Jack McLean’s ‘Loon: A Marine Story’ is another excellent insight into the Vietnam War


Special to the Enterprise

Public Broadcasting’s film “The Vietnam War,” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, brings that conflict back into America’s living rooms. After so many years, there is context to examine the concepts, events, and consequences of a war that reached all of America, including the Adirondacks and the rest of the North Country (Data suggests that Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties suffered 37 casualties in the war).

As he always does, Burns gives us both the big picture as well as individual portraits and voices. We learn about the French experience in Vietnam before the United States got involved militarily, and we meet some of the Americans who fought in Vietnam.

The soldiers serving in Vietnam were mostly young, with the average age probably about 22 or 23. Burns balances depicting their lives as combat soldiers with the analysis of the debates about the war going on in Washington, D.C., and in America’s streets. Seeing such young people in such a horrible conflict fills viewers with sadness, and respect.

The images in “The Vietnam War” remind old viewers of Look magazine’s June 1969 issue. That’s the issue that printed pictures of each of the Americans killed in Vietnam in one week of May. A World War II veteran told me he wept while looking at those 242 photos of “kids, they were mostly kids.”

Ken Burns and Look magazine “put a face” on the conflict, forcing us to see the humanity in the history. Jack McLean does the same in his very fine book, “Loon — A Marine Story.” The Loon of the title is Landing Zone Loon, an area in North Vietnam near Laos where McLean and the rest of U.S. Marine Corps Charlie Company fought a fierce three-day battle in June 1968.

McLean is an unusual marine. From a well-to-do family, he graduated from prestigious Phillips Andover Academy in 1966, along with his classmate George W. Bush. But Mclean’s academic achievement was sketchy – he barely graduated – and he wasn’t admitted to any of the colleges he applied to. He takes his mother’s offhand, flippant remark – “What are you going to do? Join the military?” — seriously and joins the Marines.

It is the summer of 1966, and America’s involvement had not escalated. McLean writes, “Vietnam was still a country, not a war.” As he trains and absorbs the USMC culture, he compares his life to that of his classmates. After he graduated from Parris Island’s brutal boot camp, he visits a high school classmate now at Dartmouth College and becomes uncomfortable with the obvious contrastbetween their lives. McLean is a rock-hard physical specimen, “My shoulders were broad, my thighs were like granite, and my general appearance was, well, mean.”

But it was not just his body that had changed. He had gotten used to order, and the mess in a college student’s room was upsetting: “I slowly looked around, and the sight was an assault on my barracks-trained sensibilities.”

McLean arrives in Saigon in the autumn of 1967. He is a member of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment, 3rd Division. He is soon under the command of Cap. William P. Negron, for whom McLean has tremendous admiration: “Without Negron’s leadership, I doubt that a single one of us would have survived the coming weeks.”

Negron and all of Charlie Company were severely tested in June of ’68, in a fire-fight with the North Vietnamese Army at Landing Zone Loon. The casualties came quickly, and McLean describes each of them – Carbaugh, Klein, Eaton, Barbour, King, Morrissey — and that their ages ranged from 19 to 21.

Over the three days of the battle, the casualties mounted.

“Of our already understaffed company of one hundred eighty marines who’d landed on LZ Loon, only sixty of us came off the hill in the end. At least twenty-two of the dead were left behind. That was the nightmarish reality for all of us.”

McLean writes effectively, graphically, painfully, about the conflicts in Vietnam. Also painful is his description of the America he reads about while he’s fighting a war. While he was fighting, much of America was either ignoring or opposing the war. And when he returned, having done his duty, he faced a country uninterested in his experience, or critical of it.

But McLean’s Marine experience had prepared him for the difficult after combat, too. He was the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard University, a hotbed of the anti-war movement.

Look magazine in 1969 and Ken Burns recently reminded us of the people who fought that war between nations and ideologies. McLean’s story is another reminder.

Many fine books have been written about the war in Vietnam. “Loon — A Marine Story” is definitely one of them.