Loon: A Marine Story – Book Review
Loon: A Marine Story. By Jack McLean. Presidio Press, 2009. 256 pages. Hardback. US $25.00.
Loon should be required reading for anyone interested in the Vietnam War.
Note: All quotations taken from the advanced uncorrected page proof copy of Loon. Please consult the final bound copy of the book for the final version of these sections.
“Kids like me didn’t go to Vietnam.”
This sentence is the foundation from which Jack McLean builds his excellent new memoir, Loon: A Marine Story. McLean’s work is above all a superb personal narrative and a gripping tale of combat; but it is also a much more complete story, painting a portrait of McLean’s own generation, and looking at the tumultuous time of the late 1960s. It is a story not only of the Vietnam War, but of political turmoil, the Beatles, and antiwar protests as well, and the effect that they had upon the average Marine fighting in Vietnam.
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McLean grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, along with future president George W. Bush. His childhood and adolescence were idyllic; “my young life was straight out of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” No one would have ever guessed that McLean, after struggling through five academically grueling years at Andover and being rejected by all of the colleges to which he applied, would decide to enter the United States Marine Corps and spend eight months on a bloody combat tour in Vietnam, and then return to attend Harvard.
The road to Vietnam began for McLean after he decided to put college on hold and enlisted in the Marine Corps in March of 1966. As McLean puts it, “They needed fresh bodies to fill their ballooning war quotas … Unlike five different colleges, the United States Marine Corps actually wanted me.”
After completing basic training at Parris Island, McLean was assigned to supply school and subsequently spent a brief stint at a major Marine Corps supply center. He finally shipped out for Vietnam on November 5, 1967, as part of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.
The next eight months were ones of combat, chaos, and coming of age for McLean. In his own words, “Welcome to combat. It was not like in the movies.” He participated in numerous patrols near the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) shortly after arriving in Vietnam, but his unit was lucky in that it was not initially involved in any heavy combat. Instead, McLean and his Charlie Company comrades were tasked with manning and improving defensive positions near the DMZ, an assignment that brought a short period of relative peace. It was during this time that McLean learned, to his complete surprise, that he had been admitted to Harvard University, to which he had grudgingly applied during a previous leave. Needless to say, he was ecstatic.
Yet the lull in combat for McLean was not to last, and his company shifted from a defensive role to aggressive patrolling. On June 4, 1968, McLean and fellow Marines from the 3rd Marine Division were transported by helicopter to a landing zone south of Khe Sahn, a position that would come to be known as Landing Zone Loon, or simply LZ Loon—hence the title of McLean’s memoir.
At LZ Loon, McLean and his comrades-in-arms would spend the next three days in intense, almost uninterrupted combat against numerically superior NVA forces. For McLean, this was both his first and last major combat engagement. It was the bloody climax of his combat tour in Vietnam, and fittingly forms the absorbing climax of his memoir.
“For those three days in June 1968 Charlie and Delta Companies 1/4 were the war in Vietnam.” Of the 180 Marines who landed on LZ Loon, only 60 survived, and at least 22 dead were left behind. Many of McLean’s friends lost their lives in the battle, the horrors of which would scar him for life.
Soon after the battle at LZ Loon, his tour of duty was up, and he was discharged from the Marine Corps and departed Vietnam for the States. Bewildered at the apathy and hatred shown by many of his fellow Americans towards Vietnam veterans such as himself, he learned not to speak about his military service, burying his memories of Vietnam deep inside himself. He went on to earn the distinction of being the first Vietnam veteran to graduate from Harvard and embarked upon a long and successful marketing career.
An excellent memoir of a privileged boy’s maturation as he journeys through the Marines, Vietnam, and an Ivy League school, Loon should be required reading for anyone interested in the Vietnam War. Those simply looking for a well-written and captivating combat narrative won’t be disappointed either.
Alexander Wilson has been an avid student of history and military history since he was eight. He especially enjoys ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and World War II, as well as the American Civil War. When not doing schoolwork, working, reading, or writing, he can usually be found building models, gardening, or playing Axis and Allies Miniatures. He is an active member of the Armchair General and HistoryNet Forums, under the username “CatholicCrusade,” and a fan of the Cincinnati Reds.