Born in the U.K., Alastair MacKenzie spent most of his childhood in the Far East before his family settled in New Zealand at the end of his father’s British Army career. At the age of 18 in 1966, MacKenzie joined the New Zealand Army—AKA, the Kiwis. He arrived in Vietnam in May 1970.
The first half of MacKenzie’s memoir—Pilgrim Days: From Vietnam to the SAS (Osprey, 224 pp. $25, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle)—recalls his year commanding platoon out of Nui Dat on search-and-destroy missions to protect Route 15 that linked Saigon to the port city of Vung Tau.
In Vietnam, MacKenzie says, “We operated differently [than] the Americans, South Vietnamese, Thai and Korean forces, who would go and find the Viet Cong and once they found them would ‘pile on.’” Because of their reduced numbers, the Kiwis, “like the Australians,” MacKenzie writes, were “more subtle.”
He goes on to describes field operations that, except for greater respect for mines and booby traps, resembled American tactics that heavily relied on artillery and ground-attack aircraft in encounters with North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. He emphasizes, however, that his men moved slower and much more quietly in the field than the American troops did.
His unit took part in major operations but fought no large-scale battles. As expected, his men suffered casualties. MacKenzie says he was “disappointed” that his platoon “and I were not able to kill more than we did.” In his eyes, the Kiwis were “small in terms of manpower,” but “big in terms of operational efficiency.”
His account provides evidence of the universal nature of infantrymen who work to avoid unnecessary exposure to danger and complain about unrealistic upper-echelon expectations. Those sections of the book make for good reading.
MacKenzie also writes about a long line of military contemporaries. Their stories occasionally stand alone. Citing the men’s pros and cons, he often uses only a first name and an initial to identify them.
Upon returning home from war, PTSD temporarily alienated MacKenzie from his wife, Cecilia, but he received no counseling—much like Americans.
In 1973, MacKenzie resigned from the New Zealand Army to join the British Army Paras and eventually the British 22 Special Air Service Regiment, with whom he patrolled Northern Ireland. Later, he contracted with the South African Defense Force. On Pathfinder Brigade missions in Angola, he had “moments of excitement” similar to those he felt fighting in Vietnam, he says. His list of esoteric jobs also included counter-terrorism duty in Oman with the Sultan’s Special Forces.
The pace of Pilgrim Days slows when MacKenzie discusses training, which throughout his career was the core of his temporary assignments in Germany, Italy, Sudan, Belize, and Hong Kong. On the plus side, he includes explanations of training exercises that were as dangerous as combat was.
MacKenzie switched to civilian employment in 1989 as a salesman for the Royal Ordnance Ammunition Department. Within a few years, he visited “almost every country in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe,” he says.
Thereafter, he served for ten years with the Duke of Lancaster’s Territorial Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. MacKenzie also started an independent security consulting company, which he sold in 2005 before settling down in New Zealand.
Pilgrim Days gave me a clearer view of men and parts of the world that were somewhat vague to me. I admire MacKenzie’s independence and his ability to move between organizations based on his expertise in counter-terrorism and security. As a soldier, he was a man for all seasons.
As is the case with all Osprey Publishing books, Pilgrim Days contains excellent graphics. That includes enough color photographs to produce a television documentary.