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News Every Day |

A Former Marine and Vietnam Vet Becomes a Merc

Buddy Lilley

Against insurmountable odds, Ian Smith’s regime held out for 15 years against the machinations of perfidious Britain, the U.S. State Department and the corrupt U.N. with the help of foreign volunteers from all over the world…including the U.S.  SoF was with them all the way…and was responsible, through its reporting on the vicious Bush War, for 75% of the 450 Americans volunteering for the Rhodesian military. We have no apologies. RKB. 

Buddy Lilley’s story as told to SOF’s Dr. Martin Brass (aka Vann Spencer, co author of I am Soldier of Fortune)

The Rhodesian Bush War, Buddy Lilley believes, was the mercs’ last hurrah, when men donned a “Be a Man Among Men” T-shirt or at least strutted the attitude; when they sold their belongings and bought a one-way ticket to war; when mercs were welcomed like long lost relatives; when they walked down the streets armed to the hilt and onlookers admired their gear; and when political correctness was a cuss word. 

Buddy served in the US Marine Corps, including two tours in Vietnam, 1966–70. He went to Rhodesia. He read the article, “SOF’s First and Last Rhodesian Firefight” in the January and February 2012 issues. The merc’s story took him back to Rhodesia.


Buddy contacted us and told us his story, set in the last year of the Rhodesian war. He captures the feelings of terror and hopelessness of the black and white Rhodesians before the terrorist Mugabe sold the elections. He gives us a taste of what it is like to fight savages that pillage, rape and terrorize a people on a daily basis. In many respects, it is how the Iraqis and Afghanis have been living among equally savage and suicidal homegrown terrorists, who strike unexpectedly with a vengeance.

Buddy Sitting on Guard Duty

I hook up with SOFers
SOF came on the scene and vets like me knew we had a friend. The second issue had a short “In Retrospect” segment written by Ed Arthur. I contacted him. His trust in Col. Brown had no limit. Communism, which we fought in Vietnam at a great cost, was eating Africa alive. I had to go. After my dad died in November ‘78, I sorted out my affairs, made sure Mom was OK, sold my car, and bought a round trip ticket to Rhodesia in September ‘79.

I threw an AR-15 w/Leatherwood scope/MT and a case of .55 grain Rem .223 HP and my Browning HiPower, more ammo, and my old web gear from Vietnam into a duffle bag I had a parachute rigger modify to my specs. I carried my guitar.

In Johannesburg, two customs guys carried my gear and took me to the Air Rhodesia area. With a thick English accent, one of the guys noted that my suitcase was heavy.
“Tools,” I said.

“I understand,” he smiled, shook my hand, wished me good luck and strolled off.
At the customs gate in Salisbury, I was given a weapons declaration form. “Do you want to join the army? There are other Americans here,” the customs guy asked me.

“No Sir, not yet. I need a meal and some sleep.” He invited me for drinks the next evening.

The Rhodesian on my flight coming in from South Africa had recommended a hotel about a 10-minute walk to the customs officer’s home. The next evening I holstered my Browning, shouldered my AR-15 and walked down the street for my first Rhodesian beer. The Colt attracted attention on the streets where carrying was normal. My host’s girlfriend worked for the courts and she had a contact if I wasn’t ready to join the army.

The next day I set up an appointment with her recruiting contact. A farmer was looking for an extra gun for his terrorist alerts. I declined, explaining that I wanted to get the lay of the land. The customs officer’s girl had another job in the works, in Umtali. OK, how do I get there? Easy! You hitchhike! “Really?”

Hitchhikers in musical trucks 
The next morning I took a taxi to the outskirts of town, where I would find a hitchhiking stop. I cued up. A vehicle stopped and loaded up as many men and their guns as would fit. The next truck was a guy in an old Land Rover. He carried a pristine 9mm Sterling that he had had since WWII. I hitched a ride and got off when he reached his turnoff.

The dust hadn’t cleared when a second Land Rover stopped. The driver was young, carried an FN and worked for Birdseye Produce. He had a job for me. I explained I had an appointment with an official at the police station in Umtali. He, like the previous trucker, gave me his card and said I was welcome anytime at his home.

I was in the town of Rasape, maybe half way to Umtali. An army armored car carrying three teenagers on their way to a terrorist alert came flying by. It came to a screeching stop and backed up to where I was standing with my gear. My Rhodesian camo, my pack, a sea bag and the AR15 had caught their attention.

“Can we see your “gat” (my Colt)? What’s in the suitcase”?

“Tools”, I said. They chuckled.

