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Burgess, Francis Patrick (Pat) (1925–1989)

by Trish Payne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Francis Patrick (Pat) Burgess (1925-1989), journalist, was born on 14 March 1925 at Stanthorpe, Queensland, son of George Francis Burgess, a shearer from England, and his Queensland-born wife Ellen Mary, née Hickey. Pat’s writing later showed the effects of his Catholic upbringing and schooling at Christian Brothers’ College, Waverley, Sydney. On 30 November 1942 he was mobilised in the Royal Australian Navy. He was then 5 ft 9½ ins (177 cm) in height, with brown hair and eyes and a fair complexion; he later seemed taller. Physically robust, he was to be as at ease in the war environments of Vietnam and Cambodia as on the beaches of Sydney—particularly Manly—that he loved. After serving in HMA ships Adelaide and Cowra, he was discharged from the navy as an able seaman on 18 January 1946.

On 16 August 1947 at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, Burgess married Una Elizabeth Oran, a stenographer. He studied arts and law at the University of Sydney in 1944-50: `Went to university and wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what journalism was … and somehow I got the two confused’, he later explained. His love of writing and sensitivity to detail would bring a rich poetic quality to his reporting.

Burgess’s first jobs, beginning with the Catholic Weekly, were casual. He took up a cadetship with the Australian Broadcasting Commission and decided to become a foreign correspondent. Having served as a police roundsman for the Daily Telegraph, in 1962 he joined the Sun as senior feature writer. His copy was also used by other newspapers of John Fairfax & Sons (Pty) Ltd, especially the Sydney Morning Herald, and by News Ltd, in particular the Daily Mirror. His first foreign reporting experience was in Indonesia and in the early 1960s he reported from Timor for Fairfax and the London Daily Telegraph. Some material gathered during this time was used by Australian intelligence; he claimed that this was the only time he spied for his country. He also reported from Northern Ireland, Israel, Africa, Laos and Cambodia. In 1964 he won the Walkley award for best newspaper feature story for despatches from the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

In 1965 Burgess sailed for the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He had chosen to chronicle the experiences of 6 Platoon, `B’ Company, trained by Kevin Wheatley and known as the `Scungees’. His reports varied from front-page news reports to cameo pieces such as `Off-beat Vietnam’. He also wrote a series in Pix magazine entitled `Where the Men Are’. Burgess was to be criticised by a British correspondent as a `platoon reporter’, but his response was that `wars are finally won or lost at the sharp end’. He admitted to sometimes carrying a gun. His courage and his role in assisting two badly wounded Australian soldiers endeared him to many diggers.

Burgess again reported from Vietnam in 1966 and during the Tet offensive in 1968. He resigned from the Sun in 1970 and was sent by the Daily Mirror back to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Although he generally reported sympathetically about the Australian soldier, he was still declared `black’ on occasion. In one incident Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton `turfed’ him off an official aircraft in Singapore for his increasing criticism of the Australian government’s stance on Vietnam.

In 1978 Burgess was awarded his second Walkley award, for the best television current affairs report: as a freelance journalist with a film crew, he documented Highway One from north to south in Vietnam. Perhaps this success owed something to his Churchill fellowship, awarded in 1968, to study at the British Broadcasting Corporation techniques for combining television documentary work with that of the newspaper correspondent. He published a novel, Money to Burn (1982), and an account of Australian reporters at war, Warco (1986).

Burgess loved the freedom of the foreign correspondent: `It is, at last, very much his own barrow that he pushes’. His writings were full of lively and unforgettable images. Humour and colourful depictions of events and people often disguised the serious nature of the messages. Although he admitted to self-censorship to protect the `gentle reader’, he lamented that the public took little notice at times of significant issues: he believed that his reports on tuberculosis in Timor, for example, `achieved exactly sweet nothing’. His legacy tells a different story—a rich and courageous life that sought individual freedom in areas of extreme conflict. Pat Burgess died of motor neurone disease on 23 January 1989 at Narrabeen, Sydney, and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their daughter and three sons.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981)
  • T. Bowden, One Crowded Hour (1987)
  • J. Hurst, The Walkley Awards (1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Jan 1989, p 8
  • Australian, 24 Jan 1989, p 3
  • Canberra Times, 3 Oct 1992, p C4
  • series A6770, item Burgess F P (National Archives of Australia)
  • T. Payne, The Australian Press and the Vietnam War (paper given to Australian War Memorial History Conference, 1986, a copy is held on the ADB file)
  • T. Bowden, interview with F. P. Burgess (typescript, c1978, copy held on ADB file).

Citation details

Trish Payne, 'Burgess, Francis Patrick (Pat) (1925–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burgess-francis-patrick-pat-12266/text22017, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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