OBITUARY: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Ted Serong: a great Australian
, October 19, 2002
After a long illness, Brigadier Ted Serong, one of Australia's most distinguished solders and former head of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, died in Melbourne on October 1, aged 86.
Brigadier Serong was Australia's foremost jungle warfare expert from the 1950s until his retirement from the Australian Army in the mid-1960s. He was later an adviser to the US and South Vietnamese governments, and was one of the last Westerners to leave Saigon at the time of the collapse in 1975.
He was a close friend of Mr. B.A. Santamaria, and shared with him the view that the second half of the 20th Century could only be viewed as a great struggle between the more or less free and democratic West, and communist totalitarianism.
The final resolution of this struggle - the defeat of communist communist insurgencies in Asia - owed much to the efforts of Brigadier Serong over many years.Jungle warfare
After graduating from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1937, he served in World War II in New Guinea, where he grasped the importance of effective jungle warfare training.
As Director of Military Training in the 1950s, he was responsible for the re-opening of the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra, Queensland, where Australian troops became expert in jungle and guerilla warfare.
Ted Serong's approach was influenced by the Malayan Emergency, where Commonwealth and Malayan forces were involved in a lengthy but ultimately successful battle to defeat a powerful communist insurgency, and by the success of communist guerilla wars in China and North Vietnam.
His determination to speak his mind made him unpopular with some of the Army brass, who were happy that he was sent by the Australian Government to Burma in 1960, where he served as strategic adviser to the Burmese Government which was facing several tribal and communist-inspired insurgencies.
In 1962, the Menzies Government asked him to become the leader of a 30-man Australian Army Training Team, sent to South Vietnam to assist the Vietnamese armed forces resist the communist guerilla insurgency.
Serong was officially attached to the headquarters of the US Military Assistance Command (headed by General Paul D. Harkins) as senior counter-insurgency adviser.
Anne Blair, Brigadier Serong's biographer, wrote, "General Harkins did not believe in counter-insurgency, and he did not want an adviser."
Brigadier Serong's relations with the US Army got off to a rocky start.
On reporting to the huge US military headquarters in Saigon, General Harkins asked the Australian where he had previously served. Brigadier Serong said, "Fighting the insurgency in Burma, Sir." Harkins said, "And how many men did you have in your headquarters?" Serong replied, "Two, Sir."
General Harkins waved an expansive arm around, and said, "I have 500 men here." To which Serong replied, "But we were winning, Sir!"
Brigadier Serong's relations with the US Army's hierarchy did not improve, and he formed a healthy contempt for the widely-held US Army view of Vietnam as an opportunity for combat experience which would lead to promotion.
On the other hand, he worked closely with the US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, which operated an extensive and effective grass-roots operation against communist Viet Cong cadres in the villages of South Vietnam.
From 1962 until 1965, he shaped the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam into a force with a remarkable record of achievement. During the 10 years it served in Vietnam, the 1000 Australians who served in "the Team" won four Victoria Crosses, two Distinguished Service Orders, and a further 108 military decorations.
The Team was also given the United States Meritorious Unit Citation, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm and individual awards from both US and Vietnamese Governments.
After retiring from the Australian Army, Ted Serong continued to work with the South Vietnamese government through the late 1960s and 1970s, and watched in desperation as the American and Australian Governments cut back their support for the South Vietnamese, to the point where South Vietnam collapsed in April 1975.
Ted Serong was one of the last to leave, the day before North Vietnamese tanked occupied Saigon.
Since returning to Australia, he spoken out periodically on issues of national policy. After the release of the 1994 Defence White Paper, he described it as "cosmetic gestures masquerading as a strategy."
In April 1999, he urged the Australian Prime Minister to push for an armed Australian force, under UN auspices, to restore order in East Timor. Such a force - which could have saved many lives and the infrastructure of East Timor - was only deployed after the militia rampage in September 1999.
Brigadier Serong was a great Australian patriot. He will be sorely missed.