We saw the “Welcome to Umtali” sign around sunset. My three friends were well in their cups and feeling pretty good. But then, one of the men sobered up for a moment, pointing out where his sergeant friend had been killed in an ambush.

The driver pulled up in front of the Cecil Hotel. The smiling lady at the desk said to move the armored car to the back if we were staying for drinks. “Let’s go to the bar for Cain and Orange,” they urged. I smiled, “How about tomorrow?”

Buddy Sitting on Guard Duty

Nope, they would be in the bush. I never saw them again.

For $3.50 a night I could stay indefinitely till I got a job, then the price would go up. I settled in, dusted the weapons and filled my extra mags. Life was good. I had six 30- and one 20-round with my kit with an extra bandolier of 20-round mags as insurance. I had five standard mags and one 20-round mag for the Browning. That had emptied about two of my four boxes of 9mm HP. I had brought about 700 rounds of .223, mostly 55 grain HP with a mixture of ball and tracers in 10-round stripper clips. I had two different shoulder rigs for the Browning, standard GI and an underarm concealed civilian type. I carried two Buck folding blades. I had my original bayonet from 1967 and a Gerber MK1, two GI canteens, a medical kit and a couple of GI can openers in a small pouch.

On Monday morning I rang the contact the Salisbury courts lady had given me. She told me to come on over to her office across the street. She interrogated me for about an hour, left for a moment, then returned and said I had a one o’clock interview with Forest Management Service. I was stunned.

I took a taxi to the FMS HQ. A sergeant major on leave from the African Rifles came out to the waiting room and sat down. The company was hiring him while he was on leave. We went to verify that my driver’s license was good in Rhodesia. “Be here at 1100 tomorrow. You’ll sign a two-week contract. We’ll store your extra gear at the security guard’s house and leave for Melsetta at 1300.” I packed a bag with some essentials.

Buddy with a Leopard vehicle-1

Hired gun
The convoy had just arrived from Melsetta and my new Australian OIC, “John,” was waiting for us. Tick, second in charge, was a former RLI with a record jacket of which anyone would be proud. Glenn, tall and lean, drove the chase gun truck with the MAG [FN-based general purpose machine gun]. Brett was a son of the bush, big, strong and ex-army. Glenn needed an “A” gunner for the Mashona who carried the MAG. I was good with that. Our truck didn’t have a turret, so we just propped ourselves up in the back and away we went. If there was contact, we would go in shooting. There were only about 150–75 rounds for the MAG. I asked James if there was any more ammo.
He replied, “No, Mr. Bud,” but if I lent him my “very fine pistol,” he would continue to shoot if we ran out of 7.62. He was prior African Rifles and had always carried a MAG. I asked if he had ever run out of ammo and his reply was, “No, Mr. Bud, never. But I still might need your very fine pistol.”

We raced off in a roar of thunder. The eight tractor-trailers were spread over a half-mile or more. This was bad stuff. I asked John what was up. He said we just had to do the best we could to protect them. I had a bad feeling about this Indy 500 tractor-trailer race.

We arrived at Melsetta late afternoon at the loading dock. The day was done for most of the convoy, but we had to escort a couple of trucks to Tillbury Estate, about a 40-minute drive deeper into the mountains. It was pretty near dark when we arrived. The security unit had two European officers and 50–60 African troops (Mashona). The drivers stopped to pick up full trailers of lumber and arrived at the hotel in Melsetta around 0730. Melsetta was a vacation town in better times, but the war had killed the tourist business.

We left at 0700 the next morning, arrived in Umtali around 1100 and two hours later we hit the road to Melsetta. Glenn stopped the truck at the end of the mountain road. He was going to run the two kilometers to the top of the hill. He asked me to join him. James looked at me with wide eyes. “Mr. Bud, Glenn is a very good runner. He is going to be SAS.”

Buddy Hanging w Troups

Glenn ran without kit; I carried my rifle and web gear. I told him to run his regular pace, that I’d catch up. Glenn ran like a greyhound up the steep hill. I arrived minutes behind him at the top. He smiled as he caught his breath. “Is that the best you Marines can do?” He told me to leave kit in truck next time.

I said “I was taught to train as you would fight.”

Monday we hit the road again. I killed a large bull baboon at a rest stop. I cut the head off and Tick put it on an anthill. Tomorrow when we returned he’d have a great skull. The next day it was gone.

Monday I was told I’d be staying at Tillbury a couple days. The 2IC had quit. One of the other Mashona took my place with James as his A gunner. Each family had a home with a security fence and three African guards assigned to them.

