When a group of former US Marine helicopter pilots and crews who flew together in Vietnam meets in Knoxville later this week, the gathering will include not just war veterans but three published authors who served with each other and later wrote about their experiences.
They include a former pilot, a crew member/machine gunner, and an infantryman who says he owes his life to the Marines in Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) -161 at a place called LZ Loon near the Laotian border in mid-1968.
The reunion is being organized by Ronald Winter, who was an avionics technician and machine gunner in HMM-161 from October 1966 to Dec. 1968. His first battle and baptism of fire came on the first of June 1968, carrying members of the 4th Marine Regiment on an initial assault into LZ Loon and adjacent US positions.
Winter's non-fiction account of his time in the Marines, Masters of the Art, A Fighting Marine's Memoir of Vietnam was released in hardcover in 1989, and later in paperback by Random House in 2005.
Among the Marines who charged off of HMM – 161's CH-46D helicopters in that battle was Cpl. Jack McLean who was just nearing the end of his tour in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 4th Marines. McLean became the first Vietnam Veteran to be accepted in Harvard University after his return from the war, and later penned his own account of those harrowing days of combat in Loon: A Marine Story that was published in 2010 also by Random House.
Joining Winter and McLean at the reunion from Thursday May 18 until Sunday May 21, at the Knoxville Marriott will be Col. (ret.) Gary Parker, who was a pilot with HMM-161 in its two tours in Vietnam, first in 1965-66 and again from 1968-70. Parker was selected by the Marine Corps in 1977 to write the official history of HMM-161 from its earliest days as the first transport helicopter squadron in the Marine Corps during the Korean War until its post-Vietnam years.
Parker and Winter served together, but neither knew McLean then. That will change on Saturday as McLean has been invited to be the guest speaker at the group's Saturday night banquet at the Marriott.
"The wonderful part of getting together is not just the opportunity to renew our friendships and remember our time together," Winter said, "but to bring our experiences from the ground and air perspectives full circle." Winter also has been tapped by the USMC History and Museums Division to write the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commemorative account of Operation Dewey Canyon, the last major Marine Corps battle of the Vietnam War in 1969, due out next year.