Petersen had a truly extraordinary military career, much of it spent in Southeast Asia. His many exploits included leading top secret CIA operations during the Vietnam War and training Malays to counter guerrilla tactics of the communists during the Malayan Emergency and the Borneo confrontation.
Extremely popular with his men, particularly the Montagnard militia he recruited and trained to fight the Viet Cong, Petersen was nevertheless treated with suspicion by the CIA and ultimately ostracised by many of his military colleagues. He’s often likened to Marlon Brando’s character Colonel Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now.
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Barry Petersen MC, MID was one of the more fortunate members of the Australian Defence Forces, serving in three wars and surviving to tell the tale.
Sadly, the prostate cancer he had battled since 2008 did what the communists in Malaya (now Malaysia), Borneo and the Viet Cong in two tours of duty in Vietnam failed to do. Petersen was finally felled by the disease and passed away in a Bangkok hospital at 8pm on February 28, three weeks after his 84th birthday. He always maintained the cancer was caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Petersen was born at Sarina, a small town south of Mackay city in North Queensland, on February 8, 1935. He enjoyed his national military service, and in 1953 decided on a military career, graduating as a Second Lieutenant in the Australian Army in 1954. Later, in 1968, he graduated from the United States Special Warfare Centre (Long Psychological Operation Course), and he also received training at the Australian Army Command and Staff College to become a senior major in the Army.
Petersen’s active military duty began with his assignment to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in operations against communist insurgents in Malaya, where he served from 1959 to 1961. He gained valuable experience in guerrilla warfare tactics working alongside the Jahai and Temiar tribes of the indigenous Orang Asli peoples in the mountains and jungles south of the Thai-Malay border.
After returning to Australia, Army headquarters requested that he volunteer for “liaison duties with guerrillas in the event of future wars”. Because of his experience with the tribes in Malaya, Petersen was selected to join a small group of officers who were to receive special training, and then appointed to an elite group called Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTC) in 1962.
Petersen was then loaned to the CIA, and in 1963 sent to South Vietnam to recruit, train, command and develop a guerrilla style force of Montagnard (French term for the mountaindwelling tribesmen of the central highlands of southern Vietnam).
By 1964 Petersen had put together a group of several hundred men officially called Truong Son Force. They became known as “Tiger Men” because of the stripes on their camouflaged uniforms and a snarling tiger printed on their berets. Truong Son Force was highly successful in its goal of denying the Viet Cong control of much of the high plateau that dominates central Vietnam.
Their primary aim was to fight and interrupt Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese Army along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran from north to south through the mountains of Vietnam. They were recognized for their excellent combat record as well as their brutality, inflicting heavy human and material losses on the Viet Cong, who feared them.
By 1965 the Tiger Men numbered about 1,200 Montagnard fighters who used the same guerrilla tactics as the Viet Cong, which were to ambush the enemy, cause as much damage as possible and then vanish into the jungle. Petersen claimed the Americans asked him to form his force into small assassination units as part of the CIA’s Phoenix Program, a controversial joint venture between the US, South Vietnamese and Australian militaries. The program’s purpose was to identify and destroy the Viet Cong via infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and summary execution.
Petersen said he refused because he didn’t want his men to become assassins. He also felt it breached Australian military rules of engagement.
Mysterious exit from Vietnam
Petersen’s refusal to join in the Phoenix Program, along with his success with the Tiger Men, apparently resulted in resentment and suspicion from CIA insiders who said he had established his own ‘personal cult’ among the Montagnard. His CIA handler called him ‘Lawrence of the Highlands’ because, like the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, he was seen as having gone native. There are even reports that Petersen was threatened with assassination by the CIA.
Despite strong support within his force and most of the Vietnamese leadership, he lost command of the Tiger Men and was replaced by an American who apparently failed to earn the same level of respect from the Montagnard or the South Vietnamese in general.
A script telling Petersen’s life story was commissioned by American actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson decades ago, but to date nothing has materialised.
When Petersen’s assignment abruptly ended in 1965, he was flown from Vietnam to Singapore, possibly to keep him away from Australian media who might want to question him about his highly secretive role with the Tiger Men. He was back under the command of the AATTV, and soon after was attached to the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6, serving in Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo Island during the Malaysian- Indonesia ‘Confrontation.’. The MI6 asked him to go there to help train their men who were working with indigenous people in the jungle but were struggling against Indonesian Special Forces troops. After a few months he went back to Australia.
In April 1970 Petersen returned to South Vietnam for a second tour of combat duty with 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR). He commanded the infantry Charlie Company, consisting of about 140 men, which conducted operations against the Viet Cong. Petersen was involved in a transport accident and hospitalized with spinal injuries.
While recovering, he was requested by Australian Ambassador to South Vietnam A.M. Morris to return to the central highlands to gather intelligence. Petersen agreed and went back to his old stomping grounds unarmed, taking with him only one soldier, also unarmed.
During this time he instructed students of the rank of captain and major at the forerunner of the present Malaysian Command and Staff College.
In 1975 Petersen returned once again to Australia, where he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and posted to Victoria Barracks in Brisbane, Queensland. He retired from the Australian military in 1979 at the age of 45. His early departure was due in large part to lingering effects of the transport injury.