Mobile patrols with Leopard armored cars
A few days turned into a week. I patrolled with the Leopard anti-mine and small firearms armored cars on the miles of roads on this 25,000-acre estate to scare off the gooks. One patrol had bumped into a column of gooks, a firefight erupted and everyone on the estate jumped in vehicles and drove to the sound of the gunfire. Sgt. Major Leonard, the senior enlisted African, had his G3 shot out of his hand. He was praised for, driving back to HQ, grabbing a 9mm Sten gun and returning to the fight. There had been no contacts since then.

I was called to the estate manager, Bill’s office. He asked if I would consider staying on as 2IC. I said, you want me, you got me. I went back to Umtali and picked up my gear.

On my first official day, the gooks returned to burn the farmer’s timber. I pulled security with the firefighters and by night the fires were out. No contact was made.
Sgt. Simon, standing at attention later in my room, said “I believe you are wanted at the fire. Get your guards and meet Spider and me at the Leopards.” Spider ordered me to find Bill and leave a couple of troops with him. Killing the estate manager would be a feather in a local gooks’ hat. Spider radioed the British South African police HQ in Melsetta and gave a quick report. I found the manager and left two guards carrying Beretta shotguns with him. He told me to start a roving patrol and instructed Sgt. Simon where to take me. At a given place, Sgt. Simon and I would fire a few rounds, making the gooks think some of them were in contact.

Ambush!
Spider was at the fire area and I was trying to be in several places at one time. We’d been up all night and dawn was an hour away. The army was here. There was a deafening explosion. An army vehicle had hit a mine. I saw a few green tracers and a small explosion. Sgt. Simon shouted in his best Kipling English, “Sir, I believe it is an ambush! I’m driving”!

“You’re in charge,” I shouted back. Sgt. Simon and his troops began firing. I was at the wheel and couldn’t get trigger time; only a few seconds had passed, but a lot had happened. I drove into the kill zone and headed for the front of the army vehicle, nose-to-nose for less chance of a friendly fire accident. Hot brass from Sgt. Simon’s FN was all over me. He had his rifle over the top of the Leopard, firing away. The G3 next to him was spraying us both with brass. Great! Not only would I be deaf but cooked by hot brass! A couple minutes went by and all was quiet.

There were two white NCOs on board. I asked the driver if anyone was hurt. He laughed. “Oh, you’re the Yank from the South.” Spider arrived with more troops. No good guys were hurt, no bad guy bodies. They used our base radio to contact Melsetta. We returned later to view the hole made by the mine. Morris H., our EOD expert, said it was a good size box mine. The worn tire treads in the dirt were mine. The army NCO laughed; the old Leopard would be on its side if I had hit that. “You would have survived, Yank, but you would have had a worse headache than me.”

The estate employees were paid once a month. The gooks knew this. We were going to put out ambushes and do night patrols. Skip F., assistant state manager, was a great help to me. He was a former Greys Scout and had a wealth of knowledge on anti-terrorism. He wanted to make contact. One of his suggestions was a night presence in the villages just prior to payday. Sgt. Leonard would take a patrol to one of the far out villages. I would accompany him as an observer/shooter. Spider dropped us off close to the village. Villagers were used to hearing vehicles at night. I would be in #3 position behind the sergeant major. It was pitch black as we entered the village. The smoke from numerous fires hung like a cloud. In the huts, voices went silent. The sergeant major assured them who we are. It took a couple hours to cover the area. We knew there were sympathizers in the village.

The gooks returned. My radioman (house mouse) Anania called me to the porch. There was a young boy who said the gooks were in his village no more than two miles from us. I awakened Spider and sent Anania to get the sergeant major. I called Skip, who was in charge while the boss was in Umtali on business. Spider worked out a quick plan. We assumed the terrorists would head for the Tribal Trust Land (TTL). He would take a team with the sergeant major and try to get ahead of them. I would take our best tracker, Steven, and when we found spore, notify Spider where the gooks were heading.

They came into the village just after midnight, pilfering what food, clothing and cooking utensils and women they could snatch. They left late and with a little luck they were only an hour or so ahead of us. Villagers gave us their direction. Steve found fresh marks in the hard clay. I radioed Spider. Skip and some of the other Europeans would join Spider. Locals reported between 10–15 gooks.

I had one of my guards take the Leopard back to the barracks, where Skip would pick him up along with additional troops. There were no friendlies where we were heading. Steven and Anania had G3s. The three troops had .303s. Pretty good firepower.

