Every so often, especially in times of war, extraordinary men emerge. Whether it be their personality or deeds, they become icons associated with the best and brightest in their sphere of influence. Robert Mackenzie was such a man.
A Soldier in the Making
Also known as Bob McKenna for the sake of hiding his identity at a time where the American government threatened to criminalize those who took part in wars abroad as professional soldiers, Robert “Bob” Mackenzie made his mark on several continents most notably in Africa during the war in Rhodesia. But his grit as a soldier did not begin or end there.
Born in San Diego in 1948, Robert MacKenzie had his eyes set on becoming a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. To that end, he worked hard and received an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Despite the tremendous amount of work he had put into it, his desire to fly was overwhelmed by America’s involvement in Vietnam. Rather than hide out and ride into a commission as an aviator, his fear of missing out on an actual war, where he could experience combat, overwhelmed him. He declined the appointment and went to the local Army recruitment station and declared his desire to serve in the infantry as an enlisted man.
The Army obliged him without delay and he went to boot camp and Jump School at Fort Benning, home of the Infantry. He landed in Company B, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne, and in 1967 arrived in Vietnam.
Vietnam and the Battle for Mother’s Day Hill
The unit was dropped into a place called Happy Valley right at the foothills of the Central Highlands.
The heavy jungle covering the foothills of the Central Highlands made fighting both tactically and physically difficult. The 327th was tasked with search and destroy missions as well as area denial to prevent the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from entering the valley from which they would come down and replenish their supplies.
The men began to climb through the terrain. They had chosen a well-used trail for access. They used dogs and metal detectors to make sure the area wasn’t booby-trapped with anti-personnel mines. Soon, while making a hairpin turn, they met a Vietnamese trail watcher. The Americans got the drop and shot the VC dead. The long line moved forward to seek out the enemy.
They soon fell into a well-laid ambush where they were outnumbered and tactically at a disadvantage. All hell broke loose. The company commander quickly set up a command post in the woodline and started calling in fire support. Unfortunately, either something went awry or in the chaos, or wrong coordinates were given and the command post was blown away, killing the entire command element including the forward observer and company commander.
The men were on their own to maneuver and close with the enemy. Eventually, the ferocity of the American counter-ambush tactics scattered the NVA and VC. Although it was classified as a “small unit” action, the participants later named the encounter, “the Battle for Mother’s Day Hill,” paying homage to the date it was fought on.
During the encounter, Robert Mackenzie was shot in the arm losing a chunk of his bicep. Evacuated to the rear, his war in Vietnam came to a close. After a year in military hospitals, he was declared 70 percent disabled and medically retired from the military.
Robert MacKenzie With the SAS in Rhodesia
Not much is known about the years between his post-Army career and his arrival in Rhodesia. It was clear, however, that this young man had not had his fill of war. What we do know is that he arrived in Rhodesia shortly thereafter, undertook the Special Air Service selection course, and eventually became an officer.
Quite a few Americans had sought to serve in the Rhodesian Army during the Rhodesian Bush War. Some were unsavory characters trying to escape their lives at home or a less than honorable discharge from Vietnam. There was also the occasional “storyteller”, men who made up fictitious stories about what they had done in Vietnam, serving in units so secret that they could not reveal anything about them.
Robert Mackenzie began to serve with distinction in Rhodesia and with the SAS and was noted for his aggressive leadership and courageous actions. This was during a war in which suspicion of foreigners was very high. In particular, Americans were constantly under suspicion of working for the CIA. Mackenzie shrugged these accusations off by constant aggression to defend the nation of Rhodesia and to inflict as much damage to the communist revolutionary forces as possible.
Even as an officer he was not content to just give orders and delegate. He did, from all accounts, have a very prickly leadership style and did not always agree or get along with his fellow officers. But no one could question his personal bravery in the field. There are many stories of him jumping into contact with the enemy and rather than moving from cover to cover remain standing, looking for areas from which the enemy was engaging, and personally giving orders to the men to direct their fire.
Although totally committed to the war he was fighting, he retained some of his American flair by wearing a traditional GI helmet and often using the M-16 instead of the standard FN FAL. As a member of the Rhodesian SAS, he was involved in virtually continuous operations for nearly a decade. The rotation for most soldiers was six weeks in the bush and 10 days of Rest and Recovery. This means there was little to no respite from operations.
