10 Amazing Stories of Real Life Mercenaries


It takes a very specific sort of person to look at everything the world has to offer and say: “Yeah, give me some money and I will fight all of that.” Some call these people mercenaries. Others use different, more colorful expressions. But most people can agree that these guys have pretty… interesting lives, to put it mildly.

We’re not going to glorify the profession of shooting other people for money. Some of these people have done pretty terrible things. We’re just going to tell their stories, to show how different people end up in one of the strangest professions in the world — and what that profession sometimes turns them into. 

10. Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick Russell Burnham was truly old school: A fearless adventurer-mercenary who took part in some of the grittiest wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The stories of his prowess are so legendary that they are frankly a little hard to believe. It’s said that he once outran a horse in a 22-mile race to deliver a message. The writer of King Solomon’s Mines,  who was a friend of Burnham’s, said that the man was more of an action hero than anyone in his books. Another friend, Robert Baden-Powell, cited him as an influence when he created the Boy Scouts. Even Teddy Roosevelt was so impressed by Burnham that he specially invited him to join the Rough Riders.

No matter what you think of these stories, Burnham was certainly always where the action was. His glorious mustache could be spotted in the Apache Wars, or serving as the chief of scouts for the British Army in the Second Boer War. He took part in the Mexican Revolution, and was one of only three survivors of the Shangani Patrol, Rhodesia’s version of the Alamo. There was no telling where the man would pop up next: You could find him in any corner of Africa, or cowboying it up in Tombstone, or casually panning for gold in Klondike. What’s more, he achieved a great many of these accomplishments before he even turned 35.

Of course, all of these adventures did not necessarily mean that Frederick Russell Burnham was a nice man. He was a shameless lifelong racist, and he treated his family as little more than an afterthought: Burnham missed the births of all his three children, and often left his wife alone with them while he was off adventuring.

9. South Africa’s Elderly Mercenaries

In the 1980s, Leon Lotz was one of the Koevoets (“Crowbars”), ruthless paramilitary cops fighting for the white South African leaders. Like many people like him, Lotz got into the mercenary lifestyle after the Apartheid regime fell. He finally met his end like he had lived: In a conflict in northern Nigeria, possibly because of friendly fire from a tank. Here’s the strange part: This happened in 2015. Leon Lotz was fighting in the frontlines at the ripe old age of 59.

He was not alone, either. That year, approximately 300 former soldiers of Apartheid were still fighting in Nigeria, despite the fact that some of them are in their early 60s.  

There’s a very simple reason behind this strange phenomenon: Money, or more specifically, a lack thereof. “Former Apartheid thug” is not a marketable skill in most non-mercenary circles, so tons of these people became soldiers of fortune. It‘s the only skill they have, so if they don’t make enough money for a comfortable retirement or otherwise fall on hard times, it’s what they return to. Don’t take this to mean that they’re nice old guys who are just trying to make ends meet. They’re often literal relics of a time gone by — unrepentant racists who never really got around to updating their mental clocks beyond South Africa’s segregation heyday — though the ones who are still active tend to be professional enough to not let that show. Being old doesn’t mean that these people are bad at their job, either. On the contrary: They’ve been doing it for a very long time, and still consider themselves fit enough to do it. The people they were fighting in Nigeria found this out the hard way, as the elderly South Africans played a large part in turning the tide against the militant group Boko Haram, who were trying to sabotage the country’s election.

8. Frank Camper


There’s a very special type of mercenary who trains other mercenaries and claims he doesn’t care what they do with the skills he teaches them. That type of mercenary is called Frank Camper. In the 1980s, Camper operated The Mercenary School in Jefferson County, Alabama, where he trained soldiers of fortune from all over the world. He was always a divisive figure: Some say that he was a very capable and effective trainer, while others insist that he’s a fraud and his training consists of little more than campfires and sing-song in the woods. Regardless of which version you want to believe, he was leading a double life: Apart from being a mercenary trainer, Camper was also a dedicated informant to the FBI and Army Intelligence.

These dual roles sometimes put him in strange situations, where he both helped instigate a crisis and prevent the same crisis. He once trained a group that attempted to kill India’s prime minister. When he learned what they were up to, he immediately leaked the information and foiled their plans. He has done the same to smugglers and professional right-wing assassins. When one of his students later bombed a plane in India, he declared he’d do everything in his power to catch the guy.

The fact that Camper helped foil a number of terror plots doesn’t take away the fact that he was still the guy who had trained said terrorists, among other unsavory people. From his point of view, he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong on his school:  “I train people in combat,” he said. “People I have trained are fighting in many parts of the world—Lebanon, South Africa, the Philippines and Central America. They pick their own sides. I don’t instruct in politics or doctrine.” However, politics weren’t on his side. He made those comments in 1985, on the same week President Reagan criticized countries that hosted terrorist camps, which didn’t exactly do him any favors. And although he insists that he never trained the plane bomber — or anyone else, for that matter — in explosives, it’s worth mentioning that he was jailed in 1986 for a different bomb plot in California.

He has since moved on to a new, presumably safer career of selling computers.