Medals of Lt Col Barry Petersen
Peterson received 13 awards during his military service:
• Military Cross (awarded for “exemplary gallantry during active operation” in 1965)
• Australian Active Service Medal
• General Service Medal
• Campaign Service Medal
• Vietnam Medal
• Australian Service Medal
• Australian Defense Service Medal
• Australian National Medal
• Australian Defense Medal
• Australian Anniversary of National Service Medal
• South Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (with two silver stars)
• South Vietnam Medal
Petersen at Hellfire Pass in Kanchanaburi province on Anzac Day in 2008. • Pingat Jasa Malaysia Medal
Petersen acquired a small farm near Cairns city in Queensland, but found life there boring. From the mid-1980s he made regular trips back to Southeast Asia. He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1987, and in 1989 commenced business activities in the country where he’d participated in a brutal war against the eventually victorious communists. His business was principally bringing various Vietnamese products to Australia.
In 1992 Petersen sold the farm in Queensland and moved to Bangkok. He told people he moved to Thailand because the cost of living was much cheaper than in Australia and health care services were good. His military pension was enough for him to live well.
He opened a consultancy company for foreign companies called Lang Suan House Co., Ltd. Employing 17 Thais, the firm provided services like guiding foreigners through the processes of obtaining visas and work permits and company registration. He lived in a shop house above the office in a narrow lane off Lang Suan Road in the center of Bangkok.
Petersen was the recipient of 13 medals in total for his service in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam. He auctioned all of them in 2010 to help finance his business in Bangkok. The thought of the medals being sold didn’t sit well with some people, including Rear Admiral Ken Doolan, then the national president of the Returned and Service League of Australia (RSL).
Doolan reportedly said that while it was a “private and sensitive matter”, veterans should be “encouraged to retain medals with pride”.
Petersen said during an interview with a Sydney newspaper that he expected to be criticized for not donating the medals to Australian history archives, but did what he thought was best. “I don’t march to the same drum as others,” he said, adding that while he was “very fond” of the men he commanded during two tours of Vietnam, he was never keenon “hanging around at an RSL club to talk about all the exploits and so on”.
He explained that the reason he sold the medals was to support his company and the people who worked for him, who had become his “de facto family.”
Since the birth of Australia on January 1, 1901, the country has fought 14 wars outside its shores:
• 1899 -190 Second Boer War (Victory)
• 1900 -1991 Boyer Rebellion (Victory)
• 1914 -1918 First World War (Victory)
• 1918 -1919 Russian Civil War (Defeat)
• 1919 Egyptian Revolution (Victory)
• 1939 -1945 Second World War (Victory)
• 1948 -1960 Malayan Emergency (Victory)
• 1950 -1953 Korean War (Stalemate)
• 1963-1966 Indonesia-Malaysia (Victory) Confrontation
• 1965 -1973 Vietnam War (Defeat)
• 1990 -1991 Gulf War (Victory)
• 2001 → War in Afghanistan (Outgoing)
• 2003-2009 Iraq War (Stalemate)
• 2006 -2013 Operation Astute (Victory)
• 2014 → Operation Okra (Outgoing)
Dates indicate the years in which Australia was involved in the war.
Around the time Lieutenant Colonel Barry Petersen was heading off for his second tour of duty in Vietnam to fight communists, Australian was witnessing an increase in the number of new communist groups in its homeland. These were quickly gaining influence within trade unions, universities and various important organizations. Communists were particularly active in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
A pro-Soviet Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which was established in 1920, aimed to establish socialism in Australia through peaceful means. However, following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, it started losing both members and influence. Pro-Soviet hardliners who resigned or were expelled from the CPA as a result of their opposition to policy changes formed the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1971.The aim of the SPA was to change the direction of politics in Australia and, eventually, to replace the capitalist system with a socialist one.
Meanwhile, the Maoist-oriented Communist Party of Australia Marxist-Leninist (CPA M-L) had become an even bigger threat. Established in 1964, it was dedicated to overthrowing the government by force, and as such was attracting younger and more enthusiastic members. So were radical Trotskyite organizations who believed in armed struggle, like the Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) formed in 1970. Some of its members branched off in 1972 to form a new orthodox Trotskyite organization called the Socialist Workers League (SWL), which became the Socialist Workers Party (Australia) in 1974.
Activities undertaken by SYA/SWL members included “training exercises” in the bush. One day the group staged a march down Swanston Street in Melbourne to show their strength. Industrial actions were plotted by different communist groups and unionists in trade halls. In fact, communists controlled several trade unions. One of the top CPA members, John Halfpenny, was the organizer of the powerful Metal Workers Union in Melbourne.
Norm Gallagher, a high profile member of the CPA M-L, led the militant Builders Laborers Federation as the Federal Secretary and as Victorian State Secretary. He was responsible for numerous strikes and disruptions on building sites.
The CPA M-L had a sizeable influence on the militant student movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s on campuses such as Monash and La Trobe universities in Melbourne and Flinders University in Adelaide through their front group, the Worker Student Alliance. The Young Labor Association (YLA) was infiltrated by the communists.
The communists also had influential friends in the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which took control of the government in the December 1972 federal elections. One prominent Trotskyite supporter was Dr Jim Cairns. After the 1972 elections he held the positions of Minister for Overseas Trade; Minister for Secondary Industry; Minister for the Environment; and Treasurer of Australia. He was 4th Deputy Prime Minister for a brief period. Other ALP members also sympathized with and supported the communists.
With such friends in high places, the job of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) wasn’t easy. They were the target of much criticism and derision from the left, but little did they suspect they would be targeted by the government itself. In an unprecedented move on March 16, 1973, then Attorney-General Lionel Murphy ordered a raid on the ASIO headquarters, then located at 469 St Kilda Road in Melbourne. The raid was conducted by the Commonwealth Police, ostensibly to obtain terrorism-related information that the ASIO was accused of withholding. Three days after the raid, Murphy gave the explanation that the raid had been carried out to ensure the safety of the visiting Yugoslavian Prime Minister.