Soldier who lived through apocalypse now

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by jonwilly, Nov 14, 2010.

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  1. Daily Express UK.

    Story Image

    Barry Petersen with his medals

    Sunday November 14,2010
    By Ed Baker

    A SPECIAL FORCES officer who put together an army of Vietnamese soldiers and was abandoned by his CIA backers for “going native” is selling his medals.

    The incredible story of Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Petersen bears striking parallels to Marlon Brando’s character Colonel Walter E Kurtz in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

    During the Vietnam War Australian Petersen was ordered to train and lead a guerrilla force of Montagnard tribesmen against the Viet Cong.

    He formed a feared militia that became known as the Tiger Men, and won the Military Cross among many other medals.

    However, unlike Brando’s character in the Oscar-winning film, Petersen was lucky to escape from the jungle with his life after standing up to the CIA.

    It was in 1962 that, largely on the back of his experiences in Malaya, Petersen was contacted by the US army who wanted him to volunteer for liaison duties with guerrillas. He was sent to the south of Vietnam on loan to the CIA and was assigned to work alongside the Montagnard tribe in Darlac Province, on the border with Cambodia.

    Over the next two years he developed a superb fighting force of Montagnard tribesmen. He had hundreds under his control and ordered tiger-headed badges and green berets for them to wear.

    They spread propaganda, collected intelligence, established cells and informant networks, carried out raids, kidnappings, ambushes and killed Viet Cong agents.

    They went deep into Viet Cong territory, destroyed rice crops and rescued captured Montagnard tribesmen. Petersen learned the local language, lived with the tribesmen and drank with them. Some became friends for life.

    However, he refused CIA overtures to turn his Tiger Men into assassins as part of the notorious Phoenix Program and that encouraged the belief that he had “gone native”.

    According to a friend of Petersen’s, the CIA had marked him down to be “eliminated” if he had refused to leave the country when he was asked in 1965.

    He did leave – after his men had given him a send-off which went on for two weeks.

    Now Petersen, 74, who lives in Thailand because Asia “got in his blood”, is selling his medals. The 13 gongs, which include the South Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Silver Star, are expected to fetch a staggering £80,000.

    They and other mementoes are being sold by Dix Noonan Webb auctioneers in London on December 1.

    Auctioneer David Erskine-Hill said: “A Military Cross for the Vietnam War is a very rare distinction – and one for this type of clandestine warfare quite probably unique.

    “In 30 years as a specialist and auctioneer in orders, decorations and medals, I have come across some extraordinary stories of courage, but rarely have I encountered such an unusual example of protracted gallantry as that displayed by Colonel Petersen in Vietnam.

    “When the CIA eventually withdrew its support for his highly irregular fighting force, the Chief of the Agency’s Covert Action Branch cited that he had developed a ‘personality cult’.

    “But the Colonel, who was created a Montagnard Tribal Chief, would no doubt argue that he adapted to his tribesmen’s ways in order to become an effective leader.

    “His published account of his time in that theatre of war, in command of Montagnard hill tribesmen, with CIA backing, goes to prove that fact really can be stranger than fiction.”

    In Apocalpyse Now Brando plays rogue officer Kurtz, who has apparently gone insane and is commanding a legion of Montagnard troops in Cambodia. Another officer, played by Martin Sheen, is sent into the jungle to assassinate him.
  2. When you say his published account, are you referring to a book? If so would you know of the name, if not I'll try google.
  3. The Frank Walker one I presume?
    The Tiger Man of Vietnam
  4. Just a copy of the artical in Sundays Daily Mail, not from a book I understand.
    I would also like to know more.
    Seems to imply the Military Cross is British ! But I do not know.


    Edited to say The Book from Amazon says he is Australian.
  5. Mr_F & jonwilly, this is the better read IMHO, published a good 20 years or so ago. Tiger Men by Barry Petersen

    He's Australian all right - Australia still used the Imperial awards system at the time, hence the MC. ARRSE'r chippymick is the one to ask about this kind of thing.
  6. The Australian involvement in Vietnam increased by degrees.

    The first advisors numbered 38 and arrived in July 1962.

    Many, but not all, of the first advisors had been founding members of the Australian SAS company. The commander of the Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) in the early years was Colonel Ted Serong and he had an ulterior motive in the deployment to South Vietnam (SVN).

