Having finished Loon: A Marine Story by Jack McLean just a few hours ago, I was frankly at a loss as to how to start this review. Adjectives such as “exceptional” and “sublime” are accurate enough, and yet somehow do not convey the depth of my enjoyment and admiration for this memoir of a young man who left a life of comfort and privilege to enlist in the United States Marine Corps at a time when combat duty in Vietnam was all but certain.
Finally, I decided to rely on my own years in uniform and go with what was always the topmost ranking a Sailor could achieve in any endeavor or performance review: Outstanding. Loon is simply Outstanding.
Jack McLean had a picture-perfect, upper-middle-class American childhood and adolescence. Born in the earliest wave of the post-WWII baby boom, he lived in the suburbs of New York City, learned to swim at the Y and had a paper route. McLean followed his father by attending prep school at Phillips Academy, with future President George W. Bush as a fellow student.
But McLean struggled at Phillips and five years later when graduation finally came into sight he found colleges less than interested in him. That was fair, though, as he found himself less than interested in attending college right away. There was more to that decision than simply taking time off from school.
There would be two issues that I would have to face should I decide not to go to college. The year was 1966. There was a draft. If you were eighteen or older, male, and of sound body and mind, it was your duty—indeed it was the law—to serve the country in the military for a minimum of two years. Second, there were my parents. I was certain that their vision for me included college—any college.
— Mclean, Jack (2009-05-07). Loon: A Marine Story (pp. 15-16). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
With engaging and fluid prose, McLean brings the reader along step-for-step on his journey to becoming a Marine, from enlisting through basic training at the famed Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island and then on to Vietnam where he survived a bitter three-day fight with the North Vietnamese Army at Landing Zone (LZ) Loon. Throughout the narrative the author provides historical context for background, such as the fact he was manning the perimeter at LZ Loon the same day Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles:
Robert F. Kennedy was forty-two years old. He died the following morning, on June 6, 1968.
Those of us in Charlie Company who survived LZ Loon would not hear the news for another week.
Many of us died that day as well.
— Mclean, Jack (2009-05-07). Loon: A Marine Story (p. 2). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Mere weeks after surviving the fight at Loon, McLean is on an airplane for home, his tour of duty complete. Just months after Loon, McLean began his freshman year at Harvard, in the process becoming the first Vietnam veteran to attend that prestigious school.
Loon isn’t a military history of a battle; the details of the three-day fight at LZ Loon are vivid but somewhat unspecific — this reader suspects out of respect for the fallen. Instead, it is the story of how one boy became a Marine, and what that meant to him and about him. McLean’s journey started differently than the other men he served with in Charlie Company, but each man passed the same tests along the path to becoming a Marine and in doing so they became brothers.
One year after my graduation from Parris Island, I was in Vietnam, fighting side by side with my marine brothers, when I was shot at with live ammo for the first time. 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, disoriented, scared to death—but he had me nearby. That was the way it worked in the Marine Corps. Together we’d figure something out.
— Mclean, Jack (2009-05-07). Loon: A Marine Story (p. 59). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
For more information on the author and his writing, visit his website. I also highly recommend viewing this video, which is comprised of photos the author took prior to LZ Loon.