Among the Rhodesian soldiers in their struggle against a communist-backed threat were the Crippled Eagles, American volunteers, many of who brought with them valuable experience from the war in Vietnam. Of course, the volunteers didn’t stop with Americans. British, Irish, and Scottish all took up arms in Rhodesia, alongside Portuguese volunteers, and most certainly other men of various ethnicities and nationalities. They received no special treatment and the only entirely foreign unit, made out of French troops, was disbanded due to both a lack of efficiency and a very dangerous attitude towards the natives.
To those who know very little about the Rhodesian Bush War yet have a strong, specific opinion on it, such a fact seems to shatter their narratives. The Rhodesian military broke up a unit for being violent and abusive towards the African tribespeople, which is unfortunately a surprise to some uneducated about the conflict. Indeed, we even find that while the Rhodesians did occasionally employ questionable tactics to acquire intelligence, these methods proved ineffective as no brutality from them could match the barbarism of the guerillas and the insurgents. Villagers were not caught up in the ideological game of Marxism, really, but were often forced to help terrorists at threat of violence. Many still did aid the insurgents freely, however, but it is again worth noting. This topic is best explored thoroughly for another day, but it should be clearly stated and shown that the Rhodesians didn’t want butchers and murderers coming to their aid. They wanted fighters – honest soldiers and reliable men. Many times, that’s what they got.
Among those Crippled Eagles, as they came to be known after the war, we find one specific man very relevant to our publication. John Alan Coey.
He was a Christian, though a Lutheran, and he graduated from University only to reject an Officer’s Commission with the Marines in order to enlist as a volunteer in Rhodesia. His motives were both religious and political, as we will see. Coey thought the United States wasn’t really getting the job done in Vietnam, yet very well supported the war against the North Vietnamese. John thought that defeat in Vietnam would be intentional and by design, the handwork of a “revolutionary conspiracy of internationalists, collectivists and communists” that had, according to Coey, infiltrated the government. The Vietnam War itself is worth visiting in the future – American defeat in the theatre was almost entirely related to our pulling out of the fight, where immediately afterwards what remained of South Vietnam found itself conquered by the red flag and yellow star of the North. Our retreat from Vietnam was entirely political and not a matter of military strategy. Certainly, it had a demoralizing effect on much of the American public, an effect that John saw as very purposeful. Due to his view on the situation in Vietnam, he instead looked to Rhodesia. There, the government and the people weren’t up in arms against the men out there fighting. The struggle against communist-backed guerrillas was not on the other side of the world for the Rhodesians – it was in their backyard.
John’s reasons to want to fight against militant communists should be obvious to any Christian. Coey described, accurately, his distress over “the souls of millions more indoctrinated with atheism” since the October Revolution. The Soviet Union was atheist at its core. All religions were suppressed, persecuted, and subverted. Such is the nature of communism, an ideology that seeks to “wipe the slate clean,” ridding society of its necessary traditions and foundations, in a babylonian hope of establishing an impossible Utopia, a heaven on Earth.
The doctrine of communism, like many modern doctrines, is a schematic for a Tower of Babel, one that always shatters, its destruction leaving human suffering in its wake. Of course, much of the same can be said about global capitalism and secular democracy.
He saw a better chance at beating back international communism where the flame lily burns, and so he went.
In March 1972 he flew to southern Africa, seeking service with Rhodesia and its security forces. Shortly after enlisting, he further explained his reason in writing for making such a drastic decision, one that would eventually end in the sacrifice of his life on the battlefield:
“I believe God intended me to come here for some purpose. This action has cost me an Officer’s Commission, and my citizenship may be revoked, but this is the most I can do for my country under the circumstances.”
Hoping to be an officer in the SAS, the Special Air Service, Coey soon found clear obstacles. He submitted an article to the magazine, Assegai, titled “The Myth of American Anti-communism.” Higher-ups didn’t allow it to be published, deeming it subversive. It wasn’t only his political views that got him booted from the SAS, though. He was able to go out on patrol just once, but the tensions between him and the upper echelons of the SAS led to him being barred from seeing any more combat. John wanted action, so he went on another patrol anyway. It was insubordination, however, and it was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. The SAS leadership no longer wanted Coey, so they let him go.
