At age 20, Don McLean was a private first class in the U.S. Army Infantry. He was too young to vote, but old enough to be trained on how to fire a 50-caliber machine gun.
McLean was part of a half-track armored vehicle team. He served in the Korean War fighting alongside America’s allies to help prevent North Korea from imposing communist rule over the South Koreans.
Of all the battles McLean fought in, he says he’s lucky because he never actually saw the enemy, the people he was aiming his heavy artillery at.
“It was my outfit’s job to protect the airfields,” McLean said. “To do that we would call in our target and we’d receive coordinates to direct our fire with,” McLean explained. That process helped keep the battle fairly impersonal.
McLean recalls celebrating his 21st birthday while on patrol in Korea.
“Sometimes I volunteered to go out on patrols, those were pretty scary. You learn to depend on one another,” he said.
He chuckles about how officials referred to their presence in Korea as a police action.
“We use to laugh about that, it was a big joke. We were fighting a war!”
“I lost two friends while there. That sort of thing wakes you up to reality,” he said, recalling some painful memories.
In spite of it all, McLean talks proudly about his service to his country and the contributions his family made in helping to keep their homeland safe.
“My brother served in Europe with General [George S.] Patton. My father was a POW in the Philippines,” McLean said.
“He never made it back,” McLean softly adds. He said the last postcard his mother received from his father was in 1944.
“After the war – a man who was in prison camp with dad came to visit my mom.”
McLean may not have come face to face with the enemy, but during the 12 months he served in Korea, he was involved in more battles than he bargained for. When he arrived in the battle-torn country, his first encounter with action was in a battle called Heartbreak Ridge, which was dubbed Bloody Ridge.
He fought alongside the Ethiopians in a place called Iron Triangle and said that was a spooky area. The Columbians were his allies in a place called Kum Wah.
Through it all his only injury was a bout with strep throat. “I was really sick with that and was sent to a MASH unit in Yong Dong Po,” he recalls.
After two weeks of recovery there, McLean was sent to a rest camp, where he said Americans weren’t much liked by the English. “They called us Yanks and kept telling us to go home.” He said the Australians befriended the Americans and they became good drinking buddies.
Once his military obligations were fulfilled and McLean received an honorable discharge from the Army, he moved back to Los Angeles and went back to school. There he met a special gal whose name was Monica. They married and raised a son, Alex, who today is a commercial airline pilot and lives in Hawaii.
McLean graduated from Woodbury College where he earned a degree in business management.
As years usually do, they brought many changes to the life of Don McLean. His marriage ended and his wife moved to the Philippines.
McLean moved into the William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home in Lancaster, Calif., a year-and-a-half ago. His sister lives in Santa Clarita so the location is ideal for him.
“I like it here, they take good care of us. We get good meals and the friendly staff offers lots of activities,” he said. McLean says he participates in most of the activities.
“Since I moved into the Pete Knight Veterans’ Home I’m been to the Getty Museum, the Calico Ghost Town and I went deep sea fishing off the coast of Oxnard. I didn’t catch anything, but it was fun. I enjoyed a field trip to the Tehachapi Mountains where we got to pick apples,” he said.
Today, at 82, McLean is looking forward to enjoying his retirement years here in the High Desert and the Knight Veterans Home.