Book Review – “Pilgrim Days” by Alastair MacKenzie

Pilgrim Days - Alastair Mackenzie

This article by Kenn Miller was originally published by the Sentinel in January 2021.

It is easy to have a good first opinion of a military book when the author declares right off that, “My father was a warrior, I was a warrior, and my son is a warrior — this is my story.” And in the case of Alastair MacKenzie, his story includes many stories, all of them interesting, and all of them well told.

MacKenzie’s first taste of combat was as a New Zealand Army Airborne infantry officer in Vietnam in 1970-71. Too often we have a tendency to forget the part that America’s allies had played in our wars. When Alastair MacKenzie was a young New Zealand Army officer leading an elite light infantry platoon in Vietnam, the total population of New Zealand, both islands, was fewer than three million citizens. Considering the nation’s population, New Zealand’s 37 KIA and 187 WIA is a heavy sacrifice. Mr. MacKenzie is not shy about bragging that “Kiwi” soldiers were very rarely REMFs, and that most New Zealand soldiers and airmen were front line soldiers and airmen. Mr. MacKenzie doesn’t exactly say so, but it is easy to see that he’s taking a New Zealander’s pride in gently mocking the fat and slothful rear echelon armies of the Americans and the Australians. That’s my reading of what he meant, not what he outright wrote.

Mister MacKenzie’s stories and comments and memories have the weight of experience, age, ego, and good sense. But the New Zealand Army apparently didn’t have the wide scope he could find in the British military, and so, in 1973 he went back home “Old Blighty,” and managed to get himself commissioned into 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. After his time with 3 Para, it was on to Wales and the 22 Special Air Service. And after a few years with 22 SAS, it was back to the Paras — 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. And after that, he served as an officer in the South African Defence Force’s Parabats. Then it was contract work with KMS, a SAS connected private military company based in London. And then it was back to the New Zealand Army. And then it was the Sultan of Oman’s Special Forces, and then something close to civilian retirement with Royal Ordnance, Reliance Security, AMA Associate Limited, and the Territorial Army (the UK version of the army reserve), especially the Special Air Service. (Including the famously nicknamed 21 SAS, the “Artist Rifles” — the only badass unit I know of with an even more intimidating nickname would be Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.)

Finally, Alastair MacKenzie retired back to New Zealand after an amazing career in various units of various armies in various military clashes — the worst of which seems to have been in Northern Ireland where the hatred, violence, danger, and terrorism was right there at home in the UK.

“Pilgrim” as a Special Air Service term comes from an early 1900s stage play by James Elroy Flecker.

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea …


About the Author: Kenn Miller served for two years in Vietnam on a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) team with the 101st Airborne Division. He is the author of Tiger the Lurp Dog. He is now retired from the Temple City, California School Department where he was a Mandarin Interpreter. He writes occasionally for the Sentinel and is a member of Chapter 78 of the Special Forces Association.

The Sentinel is the monthly publication of Chapter 78, Special Forces Association located in California. The article by Kenn Miller was republished with the permission of Chapter 78 and the author.

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