    He strongly suspected that things would kick off between the Australians and the Indonesians along the border that they then shared, between the Australian ‘colony’ of Papua/New Guinea and the Indonesian West Irian. (It did kick off but on a different mountainous jungle border – Borneo). Serong wanted the Australians to get experience in leading indigenous soldiers operating in mountain jungle. The CIA with assistance from US Special Forces (USSF) were doing this in a number of Montagnard (Vietnamese Aboriginal Tribes) villages in South Vietnam.

    In 1962 the CIA did small wars, the Marines did medium wars and the US Army had their focus on the big one expected on the plains of Germany. In 1962 the CIA were running the border operations in Vietnam and Laos. Contrary to his instructions from the Australian Department of External Affairs, Serong posted Australian advisors to the Civilian Irregular Defence Group (Indigenous soldiers led by USSF A Teams) The first Australian to serve with the CIDG was WO Rae Simpson who was posted to the CIDG camp at Khe Sanh within a fortnight of the first team’s arrival. Simpson would eventually become the most highly decorated Australian of the Vietnam War when he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1969. At the same time Petersen was awarded the MC Simpson would be awarded the DCM. At the time that Simpson was first serving at Khe Sanh the CIDG program was strictly a CIA run affair.

    The outcome of the Bay of Pigs was extremely disappointing and resulted in most (but not all) of the CIA small war projects being transferred to the US Army. The care and feeding of CIDG units were transferred to the army and Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) during 1963, under a program called ‘Switchback’. For reasons I don’t know, the CIA kept some projects under a thing called ‘Switchback Parasol’ . Petersen’s ‘Truong Son Force’ would later be part of this. Both MACV and the CIA were learning as they went. In these circumstances it isn’t a surprise that organisational confusion and sometimes chaos occurred. While some Australians served with CIDG units other early Australian officers were seconded directly to the CIA’s ‘Combined Studies Division’

    In March 1964 the first Australian advisors ‘officially’ assigned to work with CIDG were announced. One of them was a Warrant Officer, who would be well known to the venerable ARSSEr, Petardier, he was Don Donkin. Donkin too, was posted to the A Team at Khe Sanh. Donkin would be awarded an MBE for his leadership of the Khe Sanh A Team on this, his first tour. It wasn’t Donkin’s first stint at Khe Sanh though. He had been temporarily attached there previously, back when it was still a CIA operation. As far as Donkin was concerned, life at Khe Sanh went on as normal, regardless of whether the CIA or MACV organised the food drops and paid the troops.

    Prior to November 1963 the most experienced counter insurgency experts in SVN were Sir Robert Thompson who was the British CI advisor to the President, Diem; and the commander of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, Colonel Ted Serong. Serong also wore the hat of, special advisor on CI, to US MACV General Paul Harkins. Serong and Thompson strongly agreed on three vital CI issues. They were firstly strong advocates of the Strategic Hamlet Program, they both stressed the critical need for centralised intelligence, and they jointly designed the Chieu Hoi or VC surrender policy in Vietnam. The Chieu Hoi and centralised Intelligence aspects were the most important and most under-reported elements of what became the Phoenix Program. Much rubbish has been written about Phoenix. The important thing to remember is that it didn’t kick off until 1968, which was years after Petersen returned home from his first tour.

    The worst offenders in misreporting the Phoenix Program are the authors Douglas Valentine and Petersen’s biographer Frank Walker. Both Valentine and Walker rely on the testimony of disgraced super-walt ‘Elton Manzione’ to justify their lurid tales of torture and assassination. Frank Walker’s claims in ‘Tiger Men’ that Petersen was the target for a CIA assassination are quite ridiculous.

    Nevertheless, Petersen’s exploits in Vietnam with the Montagnards in Vietnam were undoubtedly colourful. He tells his story in a quite interesting way, including how he earned his military cross in the Montagnard revolt, in an interview he gave for the Australians at war Film archive and you can read the whole thing here.

    The Australians at War Film Archive - Interview

    Serong always intended for advisors like Petersen and Donkin to become a cadre of Australian soldiers who would organise tribal people along the West Irian border, if needed. As it turned out Petersen would also serve with British troops on the Kalimantan border, when the experience was needed there. This tour gave Petersen his second clasp to his 1962 GSM. Petersen is one of less than a dozen soldiers to have a Borneo and South Vietnam clasp. Of course Petersen is one of the 68 Australian recipients of the SVN Clasp to the ’62 GSM (or as some people prefer to call it the CSM) I’m just pointing this out because the existence of 68 of these clasps is often erroneously presented as evidence of British participation in the Vietnam War.

