Peter Ryan’s character was forged in the horrors and losses of war. Peter was self-reliant, principled, trustworthy, willing to sacrifice everything, and embodied the best Australians of his era. We have changed and there are few like him today, yet we will need his kind again
Fear Drive My Feet
by Peter Ryan
Text, 2015 (first published 1959), 336 pages, $12.95
I first read Fear Drive My Feet in the mid-1970s while on secondment from the Australian Army and serving with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. This was thirty years after the end of the Second World War fighting in PNG and just as the last of the PNG veterans that Peter would have known were retiring.
Many years later I bought my second copy of his memoir and found it just as fascinating and evocative of the sights, scenes and smells of PNG as I had the first time. Although Peter lived just a few kilometres from me I could not think of a good reason to knock on his door, introduce myself and shake his hand. When I did find an intermediary it was too late, as Peter was in terminal decline and was not receiving visiting strangers. Peter died less than three months later on December 13, 2015. I felt I had lost an opportunity to meet a real soldier, a true Australian character and an admirable man.
On completing his basic training, eighteen-year-old Private Peter Ryan was promoted to warrant officer and posted to Port Moresby to join “M Force” of the Australian Intelligence Bureau (AIB), an intelligence-gathering operation of remarkable individuals operating alone or in pairs deep inside Japanese-controlled territory. They were spread throughout the mountains of the Huon Peninsula overlooking the main Japanese base at Lae in northern New Guinea and at various strategic points along the coast. One possible flaw in the plan to send Peter into this hinterland was that he had never been to either Papua or New Guinea (the two parts of what is now Papua New Guinea were separate administrative areas in those days). His main qualification for the job was that his father had taught him to speak some of the native language of Pidgin English while he was growing up in Australia!
In 1942 Australia’s defences were in a parlous state: most of New Guinea had been lost to the invaders and only a few combat-ready Australian units were available to stop either an amphibious landing on the Papuan south coast or a land invasion of Port Moresby over the Owen Stanley Ranges. Knowledge of Japanese dispositions, capabilities and preparations for further operations was of vital importance if the available troops were to be deployed effectively.
After a short induction briefing, Peter was sent forward to work with an already legendary figure, Jock McLeod, who was operating alone in the mountains behind Lae. However, there were a few problems with this deskbound plan: Peter was despatched with insufficient rations for the journey, and armed with a damaged rifle and a pistol with only ten rounds. It was clear the military hierarchy did not expect him to survive, so there was little point in providing him with valuable scarce resources.
Yet these were minor matters compared to the real handicaps. He had no radio with which to communicate the information he obtained, no map, and no compass by which to navigate to an unknown destination in unmapped territory, as nobody actually knew where Jock was. Peter was “supported” by a native police-boy who knew nothing of the country into which they were venturing. He also had some natural concerns about the patrolling activities of the 13,000 Japanese soldiers spread around various bases in his proposed area of operations. With a broad-brush plan like that, what could go wrong and how could he fail?
With the optimism of callow youth, Peter set off to find the forward Australian commando camp, cross the massive Markham River, then search the immense Huon Peninsula for the elusive Jock.
Fortunately, there is an amazing bush-telegraph between the mountain villages by which information on every happening is passed by travellers on every conceivable subject, particularly the movement of strangers. Having stocked up on supplies and trade goods Peter crossed the Markham into the unknown. Two days later he entered the village of Bivoro and found Les Williams resting while he recovered from a malarial fever. Once Les recovered they moved deeper into the mountains to find Jock, who was said to be at a village called Gain. The news received there was not good, as Ian Downs, a Coastwatcher reconnoitring amphibious landing beaches on the north coast, had been betrayed and had only just escaped after several very close calls. He had been injured crossing a river, but refused to leave for treatment. Also, the hoped-for meeting with Jock at Gain was not to be as he had moved a further four days walk away. The chase continued with two more failures to meet before Peter finally caught up with his leader. After such a long chase they parted the next day, as Jock was intending to cross the formidable 3900-metre Surawaged Ranges to reconnoitre the north coast, and he needed all their supplies.
Peter returned to the forward base, replenished his supplies and retraced his steps into the barely known mountains, this time with a hand-drawn map. Having reached the friendly Wain country Peter moved about from village to village gathering news and information about Japanese activities. Apart from trading such commodities as newspaper (which the natives prized for making cigarettes from local tobacco), salt and razor blades, one of Peter’s tasks was to dispense rudimentary medical aid to cure tropical diseases such as ulcers caused by yaws, hookworm and assorted wounds. This aid would ensure a steady flow of assistance and information.
This was a passive way of gathering information, but Peter was also active. On one occasion, with two police-boys, he penetrated right to the edge of the Japanese base at Lae and interviewed Chinese internees about Japanese operations. He escaped back to his mountain lair before the Japanese found out. When they did, they were so angry that they posted a reward for his capture of two cases of meat and five pounds cash. His fellow spies sardonically threatened to turn him over for the reward by saying a case of meat was worth more than he was. Unfortunately, the valuable intelligence he had obtained on hidden targets would take three or four days to reach the air force command centre in Port Moresby as the army hierarchy still refused to give them a radio.
