Australian Barry Petersen, who became a legend in the highlands of Vietnam in the early 1960s when he formed an ethnic guerrilla force made up of 1,200 Montagnards and inflicted heavy casualties on the communist North Vietnamese, passed away at his home in Bangkok on February 28 after a long and tough fight with cancer. It was one of the few battles he ever lost.

Petersen, 84, had lived in Thailand since 1992, but was once known as The Tiger Man of Vietnam. Few soldiers in any army could lay claim to having such distinguished military careers or to have achieved the things Petersen did. He was awarded 13 medals for his service in Vietnam, Borneo and Malaysia and retired from the Australian Army as a lieutenant-colonel.

But it was the extraordinary role Petersen played in the Vietnam War that stood out above all else. He was sent to Vietnam after playing a key role in Malaya, as Malaysia was then known, during the communist insurgency.

During two years of service for the Australian Army in Malaya, Petersen gained considerable experience working with the ethnic Jahai and Temiar tribes in the mountains and jungles south of Malay’s border with Thailand. Petersen and his men played a major role in containing the communist insurgents.

After returning to Australia from Malaya, Petersen was trained in special operations by Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, promoted from Lieutenant to Captain and became part of an elite unit known as the Australian Army Training Team.

The then 28-year-old Petersen was one of a 30-strong team from that unit sent to South Vietnam and he arrived in Saigon in August, 1963. The team were deployed two years before Australia officially joined the war and sent troops to fight in Vietnam.

“Although officially and Australian Army advisor, I was to be one of two of that team working with the American Central Intelligence Agency,” Petersen says in his book Tiger Men, which was first published in 1988. The CIA sent Petersen to Ban-Me-Thuot in Darlac province in the central highlands of South Vietnam bordering Cambodia. He was told he would be working with the Montagnard, the mountain people who made up the 30-odd tribal groups in the highlands.

He was the first Australian the CIA’s Covert Action Branch allowed to run what they termed a “field program” in Vietnam. He was taken to meet members of the Covert Action Branch in a quiet section of Saigon before he left for his assignment, and his recollections of that meeting sound like something from a James Bond movie. But this was no fantasy.

“We were admitted to a different world. Acoustic tiles covered most of the walls and the ceiling. There were maps on the walls, office furniture and a disproportionate number of large combination safes … There were half a dozen Americans in the main room, some in suits, jackets discarded,” Petersen wrote in Tiger Men.

“Others wore khaki drill trousers and short-sleeved shirts worn outside the trousers. This served to conceal the hand-gun and holster belted to most waists. This was the unofficial uniform of the CIA field officers in South Vietnam.”

Then Captain Barry Petersen in the Vietnamese highlands in 1963. Photo: Supplied

He spent the next two years in Vietnam’s highlands, his supplies arriving on Air America flights which landed on a dusty airstrip outside the village of Ban-Me-Thuot. Petersen’s role for the CIA was to recruit, train and operate a Montagnard guerrilla force, whose tasks were to not only protect their villages from the communists, but also to disrupt the communist supply lines to South Vietnam and to stop them setting up bases in the area.

The supply lines from North Vietnam to the communist Viet Cong fighters in South Vietnam was known as The Ho Chi Minh Trail and some of it went through Petersen’s territory in the highlands. His men not only ruined the Viet Cong supply lines through the highlands, they staged kidnappings, ambushes and killed many Viet Cong agents. The disruption to their supply lines eventually forced the communists to send supplies through Cambodia, with disastrous consequences for the population of that country when the US unleashed a devastating bombing campaign.

The troops Petersen commanded were known as the Troung Son Force and when he arrived they numbered about 100. By the time he left two years later, the Troung Son Force had developed into a highly efficient fighting group numbering about 1,200 men. They were respected by their enemies and called “The Tiger Men” by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.

