History Chat

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History Chat

Semper Fi

Posted by historychat on September 10, 2009

I picked up Loon: A Marine Story, by Jack McLean, from the new biographies. It had a nice picture of a warrior (I think that’s the politically correct term for a serviceman or woman of any branch these days) decked out in the uniform I remember from when I first enlisted in the National Guard in the early seventies. Jack’s story was much more harrowing than any I experienced, though. While I went on to serve for twenty years, I never got shot at or killed anyone. He, on the other hand, lived to tell about some of the most intense combat of the Vietnam conflict.

Jack was not typical of the grunts who served in Vietnam. His family had money, and he went to a private prep school. No one from his class — school or socioeconomic — voluntarily considered military service at that time, even though Vietnam was still considered more a country than a war when he graduated in 1966. 

The only person in his life who respected his decision was his Grandpa. “My grandfather’s first association with war came one April afternoon in 1898 when, as a twelve-year-old Senate telephone operator, he answered the call from President William McKinley requesting a congressional war declaration against Spain. Nineteen years later, while a young lawyer, he watched as the United States sent forces to Europe to execute the final push that ended World War I. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as a fifth-term congressman, he cast a vote to declare war on Japan. Grandpa knew that our freedoms were to be cherished and defended.” 

A few years later, when Jack had returned from the war and realized that no one he encountered had any interest whatsoever in the fact that he was a Marine or had just spent a year fighting in Vietnam, it was Grandpa who assembled the family at Thanksgiving for a hero’s homecoming where they all sang three verses of “When Johnny comes marching home again.”

Getting back to Jack: He shipped off to Parris Island, South Carolina, where all marine recruits east of the Mississippi are trained to become America’s first line of defense. The process involved stripping down the identifying characteristics of all the recruits (black, white, fat, short, Okie, redneck, Cajun, whatever) and molding them all into the same person, then training that person to be the perfect fighting machine. This was accomplished through close order drill, physical training, as well as weapons and military skills training. It is a formula that has worked well for over two hundred years. It also involves the use of a lot of bad words. (“McLEAN-you DUMB motherfucker, you IGNORANT son of a bitch, you USELESS piece of shit, you. … MAGGOT … Those assholes up in Washington have decided to teach you computers — whatever the fuck they are! Sounds like you’re not GOOD enough to go kill those little gook bastards.” 

Jack did spend most of his first year as a Marine learning computers and supply, but every Marine knows that on a moment’s notice he can be in an infantry rifle squad anywhere in the world, so they keep their skills honed at all times. A year later Jack was under live fire. He states, “During the ensuing battle and the others that followed, I was confused, disoriented, and scared to death –- every time –- but I was never alone. There was always another marine nearby. He also was confused … but he had me nearby….As long as there was another marine, we were a unit. … It continues to exist in me and the others to this day.”

If you can tolerate one more quote, there is a really special one from the book, but originally from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,

“The marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”

I’m recommending that you read Loon, so I won’t tell the rest of the story. The fighting gets bad, but Jack balances the telling well with what is going on stateside. If you have lived through that turbulent decade, as I did, you will nod your head, remembering, and try to imagine being that young kid first hearing of the events from a foxhole instead of on the evening news from the safety of your home.

In my case it is especially poignant, as I now have a young “kid” of my own about to begin his adventures as a U.S. Marine.

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