Many men lost count of the number of battles they fought, jumps they made, or Communist terrorists they killed. This author asked a member of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RIL) and SAS about the strain of constant operations over a decade. His reply was, “This is simply what we had to do. We were defending our home against an ever-growing number of the enemy and we had to be in the field taking the battle to them. We didn’t have the luxury of taking time off.”
One operation that exemplifies the motto of the SAS “Who Dares Wins” is what was called the Cockleshell Heroes deployment. I have written about it in my book Africa Lost which available to read on SOFREP.
With the South African Special Forces
At the close of the war in Rhodesia in 1980, now-SAS Squadron Leader Robert Mackenzie was recruited by Ron Reid-Daly to work in the South African state of Transkei. His mission was to train their Special Forces to fight the terrorists who stood against the state. He resigned from the newly created Zimbabwe National Army and joined the South African Special Forces as a major. He served in South Africa for five years before returning to the U.S. in 1985 after 15 years of serving overseas.
While in South Africa, he also put his hand to journalism. Recruited by Robert K. Brown of Soldier of Fortune magazine, Robert Mackenzie began writing articles about small wars around the world and historical operations he and others had performed in Rhodesia.
Once he returned to the U.S., his story becomes somewhat murky. He kept a very low profile for some 10 years since serving in a foreign military was tantamount to renouncing U.S. citizenship since it typically involved taking an oath of loyalty to another country. Yet, it is believed by many that he lobbied for anti-communist forces in Mozambique and acted in a paramilitary role in Central America, Kosovo, and Bosnia. As those endeavors seemed to fade, he began looking for work back in Africa.
The Bush War in Sierra Leone
In the early to mid-1990s the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began tearing apart the nation of Sierra Leone. The government sought help from outside forces as its military was not able to stop and dismantle the rebels. The government hired 60 men from Gurkha Security Guards Limited to help train a select group of troops to take on the RUF and pass on that training to others in their army. Robert Mackenzie was brought in to head the operation in January of 1995.
He was used to working with raw African troops and had the confidence of nearly two decades of combat in Africa behind him. What he did not have was the solid backup of fearless soldiers around him willing to take the fight to the enemy without reservation. He was also under the command of a government that was not well versed in Counter Insurgency warfare.
Within weeks, he was tasked to take a convoy of soldiers to an army camp deep inside the RUF’s area of control. As expected, the convoy was ambushed. Mackenzie led a counterattack and ran the rebels off into the bush. Upon inspection, the numerous bodies and blood trails showed that the RUF was not interested in fighting a well-led and aggressive opponent. Or so it seemed.
The government of Sierra Leone was excited by this turn of events and began to formulate a plan to hit the RUF. Mackenzie was not in favor of that. He argued that time was needed to train a competent strike force, gather war stocks and intelligence to ensure a devastating strike.
What little intelligence they were able to gather pinpointed to a range of hills where the RUF was dug in and ready for battle. The order for the men led by Mackenzie was to assault the hill and finish off the main body of the RUF. The only support they would have was Nigerian jets that would bomb the hills before the assault began.
Robert Mackenzie’s Final Mission
The total inexperience and lack of military understanding came to bear as the Nigerians bombed the wrong hill. What little help the men under Mackenzie’s command were promised went up in smoke on the wrong target. Despite this, the command gave the green light for the assault believing that the RUF would fold.
No one knows exactly what went through the mind of Mackenzie but true to his contract he assaulted the hill but was repelled rather quickly. Reports said that he was shot twice in the leg and once through the chest. Lieutenant Andy Myers who was assisting him was also shot. Neither of them was ever seen again as the command to retreat had been given and their bodies were left behind. It is rumored that MacKenzie was eaten by the RUF communists on the belief that consuming his flesh would impart his military abilities to the RUF fighters. This suggests a rather gruesome end to a very long and interesting military career. MacKenzie was just 46 when he was killed.
I would note that MacKenzie would bristle at the notion of being called a “mercenary” which are soldiers hired by a government to fight but do not accept rank or commissions in the armed forces of the host government. Bob MacKenzie died with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the armed forces of Sierra Leone.
His friends would say of him that he did not fight just for money but for causes he believed in. In Robert MacKenzie’s case, that cause was the fight against revolutionary communists. Not at all an unworthy cause.