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Serong, Francis Philip (Ted) (1915–2002)

by John Farquharson

He was a ‘quiet, deep thinker, brilliant tactician, very brave in the field and a good leader’. That is how one of Australia’s most respected soldiers, General Sir Francis Hassett, described Brigadier Ted Serong who has died in Melbourne aged 86.

Those were among the qualities that led to this competent, but unassuming Australian Army officer winning international recognition for the innovative counter-insurgency and jungle warfare tactics he developed as Cold War conflicts and tensions gathered momentum in the aftermath of World War II.

His techniques and strategies were honed during his long service in the Vietnam War from August 1962 to April 1975. Initially, he made his mark there as the inspirational commanding officer of the Australian Army instructors team, known officially as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), to assist in the training of South Vietnam’s armed forces. Serong had considerable scope in raising the 30-strong training group, enabling him to attract highly motivated like souls. Apart from his own ability, what General Hassett termed his ‘remarkable success’ in this role, owed much to the calibre of his men, who became the most highly decorated Australian unit to serve in Vietnam. They won four VCs and a US presidential unit citation, while Serong was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and several American and South Vietnamese decorations to add to the OBE he had received in the 1962 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

In Vietnam, as well as heading the Australian training team, Serong was appointed senior adviser on counter-insurgency to the commander of the US Military Assistance Command, serving under General Paul Harkins and then General William Westmoreland. These links, forged with the US military, were to determine his future career path, working for American interests rather than Australian. When his command of the AATTV ended in 1965, he went on secondment to the US State Department, essentially under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to become senior adviser to South Vietnam’s Police Field Force to develop para-military security, civil action and political operations.

That began his separation from the Australian Army, before he left formally in 1968 with the rank of Brigadier. He was later to say of that decision, that his ‘relationship with the Australian Army, by and large, was a very happy one’, adding, ‘I left it because I found a way of being of more service to the country outside it than in it. It was a matter of staying in the wagon and trying to steer it or getting out and pushing, so I got out and pushed’.

He stayed on in Vietnam and was one of the last to leave, getting out in the final airlift by the US embassy helicopter on April 29, 1975, the day before the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong. Various roles came his way in Vietnam, as a security and intelligence adviser to the South Vietnamese Government for some years as well as preparing strategic analyses for the Rand organisation, the Hudson Institute and other US corporations. During those Vietnam years he was also a consultant to the Pentagon and to the policy planners of three American presidents – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He became a hawk on the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, believing a victory for the US and South Vietnamese forces would help prevent the new independent countries of South-east Asia falling under the communist orbit. The hoped for victory did not eventuate, nor did communism engulf the so-called ‘domino’ countries. But what had been gained, in Serong’s view, was time for the threatened nations to strengthen their political and economic structures, enhancing their ability to deal with any insurgencies.  

The path that took Serong from the periphery of power to its centre, began in the Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford on 11 November 1915, with his birth as the first son of William and Mabel Serong. The young Serong grew up in a family with a strong allegiance to the Catholic faith and in a household permeated with a military background, through his father’s work as a supervisor of weapons standards for the Defence Department. The children breathed in tales of the Empire, derring-do and military exploits. But it was the intellectual and religious ideas absorbed through the teaching of the Christian Brothers, after he won a scholarship to St Kevin’s College, that put final shape to the man and his view of the world. Thus, a centrepiece of his life, like that of his life-long friend Bob Santamaria, was to be the struggle against expansionist communism.

Before leaving St Kevin’s Serong set his sights on the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Failing to gain admission through the normal route, he joined the CMF which afforded him entry by passing an examination open only to servicemen. From there he never looked back. He graduated from Duntroon in 1937, served first with the artillery, then with an armoured regiment until, switching to the infantry, he saw combat as a staff and regimental officer with the 6th Division in New Guinea, 1942-45.

That was where he became interested in the challenges of jungle fighting and where he came under the eye of then Colonel Reg Pollard, 6th Division’s senior staff officer. Pollard noted the young man’s adaptability and originality of mind, marking him as a future prospect for special assignments. After the war Pollard, along with another 6th Division staff officer, Brigadier Charles Spry, of ASIO fame, were able, in the words of Serong’s biographer, Anne Blair, “to smooth his path to his post-war assignment of reorienting army training to jungle warfare” and later in his security work in Vietnam.

With the rank of Colonel, Serong was given command in 1955 of the newly reopened Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra, in south-eastern Queensland. That was where his techniques and strategies first attracted attention. Though not everyone agrees, the courses he helped to develop and teach there were credited with having contributed to the success of operations carried out by Australian troops in Malaysia, Borneo and later Vietnam. By 1957 his expertise was sufficient for the Burmese Government to select him over candidates from Israel, America and Yugoslavia as counter-insurgency instructor to the Burmese armed forces. This led to a second appointment in Burma as strategic adviser to the armed forces from 1960 to 1962.

Then came the challenge of Vietnam when Lieut-General Sir Reginald Pollard, as Chief of the General Staff, selected Serong to lead the Australian Army instructors team. From the Vietnam struggle, with which he was thereafter invariably identified, Serong emerged as one of the world’s foremost authorities on counter-insurgency and counter-guerilla warfare. In Vietnam Serong had found scope for the fullest expression of his talents, particularly as a strategic planner. There, too, he was fulfilling that sense of mission retained from his schooldays of playing a part in the geopolitical struggle between communism and the West.

After those hectic Vietnam years, it was not surprising that Serong found it hard to settle back into life in suburban Melbourne. Having been separated from his wife and family for many years, it was difficult to pick up those threads again. All, including his wife, Kathleen, had developed independent lives. His later years in Australia were devoted largely to advancing nationalist causes, particularly those on the right of the political spectrum. He also appeared on anti-communist platforms, both in Australia and abroad. His connection as patron of an extremist citizens’ militia group called Ausi Freedom Scouts (Australians United for Survival and Freedom) caused some controversy, as did his conspiracy theory after the mass shootings at Port Arthur in 1996. Serong contended that Martin Bryant could not have been the only shooter. Had Bryant been acting alone, there would have been fewer dead and more wounded. But his main concern was Australia’s defence. He wrote extensively on defence issues, coming down strongly in favour of a forward-defence strategy. Another theme he pushed was the development of the Australian interior as part of a national defence plan. Though the extent of his achievements is not so well known in Australia, he was undoubtedly a major Cold-War figure, who fought for what he believed in with skill and determination.

In his later years Serong suffered from heart disease; he died in a Melbourne hospital on October1. His wife, Kathleen, three daughters (Julie, Elise and Rosemary) and three sons (Michael, Richard and Anthony) survive him.

Francis Philip Serong, born 11 November 1915; died 1 October 2002.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 8 October 2002
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 2002
  • Canberra Times, 9 November 2002

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Serong, Francis Philip (Ted) (1915–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/serong-francis-philip-ted-901/text902, accessed 14 December 2019.

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