John, who had given up a prosperous life in the United States to risk his life in the land of the red flower lily, seemed to be out of luck. Yet he didn’t go back running to Ohio. Instead, he transferred to the Rhodesian Light Infantry – the RLI. His new home, he was able to publish his controversial articles and still serve in the field.
Freed from the scrutiny of the SAS, John became an instructor for the RLI. John, a corporal at this point, took pride in teaching “as we did at Quantico—the Marine way!”
However, there was a clear difference between him and the rest of his comrades, his brothers in arms. “They live for pleasure mostly,” Coey wrote in his journal, “drinking and whoring. The Christian soldier is sometimes despised and ridiculed.”
He would soon become a combat medic, and he made sure to live up to the title, opting to go out fighting as much as humanly possible. The man served in 60 fire force operations, all while making suggestions to his superiors on how to better deal with the communist insurgents. His expertise led to the adoption of combat medics for all RLI patrols, which proved incredibly useful in the field. Though he was unable to serve as a true officer, his skill as a tactician and military man was put to good use. During the war, he was a specialist in tracking, mortars and armoured vehicle driving alongside his role as a life-saving medic.
While his tactical suggestions and eagerness to fight were appreciated, his propositions of psychochemical warfare were quickly rejected. John envisioned a tactical starvation of the Mozambicans and Zambians, for example, as the guerrillas were based in these nations. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t even really considered. While Coey’s views and suggestions occasionally got him into trouble, his skill in the field made it so everyone tolerated him.
The men who served with him in the RLI would summarize his service with this quote:
“He was a noble dedicated man with spiritual insight and political acumen with a keen perception of world affairs and the evils of communism … he was a soldier of the Cross and a son of liberty.”
John met an unfortunate fate only a few months after getting engaged with a local woman. Despite preparing to marry and start up his own family, he was still as eager to fight as ever.
On July 19th, 1975, Coey was posted with Two Commando at Mt. Darwin, which would act as a base for Fireforce operations. He was with 7-Troop, which would act as the first responders when patrols called for support. Corporal Coey was put with Lt. Du Plooy’s stick, the command and control of the whole operation. Six “terrs” as the Rhodesians called them ambushed a unit on patrol. Returning fire, two guerrillas were killed, but the rest broke contact – so the ambushed patrol pursued. They requested trackers from Mt. Darwin, and trackers were provided. John Alan Coey came just in case contact was regained with the enemy.
Contact was regained. The trackers found themselves at a dense riverbed, overgrown with foliage, perfect concealment for the terrs, a spot known as a “denga.” Three men ended up shot as they moved in, two fatally. The other man had his legs shredded.
Lt. Du Pooly and Corporal Coey were determined, once arriving on scene, to move in and save the life of the wounded man. Sliding down the riverbed, John tried to crawl towards the three fallen troops. However, terrs were concealed closeby. They opened fire and both Pooly and Coey were shot. The first round went fatally through Coey’s head and the second went through his angle. The Lieutenant was only wounded, but also shot. For the next few hours, the RLI tried desperately to get rid of the guerrilla presence in the area so that they could secure the bodies of their dead. However, the denga was perfect for the terrs who kept a bloody, hard contact going. The SAS had to be called in to attack the position at night – they were successful and the insurgents broke contact shortly after midnight, ending a very bad day for the RLI. David Armstrong said this about the engagement – “The riverbed contact was the worst single event of my three years with 2 Commando and the only one in which the terrorists got the better of us.” It was one of the few days the RLI lost. With this rare failure came the death of Corporal Coey, who had died trying to drag a wounded man out of the riverbed. A final attempt at heroism that should show, perfectly, Coey’s character as a soldier.
A funeral was held for the late corporal, his American parents flown in through donations of locals who had known John. His parents didn’t see his death as one in vain, saying he had died fighting for the “the last bastion for fighting communism that is left in the Western world.”
Whether you agree or disagree with John Alan Coey, the fact is that following the Bush war, the nation now known as Zimbabwe properly represents that new title – it is a country of ruins. Both the African natives and the European settlers have seen mass suffering and despair with the reign of Mugabe. John Alan Coey should be remembered for being true to his beliefs, both religious and political, and for putting himself in dangerous situations not for his own sake, but for the sake of those he fought with and the sake of a nation at struggle both with war and the illegitimate, glaring eyes of the so-called international community.