John Alan Coey was an American who fought and died in Rhodesia. This article is a commentary and analysis of a complicated and unique person based on his memoirs. It was received well and regarded as accurate by those who knew him, including his brother.

I consider Rhodesia a bit of American Military History due to the fact that an estimated 300 Americans, mostly Vietnam vets, went there. Some were dirtbags, fleeing their life in America, or trying to live the image of a Soldier of Fortune, while others proved professional and valorous in their war against communism.

The 1960s and ’70s was a tumultuous era. It was a time when people questioned and rebelled against the government of the United States, in large part due to the Vietnam conflict. Many of America’s best and brightest were sent off to a place that most couldn’t point out on a map and could not conceive what national security threat it posed to the United States. Vietnam was a multifaceted problem that started off directly after World War Two and incrementally evolved into American involvement through Advisors, then to a full-fledged conventional military commitment. The faithful continued to support our government and tried to do their duty to stop the advance of communism. However, a doctrine of containment left the military and political establishment in a quagmire. There was no clear objective that could be attained.

The seeds of discord began to grow among the people, especially in our universities. From student protests, the burning of flags and draft cards, to armed retaliation against student protesters at Kent State, things began to ignite into a social inferno. The Cold War was far from cold and was being contested in places seemingly irrelevant to national security in the minds of the average person. However, there were many who believed that communism was indeed a worthy foe to be engaged and put down.

Most Cold Warriors believed that allowing communism to spread would eventually lead to the decline and disintegration of Western and Christian civilization. And those men believed that our own government was weak in its resolve and cared more for détente than aggressive protection and destruction of the opposition.

John Alan Coey wearing the coveted SAS tan beret (

As the Vietnam war began to close shop, those professional soldiers who were true believers found an outlet in many areas of the world to employ their trade and live according to their conscience. Here we find one of the first Americans to see Rhodesia as a place in which there a true battle between communism and Western civilization was taking place.

John Alan Coey was from Columbus, Ohio. Unlike many of the soldiers to follow the road to Rhodesia, Coey had not served in Vietnam. A devout Christian, who made no bones about mixing his politics and religion, he was preparing to enter the Marine Corps. He was in the ROTC program and had spent the summer of his junior year at Quantico to set his career in motion. Yet, in 1971-72 he began to rethink his commitment to serve in the armed forces of the United States.

He saw the “Vietnamization” of the war as a betrayal of the cause to which the U.S. was committed to. His opinion was that the fighting men of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts were betrayed by politicians who lacked the will to engage and crush communism. He cited the dismissal of Douglas MacArthur and other famous military leaders as examples of a weak will to win and preserve Freedom, Democracy, and Western Civilization.

In his journal, which he kept from the day he left the United States to his death, he details his ideology and the actions in which he participated in Rhodesia. He decided to ask for dismissal from his commitment to the Marine Corps in what he calls a “Soldier’s Protest.” It outlined his reasons as follows

  • The deliberate prevention by the U.S. government of victory over communist forces in Southeast Asia.
  • The attempted overthrow of the constitutional republic of the United States by a revolutionary conspiracy of internationalists, collectivists, and communists within and without of the U.S. government
  • The attempted destruction by government Defense officials of the fighting capabilities of the American military.

He was granted his request and after graduation in 1972 from Ohio State, he set off for war elsewhere. These opinions are no doubt as controversial then as they would be now. It was his firmness of belief that prompted him to leave the U.S. and find a place where his efforts would be spent in what he believed to be a true and unfettered battle against communism.

These ideologies along with his deep Christian faith would allow him to persevere, but they would also hinder him and cause confusion and misunderstanding during his service in Rhodesia. He would find the enemy he was looking for and fight battles both in the bush as well as within his soul. The anvil of war would test his resolve and beliefs to the uttermost.

Coey arrived in South Africa and made his way to Salisbury. He immediately swore into the Rhodesian Army because of the application he had submitted before traveling. He was put into the Rhodesian Light Infantry‘s 19-week basic training that would introduce him to the Rhodesian Army and begin his journey. He was struck by the differences of the training and mostly the discipline that was a marked contrast to his time with the Marine Corps. He took to it well and understood it to be integral to the type of warfare they were engaged in.

During this time he met many foreigners. In particular, he met with another Marine who had deserted and fled to Rhodesia. He was none too impressed with this man and felt he had enlisted for the wrong reasons. He struck up a friendship with a combat veteran of the Vietnam war with whom he felt more synergy.

The weeks passed and he performed well enough to be considered for SAS selection. He was excited at this prospect as he felt it would help him get to the sharp end of the spear and engage the enemy. He went directly to the Unit. Five of the 15 made it through his SAS Selection course. He then proceeded for the next six months on to specialist training. He was the third American to join the ranks. Of the other two and only one remained, the other having deserted back to the States.

At this time he had contact with a Mr. Brown, a journalist in South Africa. He submitted articles to him and was pleased that they were to be published. His first article would be his “Protest” — a manifesto of sorts. In many of his published articles, he explained his worldview and according to it the reasons Rhodesia was fighting the war. He described those whom he felt were the true enemies of freedom and democracy, and he even outlined some domestic problems he felt the Rhodesian government was not handling properly. Although this gave him some notoriety, it didn’t bode well overall for his standing in the army.

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Foreigners were welcomed to the cause but were also targets of suspicion. The Rhodesians were well aware of their precarious standing with the U.S. and Britain since the 1965 unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain and because of the rising support of African nationalism in the halls of U.S. power. The many instances of CIA incursions into the country didn’t help the Americans in the secretive units gain the Rhodesians’ trust. However, John Coey finished his training and became a full member of the SAS.

Continued in part II. 


This article was originally published in 2013. Dan Tharp is the author of the new e-book, Africa Lost: Rhodesia’s COIN killing machine.