Peter had now spent more than a year in these mountain villages. From his fastness he could often observe Japanese activities at their main base at Lae and their airfield at Nadzab. Apart from Peter, there were about a dozen other men criss-crossing the mountain tracks, carefully observing, but avoiding the increasingly active Japanese patrols intruding ever deeper into the mountains. Some of the New Guinean clansmen began to come to the conclusion that the Japanese were here to stay and that it was time to change allegiances. The level of danger as a result of betrayal markedly increased. On one occasion Peter and his patrol partner, Captain Les Howlett, were traversing a high mountain track when shots from a Japanese patrol on another track several hundred feet below interrupted their journey. They reported the incident and that the enemy were heading for the operational zone of Harry Lumb, another lone operator in the Kaiapit area. Harry was a long-term resident of New Guinea who Peter had met a few weeks before when Lumb was passing through on his way to Kaiapit.
As movement between villages was becoming very difficult, information was harder to obtain and their operational value was diminishing in inverse proportion to the increasing risks. The situation was resolved when a message was received that the experienced Harry Lumb had been betrayed by the natives in the village of Ofofragen and killed by a Japanese patrol. Apparently the AIB had not warned Harry of the advancing Japanese patrol.
Their orders were now to evade and escape by whatever means and route they thought best. No support was available. They were on their own a hundred miles from safety in an increasingly unfriendly and dangerous environment.
Having weighed the options, Les, Peter, their police-boys and carriers took the longest route to go around the most likely occupied areas. This would require crossing two high mountain ranges, the Surawaged and the Finisterre. Just crossing both of these would be an achievement, but then they still had to pass through more Japanese-controlled territory before finally reaching and crossing the mighty Markham River to relative safety. The journey was the most difficult they ever made in a country in which the minimum rating for an average track is “difficult”. Finally, they cleared the mountains and entered the village of Ewok on a tributary of the Markham.
At Ewok, they paid off the carriers by giving them most of their remaining gear, as Peter, Les and their police-boys were now on the last long leg of their run to safety. Peter was now barefoot and wearing the few rags that remained of his rotted uniform. Unfortunately, the news at Ewok was bad, as it appeared that Japanese patrols were everywhere, but their exact locations were uncertain. The decision was made to move as fast as possible before news of their presence reached their enemies. This resulted in a twenty-eight-hour march by day and night, which took them under halfway to their destination of Chivasang village. From there it was a further few hours to the Markham River crossing. They also discovered that another lone “escapee” from the north coast, the wounded Captain Basil Fairfax-Ross, had passed through only two days before. The next morning their party set off for Chivasang.
At Chivasang they became suspicious of the natives’ uncooperative behaviour but after a short reconnaissance they moved into the village. They were met with a burst of machine gun and rifle fire. Captain Howlett was shot and wounded. With bullets clipping the grass around him, Peter jumped into a stream, losing his Owen gun and most of his shirt before escaping into the long kunai grass on the far side. He did not go far, but dived into a stinking pig-wallow and buried himself in the mud up to his nose. He heard the voices of the Japanese and the squelch of their boots as they hunted for him. He lay there for another half an hour, then he heard natives calling out that the Japanese had left. Fortunately he ignored them, as he soon also heard Japanese voices. He waited until nightfall before moving off nearly naked in the direction of the Markham River. Despite his best efforts he could not reach the Markham in the darkness, but spent another mosquito-infested night in the bush. At noon the next day he finally crossed the river and later that day reached the forward outpost at Kirkland’s Camp.
When the ragged Peter reached Bulolo, the quartermaster refused to issue him with a new uniform because he had lost his paybook! It required the intervention of a senior officer to countermand the rigidities of the bureaucratic mind.
One would think this is where Peter Ryan’s war should end, but there was more to do. Peter was given the assignment of observing an undefended twenty-mile stretch of the Markham between two new airfields constructed by American army engineers. Just as he was about to set out an American, Tex Frazier, asked if he could come along. Peter reluctantly agreed, but it was a decision that produced amazing results. As usual, the Australian army could not spare a radio, so reports still had to be sent back by courier. Tex found this bewildering, so he had the natives cut a short airstrip out of the bush then returned to Bulolo where he obtained a Piper Cub and flew in it back to their base. Peter remained for several more months assisting with the organisation of native carriers and helping Tex build his airstrips.
Although he had no more close encounters, Peter saw much of the death and destruction of war as the Australians and Americans advanced, often leaving their dead foes unburied as there was no time to stop the war for such niceties. Eventually, the tropical diseases, fevers and his wasted body caught up with him and Peter was evacuated to Port Moresby and then to Australia. At twenty years old his active participation in the war was over. For his work he was awarded the Military Medal and was mentioned in despatches.
The war went on and order must be maintained. Tuya, the native from Chivasang village who had betrayed and then murdered the wounded Captain Howlett, was publically hanged at Lae in February 1944.
Peter never forgot the police-boys and villagers who had helped him survive his private war, and in later years often returned to PNG to meet and support them. He raised money for schools (and has one named after him).
The final unique twist came during one of his visits to PNG forty-one years after the end of his war. He noticed a group of Japanese dining at another table in his hotel conversing in Pidgin English. He introduced himself, as he guessed they were Japanese war veterans. He told them about his war in the mountains. They explained they had been members of a signals platoon whose job it was to intercept the radio calls from these spies and send patrols to their location to eliminate them. One mentioned a particularly elusive call sign who always successfully evaded them. Peter replied, “Em mi tasol!” The former enemies roared with laughter and as old soldiers do, they shared many a whisky together as they reminisced about a brutal war now firmly in their pasts.
The character of Peter Ryan was forged in the horrors, degradation and losses of war but he survived and emerged a better person. Peter was self-reliant, principled, trustworthy, willing to sacrifice everything, and the embodiment of the best of the Australians of his era. Australia has changed and there are few like him today, yet we will need his kind again.
Alistair Pope is a retired Australian Army officer