LOON: A MARINE STORY
By Jack McLean
Ballantine Books/Presidio Press, $25, 244 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN
June 1968 was a month of tectonic upheaval. June 3, radical feminist Valerie Solanas shot and almost killed Andy Warhol. June 5, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot at Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel shortly after he’d won the California primary. He died the next day. Also on the sixth, French police retook the Sorbonne in Paris, ending more than a month of riots during which more than 10 million workers and students had almost brought the French nation to the point of anarchy.
And on June 4, across the globe where more than half a million U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines were serving in Vietnam, “a dozen United States Marine Corps CH-46 helicopters, two minutes apart, lifted slowly off the ground from their base at Quang Tri. … The mission was to pick up the hundred and eighty boys of Charlie Company and transport them, fifteen air minutes, to the last piece of earth many of them would ever see. On a map it was called Hill 672, part of a series of rugged foothills southwest of Khe Sanh that protected the borders of North Vietnam and Laos. For those of us who survived the coming three days of horror, it would become forever known as LZ Loon, or simply Loon.”
Thus begins Jack McLean’s insightful, powerful, haunting, extraordinary memoir. “Loon” is a remarkable odyssey. Mr. McLean’s youth was one of suburban privilege and the exclusivity of the Philips Andover Academy, where of Mr. McLean’s 1966 251-member graduating class “more than fifty made the decision to attend Harvard University, twenty-five would go to Yale, twenty to Princeton, and twelve to Stanford.” But even as his classmates were arguing about whose Ivy League team was superior, Mr. McLean was preparing to enter the United States Marine Corps, where he had volunteered for a two-year enlistment. And so, instead of the coffeehouses of Harvard Square, the tables down at Mory’s or Martini’s at the Nassau Inn, Mr. McLean climbed onto a chartered bus that took him to the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., which occupies “the entire 6600 acres of a flat, sandy Atlantic barrier island.”
The first words he heard there came from the welcoming lips of Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant W.H. Hilton. “If you are smoking a cigarette, you will put it out; if you are chewing gum, you will swallow it. You have thirty seconds to get off this bus, maggots, and fifteen have already passed.”
The training was tough, but Mr. McLean adapted well. “Coming as I did,” he writes, “from a rigid, conservative upbringing, I responded well to history, purpose, and tradition.” Those qualities had helped him at Andover. They also ensured that Jack McLean would become a Marine, a culture based on the belief that “There is no challenge so great, no night so dark that the presence of another Marine — past or present — fails to give me the courage and faith that together we are capable of anything.”
From Parris Island, Mr. McLean went to logistics training. During annual leave in July 1967, Mr. McLean interviewed at Harvard. Then it was back to the West Coast, where he was detailed to Camp Pendleton. There, he and his brother Marines retrained “as grunts — basic infantrymen,” then flew to Vietnam. As his chartered plane touched down, Mr. McLean had an epiphany: “For a United States Marine arriving in South Vietnam in November of 1967, there were only two ways out — in a Pan Am jet from Da Nang, or in a body bag from the field.”
Mr. McLean was also elated. “In my hand I carried a manila envelope with my official orders. I was to report to the 1/4, the 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division. The 3rd Marine Division — Bougainville, Guam, Iwo Jima.” Indeed, Mr. McLean was about to join an incredible fraternity. Ten Marines from the 3rd Marine Division received Medals of Honor during World War II (32 would receive them for Vietnam — 23 posthumously). Veterans of the 3rd Marines included Louis H. Wilson, a MOH recipient for actions on Guam, who would go on to command the 3rd Marines in 1970 and ‘71, and ultimately become 26th Commandant of Marines.
In early December, Mr. McLean saw his first combat. It was intense. “In two hours, we’d experienced a crashed helicopter, a friendly bomb, and countless casualties. … What could we do? What were we gonna do? It was bad enough that gooks were killing us. Now we were killing ourselves. Total confusion. This was not a good place to be. … Us new guys had been officially baptized into the fraternity of combat-tested United States Marines. … It had been eerie, frightening, invigorating, chaotic, and surreal. Welcome to combat. It was not like in the movies.”
But Mr. McLean’s real test would come later, after Tet. By then, he would have been accepted for Harvard’s fall term and his Charlie Company would be blessed with superb leadership. The 3rd Marines would be led by 53-year-old Maj. Gen. Raymond G. Davis, who had earned the Navy Cross as a major during the battle of Pelelieu (1944), and received an MOH for his actions during the 1st Marine’s breakout from the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. Mr. McLean’s company commander, Capt. Bill Negron, was a from-the-front officer who instilled in his men what First SEAL Roy Boehm used to call “Followership.” Capt. Negron, Mr. McLean writes, “always made it a point to be the first person in the first chopper going into battle and the last person in the last chopper going out. Always.”
Capt. Negron’s quick thinking more than once saved the lives of his men. In June, up on the hell that was LZ Loon, the North Vietnamese shelled the Marines from Laos. The rules of engagement forbade U.S. forces from firing on Laotian coordinates. So Capt. Negron gave artillery coordinates “just inside the Vietnam border from Laos. ‘Tell them to fire those coordinates,’ said Negron. ‘After the first round tell them to adjust outward on the next round. After the second round tell them to adjust outward again on the third round.’
“Negron had been around. He knew that the artillery gunners had to report the requested grid coordinates but did not have to report on subsequent movements.” Negron’s quick thinking silenced the NVA guns and saved his Marines’ lives. That, friends, is LEADERSHIP. It took a quarter century for Mr. McLean to start to reconnect to his Marine brothers from LZ Loon. And a decade after that for him to put his story down on paper. The overwhelming sensation for Mr. McLean and many like him was … numbness.
“There was nothing of my year away that would evoke such a deep emotion again for another thirty years,” is how he puts it. But deep emotion is what “Loon” is all about. It is a book that Mr. McLean was finally, blessedly, compelled to write. It is his tribute to “the forty-three grand young sons of Charlie and Delta companies, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, who breathed their last on LZ Loon during those three horrific days in June, 1968. Rest in peace, brothers.”
And welcome home, Jack.
• John Weisman’s latest novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.