Mac McCallion. A Local Legend
Rugby Hero, War Hero
Revered in sporting circles as a rugby icon, a hard man who drove his teams to success in the mid-1990s, Mac took the Steelers to heights no previous Steelers team had scaled before or since and shone as assistant coach to the Auckland Blues.
Involved with local and regional rugby for 40 years, Mac was no mean player himself before his coaching career. As well as being a leading light in club and representative rugby in the 1970s and 80s, he captained the Maori All Blacks as a very useful number eight in the late 1970s.
Mac coached Counties to two NPC finals in the heady days when the team was hailed as one of the best Counties sides ever. He has been credited with moving Jonah Lomu to the wing position where he performed so brilliantly. Under Mac, the Counties side made the NPC finals in 1996 and 1997. Mac was
named New Zealand coach of the year for both those seasons. In those years also, he cemented his credentials as assistant coach to Graham Henry when the Auckland Blues won back-to-back Super 12 titles.
He later coached the national Fijian team, taking them to the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia.
Renowned as a hard taskmaster, tough, uncompromising and taciturn, Mac was nevertheless an inspirational leader and his approach certainly got results. He trained his men hard, expecting them to perform to their utmost but earning their respect and loyalty. But there was more to Mac than footy.
The military approach Mac brought to his rugby coaching is hardly surprising. As a Vietnam war veteran he'd been in situations where discipline was crucial and lives depended on teamwork.
Mac, or Warick Lee McCallion to give him his proper name, joined the New Zealand army as a cadet. He was accepted into the elite Special Air Service (SAS) and in December 1969 was sent to South Vietnam as part of the Australasian support for US forces in the fight against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
The NZSAS acted in a specialist role for the infantry, to assist in providing long range reconnaissance patrols. Operating in small, usually five man units, whose members were bound together by loyalty and rigorous training, they were part of a vicious guerrilla war where stealth and constant vigilance were the key to staying alive.
The soldiers had to be physically and mentally tough. The Vietnamese jungle, swamps and mountains were difficult to negotiate. The heat was intense. During the October-May dry season, moving through the crackling dry leaves in the bamboo risked giving away their position. Scouting out alongside jungle tracks, every step had to be carefully placed to avoid detection, making progress excruciatingly slow. Thick vegetation made the enemy virtually invisible and the patrols had to strain every sense to detect enemy presence as they inched their way into the unknown.
The Viet Cong were tough fighters, armed with AK47s and familar with the terrain. They could melt into the landscape behind natural features such as ant hills, caves and tree stumps. As if an elusive enemy, booby traps, mines and trip wires across jungle tracks were not enough, hazardous river crossings complete with crocodiles kept tensions high for the SAS.
Intensive training had prepared the men for these conditions. Standards of uncompromising professionalism and loyalty to each other were what made the SAS units so effective. They were expert in remaining undetected as long as food and water would allow, through tactics, camouflage and concealment. With the enemy frequently only metres away it was essential to avoid confrontation.
Cooperation, coordination and constant vigilance were vital with so few men in each patrol. Each man had to be confident that the others would look after him, and in the event of casualties it was understood that no soldier would be left behind.
It was in this spirit that the 'Faceless 26 Ghost Unit' was choppered into Binh Tuy province on January 13, 1970. Led by the highly regarded Sergeant Graham Campbell, the six men, including Trooper Mac McCallion, set out on a reconnaissance/ ambush mission.
Next morning Campbell and scout Bill Taare went to investigate a well defined track which showed signs of recent use. With visibility only 15-20 metres, the two proceeded with caution.
Despite their care, Campbell stood on a twig, which snapped with a deafening sound in the silence. The two men froze and waited. Still silence - until they moved again.
Suddenly automatic fire burst forth from at least five sources only 10 metres away. Campbell dropped to the ground, bleeding from the head.
Taare returned fire and alerted the others, who rushed to check their commander. Attempting to clear Campbell's airways with his fingers, Taare came out with a handful of teeth which he put in his pocket. No one knew whether Campbell was alive or dead, but he was coming out with his mates – no question.
With VC fire blasting around them, Mac, still carrying his heavy back pack, shouldered his fallen comrade and headed for safety. Bill Taare threw a phosphorous grenade which loosed a curtain of white smoke, and the men ran for their lives.
Training and adrenaline kicked in as Mac and his mates powered through the dense undergrowth toward the point where the helicopter would pick them up.
Mac's speed and stamina were impressive, but the 19 year old's double load was slowing him down. They managed to reach the rendezvous point for the chopper, but escape was no easy matter. With nowhere to land, the squad had to be winched out by ropes dropped from the helicopter, two at a time, while the others waited their turn surrounded by enemy fire. To signal their whereabouts to the pilot, Taare had to come out of cover and risk being shot.
Jungle vines grabbed at the soldiers and the enemy blasted away at them as each pair was winched up to the chopper. Mac and patrol 2IC Sid Puia were the last to go.
Mac later commented: “Taare should have received some sort of medal for the way he took charge and brought us all home.”
Despite being recommended for a medal, Taare never received one. In fact no medals were awarded to the NZSAS in Vietnam, something
that still rankles with many. Vietnam was the only theatre of war where this was the case.
Campbell's was the sole NZSAS death in Vietnam, and only the second in the service's history to that time. It affected the whole troop deeply, but after a couple of days' leave they were back on patrol. As professionals they knew it was what they were there for, but Campbell's death was a sharp reminder of their own mortality.
Training and leadership helped them to refocus quickly on the job in hand, but they never forgot their mate. It wasn't until January 2008 that a memorial service was held at the New Zealand army museum marae in Waiouru. Mac and some of the other patrol members were among the 150 in attendance, as well as Peter Bradford, the Aussie helicopter pilot (later a Qantas pilot) who had flown them out.
In March 2018 McCallion's own funeral after a battle with cancer signed off the life of a man who had always pushed himself hard, whether in rugby or in his personal life.
The experiences of war may have made him tough, but according to his brother Wayne he could be “a bit of a pussy” in private. Interviewed by TVNZ, Wayne said: “Deep down he had a softer side, but he didn’t show it. He didn’t want to show it for obvious reasons.”