Keystone Cops
We were on an unfamiliar road. Numbers on signs told Skip where we were. Anania kept constant radio contact with Skip. We believed the gooks had at least one belt-fed gun and an RPG. I was outgunned. If there were serious contact, we would need backup quick. Skip was behind us with his armored Land Rover loaded with guards. Spider was moving to put in a blocking force on the main native trail to the TTL. We were moving gingerly and in silence. A quickly set-up trip wire and a grenade would ruin my day. Steve believed the terrorists had split up. They must have known we were on to them. We came into a large cutover. Steve spotted movement at 500 yards plus. I adjusted the power on my Leatherwood scope. The figures were reaching the top of a hill. I ordered the troops not to shoot—too far. Skip arrived and I gave him the situation report. Spider’s troops were too far away. No hits, no runs, and no contact.

Steve said he could find the gooks’ hideout and wanted to go check. Skip OK’d the plan. Anania would go with the troops and we would drive around and pick them up in a couple of hours. Spider met us at the barracks. Skip and I went looking for the patrol. Steven was disappointed. Finding a body or weapon would have meant a bonus for the guys.

Skip had another village he wanted to check out before payday. Spider and I left security with the Leopards and headed through the village. Spider suggested we see “what’s for lunch.” Lunch was a 55-gallon drum cooking up the firewater. The two guys inside tried to make a run for it but were unsuccessful. CPL Noel said they were sympathizers. Could we kill them? Spider told him not today. They were told the next time they were caught here, CPL Noel would deal with them….now “Go”!

We swung around the edge of the village near a small cornfield. Something didn’t look right. Mixed in the corn was a bumper large crop of dagga, Africa’s finest pot. We called HQ for a Land Rover. This was the area where the gooks had burned a tractor and kidnapped some workers. On the third day the cops arrived.

One time we were at the company store to grab supplies for the guards. We had just parked when we heard gunfire and explosions from the sawmill outside of the main base. I loaded two troops and myself in Skip’s armored Land Rover. One of the other guards, Msimba, would drive the Leopard to the barracks, link up with Spider and bring a reactionary force to the mill. I told him to leave his shotgun and bring my self-loading rifle. He said he would carry both.

Man down 
At the mill, we were told where the tractors with the timber crews were going. We came around a curve and saw the tractor. I saw two bodies. My two troops stayed with the Land Rover. It was about 40 yards to the ambush site. Skip and I maneuvered to get closer. The RPG rocket had missed the tractor and hit a nearby tree. One of my troops was down with empty .303 casings next to him. He was stuck with a bayonet and finished off with a 7.62 pistol round to the head. My guy had chosen to fight. My other guard came out of the woods. He was wounded in the lower leg, a clean bullet hole. I checked the body for booby traps, looking for a possible grenade; it was clean. Spider arrived with a reaction team. I grabbed three troops with G3’s and a few others with Berettas and .303s. Eight of us against 15-plus terrorists. Skip told me to stand down. The military in Melsetta ordered us not to follow. They would handle it. This was stupid. They had maybe one hour lead on us and were leaving a good trail. We could pursue. Let the army try cutting them off. No deal. It was over.

Infiltrators
Skip came by one morning, and decided we needed to do more foot patrols. Word was the terrorists were tipped off by one of our African foresters. Criminal investigation division was sending some guys to interview him. Spider set up a raid on the forester’s home; no one was told except the sergeant major. In no time, he was in custody. The worthless investigation team got nothing to incriminate him. I told him the next time the sergeant major and some of his guys would do the interrogation. That scared him.

Skip and I headed up to one of the unused watchtowers. No sooner did we get to the top when we got a radio message that the convoy had been hit. There were civilian casualties. One of our Europeans coming back from holiday would lose a leg below the knee. UN peacekeepers may have been coming but there was still a war on.

Children and teachers easy targets for the cowards
One of our regular duties was retrieving the children from school on Fridays. I was particularly nervous, since the students and teachers, black and white, were soft targets. I saw the teacher, a Greek, for the last time when I picked the children up for the Christmas holiday. He was a good man doing a dangerous job. I hope he survived. One of my guards had been a school teacher. To have remained in his village would have been certain death. I assigned him to help in the office and assist some of my troops with their English.

We were told all patrolling must cease, that the peacekeepers were arriving. Skip wanted a presence shown in one particular area. This would be a short operation. Spider would drop us off and do a pickup later. The team would be the usual two G3’s, two 303s and one Beretta shotgun. We were dropped off near a trail that went to the TTL. Almost immediately we found a letter. Gooks talking shop! This was fresh spore! I called HQ on the radio for instructions. My guys wanted to follow. A captured weapon meant extra money for them.

