James McNalis was born in Aurora, Illinois, in 1952. His father had served on a battleship in the Pacific in World War II. In 1972, McNalis received a draft notice and signed up for the Navy. Assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga from 1973-1975, McNalis served as a yeoman, or clerk, in W Division, which handled special or nuclear weapons on the ship. During his stay on the Saratoga, it toured in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.