A highly-decorated Australian military officer who raised a “people’s army” during the Vietnam War and was threatened with assassination by the CIA has died in Bangkok.
Barry Petersen, who earned 13 military medals for his services in Vietnam, Borneo and Malaysia, died on Thursday night, say friends and former colleagues. He was in his early 80s.
His extraordinary story was chronicled in The Tiger Man of Vietnam by Frank Walker and his own biography Tiger Men, a title he bestowed on the Montagnard fighters of Vietnam’s central highlands.
In 1962, aged 28, Petersen was loaned to the CIA in Vietnam after working with hill tribes during the Malayan Emergency.
He was originally tasked by his bosses with disarming the Montagnards who had long-standing ambitions for their own independence and an underlying hatred of the Vietnamese.
South Vietnam’s leader Ngo Dinh Diem was concerned about an uprising by the central highlanders.
Petersen won over the locals, absorbing their culture and customs and feeding and clothing them with “bags of money” provided by his CIA handlers.
Instead of disarming the Montagnards, he recruited fighters for Tiger Force which was feared by the Viet Cong for its ferocity.
The guerilla tactics they employed were similar to those successfully used by the Communist fighters themselves.
They operated in small mobile units of eight which could easily gather local intelligence on VC movements and strike quickly.
At one stage, Petersen said he had 1200 troops under his control and Tiger Force’s role was seen as crucial in trying to stem the flow of Viet Cong soldiers, supplies and munitions along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
But the CIA chiefs and South Vietnam administration remained suspicious of the Montagnards and a perceived “cult of personality” growing around Petersen.
“I found that the whole time I was there, two years, I had not only a force to run but a political tightrope (to walk) to keep the Vietnamese happy and to keep my Montagnards’ force in line and, of course, to curb their autonomy aspirations,” Petersen said in a 2000 interview.
Towards the end of his two years with the Montagnards, US ambassador Maxwell Taylor made a personal visit and told him people’s armies should be raised across Vietnam.
Petersen disagreed, and later said: “the Americans tended to think what was good in one area was a panacea for the whole country. It’s not … this is one of the failings of the Americans.”
He also rejected attempts by CIA handler Stu Methven to set up “counter-terrorism” teams to conduct assassinations on targets earmarked by provincial chiefs and intelligence officers.
Petersen later described it as a precursor to the notorious Phoenix Program designed and run by the CIA, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and South Vietnam security forces which “neutralised” more than 81,700 suspected Viet Cong informers, supporters and operatives.
Under the program, which ran from 1965 until 1972, more than 26,000 people were killed, according to military and academic studies.
Petersen said it was “used and abused” to settle grudges held by government officials and “a lot of innocent people died”.
“I refused to do it and in doing so, of course, got up the nose of the CIA,” he said.
An informant told Petersen the CIA or renegade operatives within the agency intended killing him and making it look like an accident so he would die a hero’s death.
“I think it was very much like Apocalypse Now,” he said referring to unhinged US military leader Colonel Kurtz portrayed as a brutal demigod in the 1979 film.
“If he won’t come out, if he won’t leave the highlands we’ll come in and get him.”
But Petersen said his demise came when the Montagnards formed a government-in-exile in Cambodia after an attempted uprising in 1964.
Its president sent three battalions into Vietnam to tell commanders they were under Petersen’s control in the fight against the Viet Cong.
Petersen said he was shocked by the offer, rejected it immediately and organised talks with South Vietnamese military leaders to clear the air.
But it only added to the suspicion of South Vietnamese officials and the CIA who wanted to replace Petersen with an American. “I overstepped my mark and they got rid of me,” he recalled.
Decades later he would return to the Montagnards posing as a writer to avoid detection by Vietnamese security forces.
However while trying to maintain a distance between himself and his former fighters, some almost gave his identity away when they shook and kissed hands.
Petersen, who was born in Mackay, Queensland and never married, retired from the Australian military in 1979.
He settled in Cairns but was approached at least twice by mercenaries to train rebel fighters in western Papua New Guinea and the Seychelles.
He moved to Bangkok in 1992 to set up a consulting firm for foreign companies.
In 2010, he auctioned off some of his military medals to keep the business running and local staff in jobs.
He had the same attitude to his staff as he did to the Montagnards, which was a total acceptance of their way of life.
”I don’t march to the same drum as others,” he said.
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