He finished his medic course in July of 1974 and got his wish to be posted back to the RLI. He was posted in an operational area around Mt. Darwin, dealing with injuries sustained by the troops in the field. He found it to be a comfortable place where he could write and get stamps, but the boredom began to get to him. He wanted to be on the sharp end of the spear. He proposed to the CO that he wanted to go out and act as a medic and infantryman. He had both skills and the CO approved his request.
He joined the sticks going on callouts. It was here that he had a chance to treat onsite battle casualties. On one operation, he spent the night in a krall attending to some civilian casualties awaiting a casevac the next morning. A bit of a harrowing experience.
Terrorist activity increased during this time around Mt. Darwin and his skills as a medic and soldier were put to use. He noted that having a combat medic in the line increased the confidence and morale of the Troopies. Coey began to regain his sense of purpose and vigor that had brought him to Rhodesia. He writes, “It’s important for me to remain a combat soldier and a specialist medic, because only then will some people listen to you when you attempt to explain the bigger issues; of such, the battle for Rhodesia is only one.” And, “I feel that I have found my historical role here, and once that is finished, I don’t know what I’ll do….”
There was trepidation at granting his request due to the lack of trained medics at the time. He believed that in doing this it would improve the morale and respect of the Medical Corps. A Commando Medic. He cited the use of the USMC and their use of the Corpsman in the ranks of the rifle company. A medic who acted in a combatant role would serve a dual purpose of being able to fight, as well as a better chance of saving valuable troops by responding on the spot.
After some R&R he went back but was again posted to HQ. He again asked for a different posting, hopefully permanent in terms of his duties. Many people implored him to look at his duties as a medic and non-combatant as a blessing, but he would hear none of it. “I have an inner peace because I trust God to look after my safety, even if I get drilled one day. I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I achieved my purpose in this country, and that I gave all I could. It is important to do this even though others may betray you.”
Permission was granted for this experiment and he returned to Mt. Darwin as an unattached medic. He would go on whatever fire-force operation was called up. In December of that year, the tempo increased and he was on almost continuous duty. The RLI was racking up kills with few casualties of its own. Coey had a close call when one of the choppers he was on was came under fire with the pilot being shot. Fortunately, the co-pilot put the bird down without further injury.
Coey spent Christmas in Salisbury, which he admitted was very ‘lonely,’ but he remained motivated. He recounts that his performance in Fire Force was enough to have most medics retrained with the capability to act as medic and infantryman. In influencing the Army, he felt that he was expunging the humiliation that had come with his dismissal from the SAS.
During the following months, he rotated in and out of Mt. Darwin and the Zambezi Valley. With renewed pride and resoluteness, he decided to apply for citizenship as a Rhodesian. In June, he was granted citizenship and also applied for a new passport as a dual citizen. “What a chuckle, filling out those papers under a portrait of Henry Kissinger !” He was now firmly committed to finishing his military service, and looked forward to possibly staying on in Rhodesia permanently.
Rotations continued, forever chasing down the Terrs, sometimes coming up dry and others resulting in heavy clashes. By this time he has participated in close to 60 Fire Force missions and had established himself in the RLI as a solid trooper and capable medic. The tone of Coey’s letters home and journal entries became less longing and more stable as he had finally found his place, contributing to the destruction of terrorists and rendering aid to his wounded soldiers. It seemed that Coey was finally content that he was carrying out the ‘historical mission’ for his life that he had spent the last 3 years trying to find.
The Last Battle
On July 19th 1975, Two Commando was posted at Mt. Darwin for Fire Force duties. 7-Troop was designated the ‘first wave.’ They would be first responders to any call outs for support to patrols who had made contact in the bush. As the Commando Medic, Coey was assigned to Lt. Du Plooy’s stick, which acted as command and control.
A TA unit had been ambushed that morning by approximately six Terrs. The TA’s returned fire, killing two, but the rest broke contact and ran. These soldiers began to track and regain contact but had no success. 7-Troop was not called out as a result but a request for trackers was fulfilled. Coey went with them to be on scene if they regained contact.
Trackers began to pick up spoor and then 7-Troop was called in for backup, as it wasn’t known if the Terrs were returning to a larger group. The tracks led them in to a dense, overgrown river bed known as a denga. With several curves in the river, it was a perfect defensive position to lay up an ambush as soldiers rounded a bend.
Moving in on the Terrs, three members of 7-Troop were shot, two fatally, one had his legs shredded. They hunkered down and awaited reinforcements due to the fact that they could neither spot the Terrs nor assess their strength. Lt. Du Pooly arrived on the scene with Coey shortly after. With the possibility of saving the life of the third wounded man, John Alan Coey slid down into the river bed and approached his fallen comrades. Unknown to either Coey or the Lieutenant, Terrs were directly underneath the insertion point. Coey was shot twice, once through the head and a second one through the ankle. The Lieutenant was also wounded.
Over the next few hours, the attempts of the RLI to dislodge the Terrs were unsuccessful as the roots and foliage were thick enough to stop grenades from penetrating their hiding spot, and nearly impossible to get a view of the location. The SAS was called in as darkness came to use their night sights. Around midnight, the Terrs broke contact and ran. It was only then that the bodies of the RLI soldiers were retrieved from the river bed. It has been a bad day for the RLI.
Fingers were pointed and soldiers lost. David Armstrong says of this contact, “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…”
John Alan Coey, a citizen of both America and Rhodesia, was laid to rest with full military honors. Coey had come to Rhodesia to fight the evils of Communism, to preserve the dying off of western civilization, and fulfill what he repeatedly called his ‘historical mission in life.’ In many ways, he fought other battles along the way but remained true to his convictions, whatever the price.
Many can point out the futility of his death. They can say that it was a worthless cause and that the sacrifice was in vain. I think not. Those few guardians of the good in this world can look to his life and death and know they are in good company.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
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