7. Simon Mann

Wonga Coup” sounds like a bad mobile phone game featuring mildly copyright-infringing irate avians. However, it was a very real attempt to overthrow the leadership of Equatorial Guinea — and Simon Mann was right in the middle of it all.

Mann was a well-connected British ex-SAS dude who had dug his roots deep into the mercenary business. In 2004, he took a mission to replace President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea with a man called Severo Moto Nsa, who lived in exile in Spain. Mann says that he was told that things were extremely bad under Obiang, and the regime desperately needed to be changed. This proved to be untrue. Instead, Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe, during the very first part of his mission. He had been trying to replace a surprisingly healthy regime that very much objected to his antics. He and several co-conspirators found themselves in various prisons, and the whole coup turned out to be a wistful attempt to gain access to Equatorial Guinea’s significant oil riches. What’s more, British heavy-hitters such as Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, were implied to be in on the plot.

Mann ultimately escaped the situation with far less damage than he could have sustained. After serving four years of his 34-year sentence in Zimbabwe, he was extradited to Equatorial Guinea, and eventually pardoned by President Obiang, the very man he had attempted to overthrow. Since then, Mann has worked for Obiang on occasion. He has also been very vocal about his view that Sir Mark Thatcher is far more implicated in the Wonga Coup than he admitted in 2005, and also maintains that the whole thing was masterminded by a London-based businessman.

6. Costas Georgiou and the 1976 Mercenary Court Case

The year 1976 saw a rare event where mercenaries’ African antics actually turned against them on a global scale, as former British Army man Costas Georgiou and 13 of his cohorts were brought to justice. Thanks to the civil war in Angola, various mercenary groups had been running the country ragged, and the public was desperate to see them gone. Georgiou and others had been hired to fight against the war’s power faction, MPLA, so they made natural targets for a show of power by the country’s leaders.

Although the men stayed largely hidden from the public until their sentences were given, the case went to great pains to ensure worldwide attention. Tens of thousands of Angolans attended protests against the mercenaries, and the trial at the Luanda Palace was translated to multiple languages. A lot of this was probably a show for the foreign press, who had started to question the legitimacy of the trial. Still, legitimate or not, the mercenaries walked away with some very heavy-handed sentences: Four deaths by firing squad, the others facing prison sentences of up to 30 years. While some of the sentences were arguably justifiable, provided you support the death sentence — Georgiou, for instance, had killed multiple civilians and around 14 of his own men — others seemed a little over the top. For instance, an American man was sent to face the firing squad… because he had advertised in a magazine that he was a mercenary.

Ultimately, the trials did little to pacify Angola’s situation. On the contrary: With Cold War superpowers stealthily backing various parties, the civil war continued until 2002, and was once dubbed “the worst war in the world” because of its complete senselessness.

5. Robert C. MacKenzie

Colonel Robert C. MacKenzie was an expert mercenary who, despite the fact that his career took him to many mercenary-like jobs and contracts, heavily objected to the word “mercenary.” In 1965, the 17-year-old MacKenzie joined the US army and fought in Vietnam, but was severely injured while storming Mother’s Day Hill in 1967. After a full year in the hospital, he was sent back to the civilian life with a disability rate of 70%. However, MacKenzie wanted to be a soldier, no matter what. He traveled to Rhodesia, and joined their SAS forces despite of his disabilities. This proved to be a good career move: Over the next decade, he rose to the rank of Captain and earned numerous medals. After his Rhodesian stint, he joined the South African Defense Force to become a second in command in Special Forces.

In 1985, MacKenzie returned home, and started a second career as a longtime correspondent for Soldier of Fortune. For the next 10 years, he saw action all around the world and wrote well over 40 correspondent reports of said action. In 1995, he accepted a contract that would end in him meeting his fate in the most international way imaginable: After a stint in Bosnia, he was shot while commanding a troop of Gurkha warriors in a war in Sierra Leone.

The reason MacKenzie always disliked the term “mercenary” was that he never fought for the money alone. He treated “international soldiering” as a legitimate profession, and only fought for causes that he personally approved as good and just.  

4. Joe Adams

In the 1980s, Joe Adams worked closely with Nicaraguan Contras, U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting the country’s Sandinista government. He trained the rebel warriors and even commanded a Contra contingent of his own. Even before that, he was a force to be reckoned with. His stories of his days as a soldier of fortune are full of terror and turmoil. He says that he once threw a man into a volcano. He has infiltrated cults and tracked down children. He has investigated Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, and been imprisoned in distant countries. He also makes mention of a time when he was casing a house where someone was eating their dead lover’s heart, although he doesn’t specifically state that this was during his mercenary days. Maybe it’s just the kind of thing that happens to Joe Adams on a regular Tuesday.

Adams got out of the mercenary game around 1985-86, which proved to be a pretty good move: In late 1986, another American he had been working with was captured by the Sandinistas for spying. The more fortunate Adams moved on to another, equally cinematic profession and set up Adams Investigation, LLC. in St. Louis. As a grizzled private eye, he solved cases together with his sidekick, a young 6-foot-4 rookie investigator named Jason Walz.

