The Long Ride Home with The Tiger Man of Vietnam
Following my visit to Hellfire Pass and the Commonwealth War Graves at Kanchanaburi for the Anzac Day Dawn Service I took the opportunity to head to Bangkok to visit a fellow Australian Vietnam veteran, Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Petersen MC. MID, who has lived in Thailand for the past 27 years and who, sadly, couldn"t attend this year"s Anzac Day service due to his cancer-related illness.
Barry was kind enough to make time available for me and some younger veterans who wanted to meet the legendary Tiger Man of Vietnam.
In November 2010, after hearing of Barry's illness, The Sydney Morning herald published this article:
BARRY Petersen, a 75-year-old Australian dying of cancer in Bangkok, has one of those lives that seems untrue. Yet it is not. He is real. "I have undertaken a few endeavours," he says, "but I am nearing the end now."
Petersen was awarded 13 medals for his service in Vietnam, Borneo and Malaysia. He ended up a lieutenant-colonel.
What he did and how he did it, however, makes him the Colonel Kurtz of Australia - Kurtz being the Apocalypse Now anti-hero who led an army of hill tribe rebels against the Vietcong, at first with the blessing of his bosses and then, as his messiah status escalated, in defiance of them. The parallels are striking.
Petersen was an Australian Army captain in 1963. He had already worked with mountain tribes in Malaysia, so when trouble brewed in Vietnam the CIA sent him to lead the Montagnards (the French term for the mountain-dwelling tribes).
At first, the CIA left him to it. But as he got the Montagnards on side - ruining Vietcong supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and kidnapping, ambushing and killing Vietcong agents - his aura as leader of a unit called the "Tiger Men" grew.
By 1965, he had fostered, according to his CIA bosses, a "personality cult".
The CIA grew suspicious. They thought he was a destabilising influence. This is where his story differs from Kurtz, who wouldn't leave so they had him killed. Petersen did leave, but only after refusing to let his "Tiger Men" become assassins in the notorious CIA Phoenix program, which targeted civilian Vietcong sympathisers (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Program for background information).
He later learned that if he hadn't left he would have been killed himself. Biographer Frank Walker says he has no doubt Petersen "dodged a bullet". All this time the Vietcong had a bounty on his head as well. Petersen survived, thrived even. The 13 medals include a Vietnam War hero with a difference prepares for his last act of gallantry Military Cross awarded for "exemplary gallantry during active operations".
Yet Petersen - born in Mackay, Queensland - is now selling his medals. London auctioneer David Erskine-Hill from Dix Noonan Webb estimates their value at $100,000 - $150,000 but they may go for more. Petersen's Military Cross, Mr Erskine-Hill told The Age, was "fascinating and impressive" with an "extraordinary history of clandestine operations".
Petersen's reasons for selling are his final act of gallantry. He moved from Cairns to Bangkok in 1992 and set up a business consulting company for foreign firms, employing 17 Thais, who he says have become his "de facto family". He never married and has no children. He has two sisters in Brisbane.
"I"m a pragmatic person," he says, "and you can"t take things with you when you drop off the perch. I may have earned them and they are of value and, yes, I could send them back to Australia, but I would prefer to do something for the people who have looked after me here for the last 18 years."
The proceeds from the medals, and also the silver tableware he has collected since the 1960s, will buy the building his company leases. That way he knows the future for the staff is secure.
He says his attitude to them is the same as it was towards the Montagnards; rather than a personality cult he had a "total acceptance of them and their way of life".
He expects to be criticised for not donating the medals to an archive of Australian history. RSL national president Rear Admiral Ken Doolan said last night that while it was a "private and sensitive matter", all veterans should be "encouraged to retain medals with pride".
To Petersen, his choice will see a "tangible" outcome rather than "donating them to some corner in Australia where someone would see them once in a while".
He says he was never one to dwell on the past anyway, preferring to "do my best in whatever I get given to do but once it"s over [to] get on with something else". He says while he was "very fond" of the men he commanded during two Vietnam tours he was never keen on "hanging around at an RSL club to talk about all the exploits and so on".
He has, he says, even at this stage of his extraordinary life, a different outlook. "I don't march to the same drum as others."
It"s been eight years since the article but Barry continues to fight his cancer, hanging on, he says, like a frog clinging to a branch by one claw to avoid the jaws of a snake.
Now 84 and confined to a Bangkok hospital, Barry has a message for the thousands of vets who've suffered PTSD from their service: “Cling onto that branch, keep occupied, and help others as a way of helping yourself”.
Barry Petersen, from all those who respect you my friend, we're all thinking of you and pray you beat the odds.
Truck Sams with the Tiger Man of Vietnam in Thailand on The Long Road Home Team.