Rebel Marine makes it big

21 May 2004 | Lance Cpl. Loredo

When retired Marine Lt. Col. Jack Lewis sold his first story as a 12-year-old he wasn't thinking about the possibility of Hollywood glamour. Instead he was thinking of making money.
Lewis, born in Iowa on Nov. 13, 1924, three days after the Marine Corps birthday, made a career as a reservist Marine, ranch hand, steelworker, private detective and for a short time, as a motion picture actor and Hollywood stuntman.

At the age of 12, Lewis lived in Winter Park, Fla., with his parents and younger sister. Primarily raised by a woman who was born as a slave while his mother and father worked during the Great Depression, Lewis often found himself in trouble's way.
Once, eager to raise movie and soft drink money, Lewis and his crew found an opportunity to make money just outside of a cathedral.

"They had imported a batch of Koi, big Japanese goldfish, at $250 per fish and put them in the ponds in front of the place," Lewis recalled. "Being ecologically minded, I decided there were too many fish for the size of the ponds. My gang and I went into the ponds one night, scooping up about two-thirds of the fish with buckets. We sold them to the [people] on the other side of the tracks for 25 cents each."

After that stunt a judge suggested it would be a good idea if the juvenile delinquent Lewis left the state.At 14 years of age, Lewis sold his first short story titled "The Cherokee Kid's Last Stand" for $5.

"Since grown men were working the fields in those days for $1 a day, I figured this was a great way to make a living," said Lewis.  "I didn't sell anything again until I was 22, but some of the stuff I wrote in the interim has since sold for minor amounts of money."

With the illusion of scoring big bucks through writing, Lewis mailed his first screenplay "Andy Hardy Goes to College" to MGM.  The movie company rejected the unsolicited manuscript, however, a disillusioned Lewis continued to write.

After turning 18, Lewis put his writing aside and enlisted in the Marine Corps to prove he was as good as a man as his Army calvary father.

Or perhaps it was the memory of one of his earlier youthful adventures in the back of his mind that prompted him to join the Few and the Proud.

"An early memory was being lost in a department store and being rescued by two Marines in dress blues," said Lewis. "I assume now they were local recruiters. I was about five but I knew then I wanted one them 'purty' uniforms."

Lewis served as an enlisted Marine and was commissioned as a second lieutenant during World War II.

Upon his return he attended the University of Iowa to pursue a bachelor's degree in journalism. Immediately after receiving his degree he received orders to Reserve duty at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to work on a training film. After finishing the script he still had several days to serve, so he went down to the Camp Pendleton beach to work for the technical director of the film "Sands of Iwo Jima."

"He put me to work explaining to actors how to lace up the yellow canvas leggings that were worn above high-top shoes," explained Lewis. "In those days we didn't have boots."

The glamour of Hollywood didn't last long for Lewis. When North Korean invaded South Korea he returned to active duty for nearly six years. While he was on his way to Korea his first movie "King of Bullwhip" was on its way to theatres.

Being a journalist and a Marine during combat gave Lewis the opportunity to write about his adventures. During his second tour in Korea, he wrote roughly 25 magazine articles about Marines and their adventures or misadventures.

"I submitted them to Headquarters Marine Corps," said Lewis.  "A gentlemen sent them back saying they couldn't place them; they sounded too much like Marine Corps propaganda. Somewhat [upset], since the man had never written anything beyond a fitness report, I sent the whole package to my literary agent in New York. She eventually sold all of the pieces for an average of around $200 each-a batch of money in 1951. Of course I sent a copy of each published story to the gent who had returned my package."

During his time in Korea Lewis received the Bronze Star for positioning himself well forward of 1st Marine Division battle lines to film Marine aircraft attacking enemy positions. 
"As bombs were dropping behind us as well as in front, I wondered what I was doing there. Obviously, I wasn't too smart," said Lewis.

Upon his return from Korea Lewis was assigned to Camp Pendleton as a company commander in the reforming 4th Marine Regiment for three months. He was then sent to Hawaii to be a public information officer for what was then the 1st Provisional Marine Air Ground Task Force.
"I spent three years there, then decided I should be doing other things," said Lewis. "The commanding officer offered to get me a regular commission, but I explained that I considered myself more of a writer than a Marine and, sooner or later, I'd write something the Corps wouldn't like. I got out and tried to start a motion picture company in Hawaii."

