winston Churchill, Centenary Limited Edition (Editorial note: in a splendid bookcase designed by John McKay.)

That visit, sad to say, was the last time I saw Mr. Warren Howell. He died in January 1984, while I was in El Salvador. I had been posted there as the U. S. Naval Attaché. El Salvador was then in the throes of a nasty civil war. With the deepest regrets I was not able to attend Warren’s funeral — although the memory of having met that truly remarkable man will never fade away.

This article © John C. McKay originally appeared in the 4th Quarter, 2014, issue of “Glow-Worm #24” Churchillians by-the-Bay [digital] newsletter.

2 Responses

  1. Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.

    A well-presented account of your admiration for Churchill and of your collection.
    Most interesting.
    There is a critical account of WC’s role in WW2 by Malcolm Gladwell– WC’s responsibility for starving three hundred thousand Indians in 1943– “The Prime Minister and the Prof” Season 2 Episode 5 of The Revisionist History Podcast with Malcolm Gladwell.
    I’d be interested in your thoughts.
    Also wondering where you stand, as a Churchill scholar, in evaluating WC’s role supporting terrorist bombing of civilians, e.g., Darmstadt 1944– any evidence that that policy helped win that war? Other than giving the Allies the chance to destroy the Luftwaffe?
    Can we really admire WC, given that he would have been hanged as a war criminal, with reason, had the Allies not won that war?
    Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.
    Adjunct professor, CSU Fullerton (1992-2000)
    TBS 2/73