“Go!” Everything was quiet as we descended into the valley. We moved in silence. An unknown number of terrorists were ahead of us. We could expect no quick assistance and any casualties would be hell to get out. Contact would be close. Steven came to an abrupt stop. He tapped two fingers on the top of his arm, signing for me to come up. There was a wire that went right across the game trail. I motioned for the team to back up. We traced the line. It was not a booby trap. It was an animal snare.

“Mr. Bud, they don’t know we‘re behind them. They hope to return and find dinner in a few days.” We took the snare wire and proceeded. We would find more snares. Each had to be carefully examined in case there was a surprise for us. We treated poachers and terrorist alike. Bang!

I ain’t no goat!
My two canteens of water were going fast. There were no streams. Early afternoon we were still marching up and down, but then we were on an upward climb. Steven was part goat. The rest of us were pulling and grabbing at trees, anything to pull us up. We came onto a clearing on the trail near the top of a hill in full view. We looked way below us, maybe 150 ft. There was no going back and the top was still 15–20 feet up. I was scared. Anyone who slipped was screwed. Terrorists across the stream could shoot us at their leisure. How did I get into this mess? We held on for dear life as we climbed the last few yards. We reached the top and stopped. Steven and another guard proceeded a bit farther and set in. Steven again signaled for me to come forward. This time he was excited.

He pointed down and across the stream. A body appeared, disappeared and came into a clear area on the stream. Mr. Bud! A Gook! Kill him!  I rested the Colt across a clump of dirt and aimed. The gook had no visible weapon and was maybe 130–50 yds. away. I could hit him. But I didn’t shoot. It was a free fire zone, but I waited. Besides, how many of his buddies were there? I could not reach HQ on the radio. OK, now what? Let’s capture him, suggested Steven (a live gook would bring the guards extra money); also we needed water and needed it quick. Steven took us down. We were doing well until we nearly reached the bottom. A rock fell; it sounded like an elephant in free fall, then landing. We found cover and prepared for the worst. The terrorist disappeared. After about 10 minutes we proceeded to the stream. Nothing. Two at a time, we hit the water. I looked at Stephen and laughed, “It’s a fine mess you’re gotten us into, Ollie.” He did not understand the reference to Laurel and Hardy. Now it was back up the hill. I knew where we were from the Eland hunts. At least we were on a road. We spread out and marched. An hour or so later we made contact with Spider. He and Skip were on the way to retrieve, so we held our position on the small hill.

Rhodesia’s days are numbered. Run!
The subject came up about the possibility of the gooks winning the election. “What will we do”?

“Mr. Bud, you can escape to America. This is our home.” There was a real danger here. I told the guys to take their weapons and go to South Africa. “You cannot return to your homes now. If the gooks win the election you will be killed. If the government chooses to fight, then we will fight together. That is how it must be.” Spider arrived to pick us up. A communist take-over was out of the question. It must not happen.

The peacekeeping forces were arriving and I asked about going home on R&R to check on my mom. Bill agreed. My replacement soon arrived. I took the convoy to Umtali for the last time.

I debriefed at the security HQ with the unit CO. He assured me there was a job anywhere in country when I came back. There was a recommendation in my folder there. The CO remarked, “Bud, it might get dirty. We will need you and any help you can bring. If we win the election, the fighting will only get worse. The Cubans might make a run on Umtali from Mozambique; anything can happen.”

I told him I would be back. Sometimes things don’t work out like you plan. I sold my AR15 and Browning at Fereday & Sons Gun Shop. I received word to wait until elections were over before returning. There was never going to be a free election. Nobody cared about Rhodesia.

Wild Geese Flying South
With SOF keeping me up to date on South America, the old urge came back. The accountant in our office said she saw something in my eyes. The wild geese were flying south. I retired in 2006 with 37-½ yrs. government service.

I carry with pride my two tours in RVN and Rhodesia. Like thousands of others, I went to Vietnam because my country needed me to. I went to Rhodesia because I felt like it was the right thing to do. They were a good people, black and white, who got the raw end of a political deal. It has been said over and over again that evil can only exist when good men do nothing. The free world failed Rhodesia.

Rhodesia may well have been the last days of the hired gun, mercs, whatever term one chooses. I didn’t know it then, but the era of the hired gun was changing. The new shooter would be smarter, well trained in numerous fields and fighting a totally different war.

The gods of war were kind. I know how an old hound feels when the young ones are running. I will probably never carry a weapon in combat again. I will never again feel the excitement of surviving an engagement with good men with whom I was honored to serve.





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