You would be hard-pressed to find a veteran with as colorful of a military career as USCCA Member John R. Cronin. He can trace his family’s military service back more than 200 years to the American Revolution. His father, Henry “Hank” J. Cronin, commanded a tank company during the Second World War and was captured during the Battle of Bugle. After spending a couple of months in a POW camp, he escaped during winter through Poland and to safety in Russia. He took a ship to Italy, where he hitchhiked to Austria and rejoined his company.

A year after his father passed away, John R. Cronin joined the Marines. Before that, he had attended the Virginia Military Institute like his father but flunked out. “I just bombed out of there, so I joined the Marines at 19,” Cronin admitted.

John R. Cronin being medevacked during the Vietnam War.

Cronin being medevacked in 1967.

He attended radiotelegraph school in San Diego to learn Morse code. After that, he headed to the jungles of Vietnam. Cronin did two tours from 1967-1969 and suffered wounds on both occasions. He wasn’t there for more than seven weeks before he was shot in the abdomen on his first tour. A significant portion of his intestine had to be removed. But that didn’t stop Cronin from returning a second time.

After nearly a decade in the Marines, Cronin had a chance to become a captain and take over a company. He turned it down. “I thought, ‘Jeez man, I have done two tours in Vietnam, and the Marine Corps was a little on the dull side,’” he explained. “‘I don’t want to go on anymore floats, I have been on enough floats, thank you.’” He wanted to get back to the bush and into the action. The Rhodesian Bush War offered him that opportunity.

A Vietnam Vet Heads to Rhodesia

Cronin flew to southern Africa and was interviewed by 11 Rhodesian officers. They asked him where he would like to be assigned, and he requested the Rhodesia Light Infantry (RLI). Within 72 hours, Cronin’s wish was granted. He was back in the bush.

John R. Cronin between tours in April 1968.

Cronin in 1968.

Cronin spent 18 months engaged in Fireforce counter-insurgency missions against guerillas. He was later transferred out of the RLI and became an assistant operations officer in the central part of the country. After about five months, Cronin grew tired of pushing papers and meeting with farmers about security. He called a friend who told him that the Selous [pronounced seh loo] Scouts were having a selection in two weeks. He spent those two weeks preparing.

The Selous Scouts was considered one of the finest special forces units in the world, and this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. But nothing could have prepared Cronin for selection. It would be the worst experience of his life.

‘It Almost Killed Me’

The selection was one of the toughest in the world. It tested both the recruits’ physical capabilities and psychological toughness.

“It was the worst thing I had ever been on,” Cronin recalled. “They had a week where they wouldn’t give you any food for four days. You’d get maybe two or three hours sleep.” The instructors would wake up the officers around 3 a.m. and give them five minutes to set up a hasty ambush.

 “After a week of that, they’d run you’re a** up a hill carrying a guy, then he’d carry you down. They’d have the ropes course, they’d have a log run. And this [was] all on no food,” he stated. “It almost killed me.”

The second week was the dreaded endurance march. “They put 50 pounds of rocks in your pack,” Cronin recalled. “They paint it so you can’t dump them along the way and pick up some more somewhere else. Fifty pounds of rocks, plus all your kit, so you’re probably humping 80 pounds, I guess.”

“For a week we would hump these up these hills, down these hills, up and down, and, God almighty, I almost died,” he said. “We were lucky to have a really, really good corpsman with us, and he kept guys’ feet from basically falling off.” While water was plentiful, the recruits only received dried hippo and cornmeal to eat.

 “And finally, after two weeks of this, they sent you up this hill called Gotcha Gotcha. And it sounds exactly like it was,” Cronin stated.

Out of the 90 recruits, only 20 passed. Typically, only 10 percent passed. Cronin was among those who passed. “I can still remember those two weeks as being two of the worst of my life,” he recalled.

Brothers in Arms

John R. Cronin as a lieutenant with the Rhodesian Light Infantry.

Cronin as a lieutenant with the RLI.

After a weekend of rest, Cronin was assigned to one of the three Selous Scouts’ forts located on the Mozambique border. The four teams Cronin commanded dressed exactly like guerillas and moved in groups of three, four and five. “They meet these guys [the guerillas] sometimes at night. I mean, it was hairy work for them,” he said. “There a lot of silver crosses of Rhodesia awarded to these Selous Scouts, these operators. They would meet legitimate guerillas, and they’d have to know the passwords and call signs and all this stuff to ingratiate themselves with these legitimate guerillas. It’s the most dangerous work you’ve ever seen.”

Of the 350 Americans in the Rhodesian Army at the height of the war, Cronin was the only one serving in the Selous Scouts. He spent about a year and a half with this elite unit. “They gave me all kinds of shit for being an American, all kinds of shit. But it was good-natured,” he recalled. “Most of the time they would just call me Captain America.” When his term of service in the Rhodesian Army ended in 1980, Cronin returned to the U.S.

While receiving a master’s degree in Beirut, he was kidnapped at gunpoint and tortured by terrorists. Suddenly and without any explanation, he was released from captivity. Cronin received a Ph.D. in Middle East Politics and currently teaches at Strayer University in Virginia. He published an account of his experiences during the Vietnam War and Rhodesian Bush War.

Cronin’s fondest memory of his service in Rhodesia was of the guys he served alongside. “They were good guys,” he remarked. “There were probably one or two that I would trade, but other than that, the couple hundred I worked with were just first-class soldiers.”