Their logo was a tiger’s head, and Petersen had talked the CIA into making badges of a tiger’s head which his men proudly wore. The tiger name originated from his house in Ton That Tuyet village, which was surrounded by high walls. “We had peacocks, a monkey, deer, gibbons, a young honey bear and a tiger cub. I simply called him tiger. His roars were to become as affective against intruders as all the security guards put together,” Petersen wrote in his book.

The communists put a bounty on Petersen’s head, but his close bonds with the hill tribe people in the highlands assured his security. During his time there he built up close personal friendships and bonds with the people, and often took part in their ceremonies – which involved animal sacrifices and drinking lots of potent rice wine.

Despite Petersen’s successes against the communists in the highlands, resentment against him started to grow in CIA circles and with senior US military people. The CIA started to fear he had built up a “personality cult” in the highlands along the lines of Colonel Kurtz from the movie Apocalyse Now. Senior US military men also wanted an American to take over from the Australian.

Another reason the Americans were unhappy with Petersen was because he refused to allow his men to take part in the CIA’s notorious Phoenix program. Part of this program involved assassinating anyone thought to be working with the communists, which meant killing non-combatants, and Petersen, a trained army officer, wanted nothing to do with killing civilians in cold blood.

So Captain Petersen was given his marching orders and told to leave the highlands. But before he left there was a series of big farewell parties at Montagnard longhouses, complete with animal sacrifices and copious amounts of home-brewed rice wine. Petersen was no Colonel Kurtz, but a man who had simply built trust with a group of people through his hard work and honesty.

He was replaced by an American CIA employee who failed to gain the respect of the Montagnards or the Vietnamese. Petersen later learned that if he had not left when ordered to he would have been killed by the CIA.

In late October 1965, Petersen flew from Saigon to Singapore, where he was back under the command of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. He was soon sent to Borneo, where the Indonesian “Confrontation” was in progress and British, Australian, New Zealand and Malaysian military forces were operating in Sabah and Sarawak, resisting Indonesian incursions. The nation of Malaysia had just been formed.

The British Secret Service MI6 has asked that Petersen be sent to Borneo to help their men, who were working with indigenous people in the jungles against Indonesian special forces troops. Petersen’s reputation had preceded him and he enjoyed being back in the jungle and away from offices and desks.

After several months of being involved in successful operations in Borneo he was sent back to Australia, where he was promoted to Major and became an instructor in tactics before being sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina in the US. There he was trained in psychological operations. In early 1970, he was sent back to Vietnam. Petersen was a member of an advance party of the 2nd Battalion in command of C (Charlie) Company, which had 140 Australian soldiers.

“Before leaving Australia I had briefed my company on what they would find in South Vietnam. I had tried to make my men understand the strains placed on the average Vietnamese peasant they would encounter during our combat operations,” he recalled in his book. “I had tried to imbue in them the same consideration I had for those people. The Vietnamese were human beings with problems greater than ours, and they had to be treated with dignity and understanding. It is hard to make young soldiers think like that. But it is important that they try.”

Petersen spent a year leading his men in combat, staging ambushes, finding and destroying enemy tunnel systems and disrupting supply chains. He proved to be a smart leader who understood his enemy and tried to be one step ahead of them.

In June 1971 he was posted to Canberra, the Australian capital, a city he described as dull and full of civil servants and one he had trouble adjusting to. The cold weather also affected some of the injuries he had suffered in Vietnam and he developed osteoarthritis. Several years later he retired from the army.

He lived in tropical Cairns in northern Australia after his retirement and then moved to Bangkok in 1992 and set up a consulting company for foreign firms, employing 17 Thais.

He enjoyed being back in Southeast Asia and enjoyed living in Thailand. He made many friends in Thailand and often attended Anzac Days – Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that commemorates Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations – in Kanchanaburi, the site of the infamous Burma railway.

Petersen remained single and never had any children. He is survived by two sisters in Brisbane. 

Barry Petersen at a memorial gathering in Bangkok in 2008. Photo: Supplied