He still kept a few souvenirs from his mercenary days, though … such as an armored tank that he stored in a rented garage.

3. Lynn “The Shadow” Garrison

When a man is known as “The Shadow,” you know he’s either a really, really strange person or a video game character. Lynn Garrison definitely fits the former category, and wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the latter, either. The Canadian Garrison has been, among other things, a military combat pilot, an air mercenary in Nigeria, an adventurer, a CIA collaborator, a Hollywood stuntman, and a general international man of mystery. He intensely dislikes being photographed, and a rare 1993 interview showed that just holding a camera near him is an excellent way to have it violently confiscated and the film exposed.

In the 1990s, “The Shadow” emerged from the, uh, shadows as less of a bloodthirsty mercenary and more of a crafty “man behind the scenes” type. He played a large part in the fate of Haiti, in a role that he defines as “A friend of Haiti.” His reports of the country’s exiled president, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, painted the man as a bloodthirsty voodoo villain who was fond of disposing of his enemies with a practice called necklacing: Placing a  gasoline-filled tire around their necks and setting it on fire. There is some reason to believe that these reports weren’t entirely accurate, such as the fact that the person “The Shadow” was most commonly seen shadowing was none other than the man who had deposed Aristide: Haiti’s military ruler, Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras. Still, the CIA and assorted Senators took his reports seriously, to the point where Aristide was freely labeled a “psychopath” on the Senate floor.

2. Bob Denard

French mercenary Bob Denard was one of the most infamous ‘dogs of war’ in modern history. His hands were elbow deep in virtually every conflict and coup he could reach during his 40 years of activity. Denard described himself as a “soldier, not an assassin,” but his actions did not always match up. He was once even accused of planning to assassinate the French Prime Minister. Despite this, he has said that he acts in the interests of France.The way his country kept reducing the prison sentences he kept getting for the… other stuff he was involved in certainly seems to back up this claim.

Denard’s exploits were many, and his tactics could be… unconventional, to say the least. He used many names: Sometimes he was Bob Denard. Other times, Colonel Bako or Mustafa M’hadjou. Occasionally, he even went by his real name, Gilbert Bourgeaud. He once attempted to invade a country with a small, bicycle-riding army. And he loved coups. He loved them very, very much. After fighting in Indochina, Congo, Gabon and Yemen, he got his first taste in the coup business in 1975, when he staged one in the poor island state of Comoros, on the east coast of Africa. After his next coup, a failed 1977 attempt in Benin, he apparently decided to stick to what he knows. He became obsessed over Comoros, and overthrew the country’s government whenever it didn’t please him. Which was often the case.

After Denard’s third Comoros coup in 1989, France had enough of his antics. Denard was swiftly deposed to South Africa and placed in house arrest. This didn’t last: In 1995, Denard returned to Comoros with 30 soldiers and staged his fourth coup. This time, France didn’t mess around, and sent three thousand soldiers to take Denard down. Outnumbered a hundred to one, Bob Denard was finally forced to concede defeat and break the cycle of endless coups.

1. Mad Mike Hoare

Mike Hoare joined the British Army in 1941 and never looked back. After walking out of WWII as a Major, he started a strange metamorphosis that involved being a chartered accountant in South Africa, but ultimately shaped him into the famed mercenary known as “Mad Mike.” He was a strange combination of Robin Hood and Baron von Munchausen who, in his own words, “freed the helpless and killed the foolish” … all for a suitable fee, of course. Hoare was a very capable soldier and a legitimate legend in mercenary circles, to the point that his autobiography was just called Mercenary. However, one of his most significant talents was always storytelling. He could weave a Hollywood-quality story out of anything, from a bulldog bite while riding a motorcycle to his wife’s nasty case of cerebral malaria.

Mad Mike roamed all over the world, but his most famous antics happened in Congo, where he led a 600-strong fighting ensemble called Five Commando. Mad Mike had some very peculiar demands for his troops: They had to “love combat” and “be tremendous romantics.” Apart from that, he was very open to anyone. He even welcomed homosexual soldiers in his troops, and commented that he “couldn’t imagine why anyone would boot them from their army.” (Granted, it was mostly because he felt they fit well in support roles like cooks and orderlies, but that was still pretty open-minded for a 1960s military man.)  

One of Hoare’s pet peeves was his profession’s reputation. When the brutal and unkempt Belgian mercenaries known as “Les Affreux” — “the frightful ones” — started arriving in Congo around 1961, he immediately disliked them. Hoare went to great pains to make sure that his men always wore neat uniforms, treated women respectfully, and shaved every day. (Ironically, the leader of Les Affreux was none other than Bob Denard. It probably goes without saying that the two men viewed each other as arch-rivals.)

In the late 1970s, the aging Hoare slowly started to distance himself from active mercenary missions, citing the stabilizing global situation and new, virtually unbeatable armies in places like Rhodesia and South Africa. Of course, old habits die hard. He could still easily come up with a detailed plan to remove Idi Amin from power while casually sitting at the back seat of a taxi cab… and jokingly implying that he’s taking offers.

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