Several years ago while reading the writings of Robin Moore, the author of the classic book The Green Berets, I discovered that he had spent two years in Rhodesia, a small African country, running an unofficial American embassy that catered particularly to Americans who had joined the Rhodesian Army in their battle against the tide of Communism in Southern Africa.
I began to remember old Soldier of Fortune Magazines that had written about ‘Mercs’ fighting for this country. Needless to say, I was intrigued and wondered who these men were, these ‘The Crippled Eagles’.
I scoured the internet and Amazon to find any reading material that would give me more information on these men. Most of whom were veterans of the Vietnam War that continued the profession of War Time soldiering and the battle against the Red Tide. Very little was available at that time. Thankfully, I found bits and pieces that would lead me on to another clue, another person to contact or another book to read.
It seemed that these men were quiet. The ones who were very loud and vocal, adding Mercenary/Rhodesia/Selous Scouts to their CV were often frauds. It was easy even five years ago to imagine your past and add in some manly ‘Merc’ activity to it, simply because resource material was scarce to verify a persons claims.
As I began to home in on legitimate pieces of information, certain names kept appearing and John Cronin was one of them. I keep a list of people that I hope to come across in order to possibly get their stories or information on the war. It turned out that the best information came from the burgeoning online community of Rhodesian War veterans. Their history and story is an understudied segment of military history that deserves to be up there with any of the great Special Operations units of the world.
Some I made contact with on Facebook, others through email. The Rhodesians themselves had opinions on Yanks who made it over to participate in the war. There were either good men or shitbags. Most of the Yanks who went over either excelled as members of the Rhodesian Army or deserted. There may have been 300 or so that went over but far less distinguished themselves. John Cronin is solid.
The Odyssey of an American Warrior
The search for Captain Cronin had turned up a dry hole so I was extremely excited to see a book simply appear on Amazon’s recommendations for my account. Called The Bleed, I immediately downloaded it and devoured it. This book is a classic autobiography that fills in so many missing links about the few that served in Vietnam and then Rhodesia. Whether you are interested in Rhodesia or not, anyone remotely interested in Special Operations and the lifestyle of a Professional Soldier from the Baby Boom generation will enjoy this read.
Cronin’s family had served with distinction in combat through all of the major wars America has participated in and he was to be no exception. In the mid 1960s and the ramping up of forces in Vietnam, he enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute for his college education. Circumstance and his easy going style forced him to make other decisions a year later.
Not wanting to come back from the Vietnam War in a body bag, he weighed his options and enlisted in the Marine Corps because he felt at that time they were a more motivated, well trained force. Anyone who joined the military in 1966 knew that they were most likely to spend a year abroad in Vietnam, backpack and all. The Author describes a classic path through Marine Corps boot camp ending up with orders to become a radio man. Unlike today, people rarely chose their career path. Dutifully completing the school, he had no intention of sitting behind a desk for the 13 month tour of duty.
Vietnam is full of stories of chance and circumstance of people simply raising their hand and ending up in units that today would require an extremely long selection and pipeline to enter into. 1st Marine Battalion Recon had an opening and off he went. Arriving at the unit, again he finds a way into the bush, and starts operating with elite Marines in the thick of the action along the DMZ.
After a few months of extended recces and surprise contacts with the NVA and VC, the odds caught up with him and he was badly wounded. The author’s humor and perspective come through along with detailed and gripping action. Extracted off the battlefield, he enters recovery, assessing his future. Most would have taken the Purple Heart and finished their time and went back to normal life, figuring that they had done their bit.
After a battle with bureaucracy he made it back and this time he raised his hand for 3rd Force Recon doing God’s work along the DMZ. Quite frankly, with the material that Captain Cronin presented to this point is enough for a book in and of itself. After leaving the Marines, he finished college and felt the desire to gain a commission back in the Corps. His tour of duty as an Infantry Officer in a post-Vietnam era is uneventful, except of course for his love life, which adds to the narrative wherever he went, but it prepared him for the next war that he would choose to fight.
Deciding to test himself further as a Warrior he heads for Rhodesia with a one way ticket and is whisked away to recruiters who examine his history and welcome him aboard. This was a time when Rhodesia was in serious need of manpower. They gave him the choice of either the Rhodesian Light Infantry or the SAS, and he chose the RLI. I personally questioned the Author as to why he made this choice over the SAS, given his Force Recon experience. Trained as an Infantry Officer, he felt that he wanted to utilize his training and meet the enemy in head to head action but he would eventually finish his service in Rhodesia as one of five Americans to have served in the Selous Scouts.
Given a slot straightway into the RLI, he goes about proving himself as a capable officer and tells the story from a unique perspective. He pulls no punches on Rhodesian politics as well as the ‘Freedom Fighters’ of ZANU and ZIPRA. Woven into this time in the RLI is his relationship with a female member of the Army and it is an interesting story of two people living and fighting a war and how it affected their lives.
Cronin’s reputation and skill as a RLI Officer is solid as verified by many Rhodesians I have spoken to. His abilities as an Officer grew within the Rhodesian way of war to the point that he was running Fire Force mission from the sky in the K-Car. Anything less than competency would lead to disgrace and duty elsewhere.
One last thing remained on his bucket list as a Professional Soldier. The Selous Scouts. Known worldwide as one of the most effective counter insurgency forces in history, it is a challenge that he cannot live without. This reader’s understanding of the Scouts was enhanced by reading these chapters.
As Mugabe took power, John Cronin at the age of 32 decided to move on with his life. His interest in foreign affairs, the Middle East and Africa in particular, caused him to pursue graduate studies. Most of us would try to compete for places in the Ivy League schools of the US and perhaps make trips to our region of interest.
Not so for the Author.
He heads for the American University in Cairo and then for study in Beirut, Lebanon. Yes, that place where there was a civil war going on and hundreds of Marines were blown up in one of America’s first tastes of terrorism. As a blonde haired American in a city that hated the West, he was bound for trouble in the form of a kidnapping by Hezbollah. It is harrowing and unhinged but Captain Cronin obviously lived to tell about it – barely.
As a student of the Marine Corps in Vietnam and the Rhodesian Bush War, I found a book that linked them together in a narrative that I have found nowhere else. The Americans who did this are very few in number. Some never made it home and others are nowhere to be found. It’s not just the subject matter that makes this book worth reading; it is the Author’s ability to bring you along for the adventure that causes me to write a review for all readers of SOFREP and military history. It saves us from the pretense that a man of his experience might throw at a reader.
This book is worth far more than the 4.99 I paid for it. In fact, as a researcher, it is priceless. The genuine genius behind it is that you need not be historically ‘informed’ nor even be interested in the wars that are covered. This is the Odyssey of a Professional Soldier in the 20th Century.
Book review by D.R. Tharp, the author of The Gold of Katanga.