Jack on Loon: A Marine Story

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A Talk with Jack McLean, author of LOON

Your memoir takes its title from the battle at Landing Zone Loon, which took place on June 6, 1968.  That battle has been in the news recently.  Why? 

During the battle, a helicopter crashed while evacuating part of our battalion.  Several on board survived, but most were killed in the ensuing fireball.  Last year, due in part to recent breakthroughs in technology and DNA identification techniques, the remains of the final four missing victims were recovered from the crash site.  One was buried in Los Angeles last fall.  The remains of the other three will be buried together at Arlington National Cemetery this May.

It has been many years since that day.  What made you decide to tell your story now?  

The decision evolved over several years.  I began by transcribing my letters home and filling in some blanks as a legacy for my three daughters.  Over time, as I began to reunite with my Vietnam brothers, their interest and encouragement led me to create a piece that would honor the lives of those who served.

You graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.  Most of your school mates, including George W. Bush, avoided military service that could result in their going to Vietnam.  What made you decide to join the Marines?  How did your family and teachers react?

I decided to enlist in the spring term of my senior year.  It was 1966.  There was a mandatory draft.  I was not immediately interested in attending college; and the Marine Corps, unlike the other services, had a two-year program.  Absent other plans, it seemed like an obvious choice.  I felt that I would simply get the obligation out of the way and continue with my life. 

My parents were stunned.  All but two or three very supportive teachers (all veterans) were stupefied.

For those of us who haven’t (and probably never will) experience recruit training at Parris Island, tell us what you encountered there.  How were you transformed from a high school kid into a Marine?  What does it take to survive, and to succeed?  

The Marine Corps is very efficient at training recruits at Parris Island.  They’ve been doing it successfully, with few modifications, for a long time.  They focus exclusively on group discipline, Marine Corps education, marksmanship, and physical training.  There is no margin for error in any of these disciplines. 

Even though I knew what to expect, and in particular that there was a focused purpose to the harassment, I found it rigorous beyond all imagination.  That being said, graduation was the proudest moment of my life.  The meticulousness of the training contributed immeasurably to our unit’s effectiveness in Vietnam and certainly saved my life time and time again.

How much did you know about Vietnam before you joined the Marines?  When you finally got there, was it what you had anticipated?

I knew that Vietnam was just beginning to escalate when I enlisted, but felt that my chances of going would be slim.  Were I to go, I naively thought that it would be in supply or some rear support capacity.

By the time I arrived a year later (after a year in supply), it was as a grunt in an infantry company at the very peak of the conflict.  Although it was what I was trained for, the experience proved to be well beyond any expectation I had formed ahead of time.

Did you expect to get into Harvard after you left for Vietnam?  What were you doing when you found out?  

I had always planned to attend college after the Marines.  Before I left for Vietnam, I had several interviews and decided to apply to Boston University.  In response to the urging of several Andover teachers, I applied to Harvard as well.  I had no expectation of being accepted.

The acceptance letter arrived one morning in April 1968. I was in my fighting hole at Con Thien cleaning my weapon, having just returned from an all day patrol in the jungle.

What happened at the battle of Landing Zone Loon, and how did your commander, Captain Bill Negron, prove instrumental to your survival?

Captain Bill Negron was a seasoned Marine veteran who had come up through the enlisted ranks. He took over our slack company three weeks before Loon and supported us well with training, equipment, and an incalculable moral boost.  Loon was a mistake.  We were sent into an area on which there was poor intelligence.  We were isolated and overwhelmed by a vastly superior force.  Bill Negron got many of us out alive.

What was your homecoming like?  Did you adjust well to Harvard life after your hiatus?

Homecoming was surreal.  A matter of weeks separated my return from Vietnam and freshman registration in the tempestuous fall of 1968.  I switched my entire focus to academics and pushed all that was Vietnam as far as I could from my mind.

What advice would you give to high school graduates who may be considering military service today?  

Freedom is a choice that doesn’t come without strings attached.  My brother Don served in the Peace Corps after college.  My cousin Mike was a freedom rider in Mississippi.  It is important that we all serve in some capacity during our lifetimes.  The military is but one of them.

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jamcleanus@gmail.com © Jack Mclean 2013