During that time Lewis took whatever odd jobs he could find including steel worker, ranch hand, newspaper reporter, private detective and movie stuntman.

"Finally I went back to Hollywood," said Lewis. "The idea was that I'd show them my medals, tell them I was a hero, and pick up where I'd left off."

But things didn't quite work out as he'd planned.

"Either no one remembered me or most of them pretended not to.  So I fell off of horses for a living for three years."

Lewis, then 30 years old, continued to get in trouble but always cashed in on his adventures. In 1954 during the filming of the movie "Mr. Roberts," in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Lewis was to be a technical adviser.

"I found out the stuntmen were making $700 for two days work," said Lewis. "So I started moonlighting. I was making $660 a month as a captain including allowances.  Anyway, the general caught me, and I ended up making a $700 'contribution' to Navy Relief."

In the late 1950s there was a screenwriters strike in Hollywood and Lewis wasn't working. He wrote a short story and took it down to a magazine on Sunset Boulevard to sell it.
"I wandered into another magazine office," said Lewis. "They didn't buy my story but hired me as an editor. I spent a couple of years watching the publisher make mistakes and figured I could do better than that. His art director and I pooled $300 each and turned out our first issue of 'Gun World.'"

Lewis and his partner considered themselves lucky because even then, the odds of a new magazine lasting a year were about 13 to 1. Gun World is now in its 44th year.
Throughout the 1960s Lewis wrote 11 feature films and in 1966 he published his first book, "Tell it to the Marines"-a humorous look at life in the Marine Corps.

"All of the characters and crazy things that happened to myself and my group in Korea are the basis for the book," said the 80-year old Lewis. "The serious side of war is for historians. Most of us would rather recall the crazy, unlikely things that happened to us and what we were able to do to accomplish our missions in spite of those problems which usually were created either by unforeseen circumstances of higher authority."
The foreword reads, "Any similarity to persons, places or incidents is highly plausible; only the names have been changed to avoid court-martial."

Lewis claims none of his novels are written about the serious nature of life in the Marine Corps.

"The serious side of war is for historians," he said. "The funny stuff is the only facet of war worth remembering. It's the unlikely incidents that make it all bearable."

He was out of the Marine Corps from 1959 to 1969 but was subsequently commissioned as a Reserve officer and volunteered for a special project in Vietnam with the 3rd Amphibious Force. In addition to the Bronze Star, he received the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal for combat photo flights and the Secretary of the Navy Commendation Medal in Korea.  During his Vietnam tour he was awarded a second and third Air Medals.

On his 60th birthday, Nov. 12, 1984, Lewis retired from the Corps after he served as the public affairs adviser to the commanding general, 4th  Marine Aircraft Wing.
"I miss the life," said Lewis. "But more important, I miss the people."

After serving as a stuntman, writing for magazines, opening his own publishing company, writing feature films and novels, Lewis said his most memorable moment as a Marine was his retirement gathering.

"Besides my own Reserve unit, there were Marines with whom I had served in three wars who came to the bash," said the retired Marine. "Included were several generals for whom I had worked along the way. The whole thing left me with the feeling that I had done a good job for the Corps and made a lot of fine friends along the way."

These days, Lewis writes several magazine articles a month and covers Hawaii for Leatherneck Magazine. He tries to write a novel a year and since moving to Hawaii in 1997 he has had seven published-three westerns and four mysteries.

"When the price of printing paper tripled virtually overnight, publishing wasn't fun any more. I sold everything I owned-except my wife and my dog-and came to Hawaii where I already owned a beach home. I no longer have the dog nor the wife, but they do have each other," joked Lewis.
Lewis credits his success and adventurous life to his determination and comical escapades.

"I've been told that I'm not smart enough to realize I can't tilt windmills and win," concluded Lewis, "But tenacity has a life and a way all its own, I've found. If one approach to a problem doesn't work, figure out how to go around it."

Headquarters Marine Corps