There I was with Colonel Jack Lewis, former Hollywood stunt man, Marine Corps veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He was friends with John Wayne, Robert Stack (The Untouchables) and Ed McMahon (Johnny’s sidekick), founder of Gun World, Horse & Horseman and Bow & Arrow magazines. He was a large man who chain-smoked Sherman’s Cigarillos and demanded everyone around him get off their butts and accomplish the mission. He had no time for slackers, although if you ever got in trouble he always had your back. Colonel Jack admits to raising a fair amount of heck back in the day at his mansion in San Clemente (California) not far from Nixon’s Western White House.
Jack sometimes referred to “my professional drinking days” when he told stories of his heroic exploits in those Hollywood hills and as a Marine on R&R. He loved to tell the story of being hired to drive a motorcycle off a pier when stationed in Hawaii for the movie Mister Roberts. “My CO made me donate my entire pay of $100 to the Navy Relief Society,” mused Jack, puffing away and about to light his next Cigarillo with the last vestiges of the one he was still smoking.
His first novel was Tell It To The Marines (1966) and even though he was a millionaire, drove an old beat up El Camino. He bought us a case of beer after a fellow sergeant changed the oil for him. He once rented an entire house in 29 Palms (California) complete with huge swimming pool so his public affairs unit (that was me and 10 other guys) could get evenings out of the 120 degree Mojave Desert heat. We also needed a photo lab and so we rigged up a hallway in the house so we could “soup” film, make prints of “hometown heroes” and mail them out to newspapers across the nation for the glorification of their young Marine so far away.
Twentynine Palms, just east of Joshua Tree, is one of the largest live-fire training bases in the world and few Americans ever heard of it. Attack jets would drop live ordinance (real bombs) on the Chocolate Mountains as grunts climbed the vegetation-less steep collection of loose dirt and rocks towards the summit. Before the assault, machine gun, mortar, artillery and tank rounds pounded the hills. The only thing missing was Naval bombardment. We were too far inland for any of that. Back to Jack.
You could surmise by the titles of his magazines that Jack loved hunting. He went on big game safaris in Africa and duck shoots in Patagonia (South America). In short, back in the day Jack Lewis was considered a true man’s man. Both tough and gentle, creative and by the book. So much deeper than the stereotypical jarhead officer.
One thing I learned from watching Colonel Jack in action was how a man could manage to maintain his convictions, support or attack the status quo depending on his mission requirements and still come out smelling like a rose. Because no matter what the brass thought about his abilities to cater to their vanities, he knew his men would follow him through fire and suffer great privation without complaint to accomplish the mission. Working for Jack was like working for your big brother, dad and uncle at the same time.
One will demand you do your job, another will help you do your job and the third will hand you a beer and watch you do what ya gotta do. If I could council those going into the military I would say that type of life is an anomaly and not indicative of your life to come. In the case of Jack Lewis, I think of a man of true grit with a lust for life.
“He went to Patagonia just to shoot ducks,” I used to think to myself in awe. Well why the heck not? We should all be so lucky one day.
— Gary Bégin (Former Staff Sgt. – USMC photojournalist 1978 – 1984 – and life member of the USMCCCA.) He is currently the managing editor for NCW Media in Wenatchee, Washington and can be reached at Gary@NCWMedia.net.