    The eligibility dates for the clasp SVN are interesting in themselves. They are 24th December 1962 to 28th May 1964. 24th December 1962 is six months after the AATTV arrived in Vietnam, but happens to be the day after the end date qualification for the old 1918 GSM clasp for Brunei.

    The first RAAF aircraft to operate in Vietnam were the Caribou’s that arrived in theatre on the 29th of May1964. This made the 62 GSM SVN an army only award and kind of defeated the intended tri-service nature of the then new medal.
    After the 29th of May 1964, servicemen and Women became eligible for the Vietnam Medal.

    Prior to the first Australian battalion being committed to Vietnam in 1965, it appears to me, that there was no quota in force for Imperial awards and decorations for Vietnam service. Awards were allocated in the manner in which Ted Serong thought fit. By the time that Petersen served in Vietnam a second time as a Company Commander, an award and decoration quota was very definitely in force. This meant that in some respects Petersen’s Mentioned in Dispatches emblem that he wears on his Vietnam Medal was perhaps even harder won.

    Petersen’s was a remarkable Australian officer who certainly made a unique contribution to the CIDG program. His group covers just about every involvement Australia had in South East Asian Wars in the 1950’s and 60’s. The CIA sales puffery aside the group is unique in the respect that it has both SVN and Borneo clasps and that Petersen was recognised twice with an MC and an MID for service in Vietnam.

    Barry Petersen, along with Pat Beale, is one of the most highly decorated Australian Officers still living.
    He served in Malaya during the emergency.

    He served with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam prior to the deployment of the Australian Task Force. He was awarded the Military Cross for his role in the Montagnard Revolt. His first tour of South Vietnam made him eligible for the 1962 General Service Medal. He was one of 68 Australian soldiers to be awarded the extremely rare clasp to the ’62 GSM ‘South Vietnam’

    He subsequently served in Borneo and thus is one of a dozen or so recipients of the SVN and Borneo clasps to the 62 GSM

    While Petersen distinguished himself in irregular warfare an often overlooked aspect of his service was as a Company Commander. On his second tour Petersen was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches at a time when the quota was in full force and these awards were extremely rare.

    I understand that he intends to do good work with the proceeds and I hope he gets a fair whack for them.


  7. jim24

    jim24 Book Reviewer

    And to think all this time I thought the film was based on "Heart of Darkness"
  8. The scene where Chief gets speared is clearly taken from the book, as is the 'zap 'em with your siren, man' scene. However, I found that the book spiralled off into metaphorical waffle about halfway through (as stated in the Foreword of my copy)

    Descriptions such as 'it was an august Immensity brooding over a divine Benevolence' are twaddle by any measure.
  9. And to think I'm inclined to agree with you.

    It is stupid in the extreme to compare a real life (larger than life) character - Petersen, with a completely fictional character - Kurtz.

    Barry Petersen has competition in the Kurtz comparison stakes. I've seen the USSF's Robert Rheualt and the CIA's Tony Poe also advanced as candidates for 'the real Kurtz'.

    I'll bet pounds to pinches of shit that FF Coppola had never heard of Rheualt, Poe or Petersen.

    That said, the real stories behind Rheualt, Poe and Petersen make 'Kurtz' look like a cardboard cut out.

    Whoever picks his gongs up will be getting an absolute bargain.


  10. Thank's T_B and Vastatio, I will endeavour to dig this one out on Amazon. These accounts sound very interesting, and I'm sure the book will be a very good read.

    Thank's again, Fluffy

    Edited to say, great description Chippy. Very interesting stuff.
  11. Will do, cheers.
  12. It is indeed refreshing to read factual information about such matters and a salute you Mick for adding light rather than heat to this era in general and in particular as to the genre of films (and books) that were motivated much more by ideology, such as nutter Oliver Stone (or in the case of Coppola and others more of a "band wagon" motivation to crassly captializ(s)e on the anti-war mood of the day).
  13. JJH... Sir, do you love the smell of napalm in the morning ?? !
  14. Thanks for the insight mick, certainly one i will buy through arrse/amazon.
    Never used napalm, but the smell of hesh bagcharges going off in the breech lingers!
  15. Napalm was an appropriate weapon for certain missions when used against combatants in accordance with the norms of discrimination and proportionality required if there is a risk of harm to noncombatants. I certainly do not think the term "love" is appropriate in reference to any killing, combat or otherwise unlike the obvious effort of Coppola and other to suggest professional military officers are nothing more than psychotic murderers.