Growing up in a jungle combat zone
Peter Ryan’s youthful account of his experiences in New Guinea remains the finest Australian war memoir, writes
Australia’s campaigns in New Guinea from 1942 to 1945, which eventually defeated the Japanese, generated remarkable poems by the RAAF pilot David Campbell — Men in Green, Pedrina — and some of Kenneth Slessor’s most vivid war correspondence (or what survived his bitter battles with censors). James McAuley, who served there, would experience religious conversion and write of this when he returned after the war.
A clutch of novels — tales of Japs and the jungle, sometimes infected by racial animus — were written by veterans. The best known of these used to be TAG Hungerford’s The Ridge and the River (1952), The Last Blue Sea (1959) by “David Forrest’’ and, from the same year, Norman Bartlett’s Island Victory. John Hepworth’s novel The Long Green Shore emerged in 1995, after decades of lying in wait.
Yet the most distinguished and enduring of all the writing about this war that took place so close to Australia was the youthful memoir — completed when the author was 21, and dealing with events of a couple of years earlier — Fear Drive My Feet.
As Peter Ryan recounts in the preface to the 2000 edition, his book was written ‘‘when the travels of 1942 and 1943 were like the day before yesterday’’. Repatriated from New Guinea, he had what he called ‘‘a soft job’’ teaching Tok Pisin, the pidgin English used in New Guinea, to cadet patrol officers. In the unadorned, compelling style that emerged fully formed in Fear Drive My Feet, Ryan reflected that ‘‘very few soldiers of eighteen would have been sent out alone and untrained to operate for months as best they could behind Japanese lines; that few indeed would have passed their nineteenth and twentieth birthdays engaged in such a pursuit’’. He wondered, with no affected modesty, ‘‘Might this be an interesting topic?’’
Public judgment, emphatically in agreement, had to wait until Ida Leeson, the Mitchell librarian and a guest of Ryan’s in 1958, read the manuscript without his knowledge. Ten days later, Angus & Robertson agreed to publish a book that Leeson and the firm’s esteemed editor, Beatrice Davis, surely guessed would become a classic of Australian literature of war. It was published the following year.
In his preface, Ryan recalls thinking during his time in New Guinea of how — if he survived exhaustion, solitude, exposure, disease, mortal peril — he would never travel anywhere again. Hunted for a week by Japanese with tracker dogs, he ‘‘sought refuge by climbing a stupendous dry cascade of huge boulders, as it ascended ever higher up a mountainside’’. For weeks at a stretch, he would try to sleep ‘‘with the lively expectation of being dead by dawn’’.
Thus it was, he declared at 77, ‘‘I have never been to England, Europe or America, and have never wanted to go’’. However, since the end of the war he has returned 28 times to the country of his exciting and enervating trials; edited and published the Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea (1972) while he was director of Melbourne University Press; and written Black Bonanza (1991), an account of the Mount Kare gold rush; besides wisely and humorously counselling many travellers to Australia’s nearest, if scantly known, neighbour.
Fear Drive My Feet is a strange and striking account of an education, a nonfiction bildungsroman. For Ryan, this does not involve the distractions of schooling or first love, a literal or sentimental education, but service with Kanga Force, whose ‘‘fantastic campaign of patrolling and harassing the enemy from behind both Lae and Salamaua’’ he salutes. The courageous motley band that he joins was formed in April 1942, when the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles were supplemented by Independent Companies of the Australian Imperial Force. Its objective is to screen Japanese movements west across New Guinea.
Reconnaissance has to be as close (and hence as dangerous) as possible. In one of the pivotal moments of his narrative, the young Warrant Officer Ryan crosses the Markham River and begins his adventures in ‘‘the savage country of the Lae-Salamaua area’’. To the east are thousands of Japanese troops; to the north, the Saruwaged mountains, ‘‘so high that you can’t see the tops for clouds’’. And here he is, ‘‘sent wandering through the jungles of the largest island on earth with one partly trained police recruit’’.
Yet he is not altogether unprepared. In the Boy Scouts he had been an enthusiastic participant in bushcraft, map-reading, prismaticcompass work, first aid (particularly wound dressing) and hygiene. Nor is he without some knowledge of New Guinea. Ryan’s father, Ted, fought there in the Great War, taking part in the capture of Rabaul and rising to lieutenant in the military government of Australia’s new ex-German territories. He may have settled there for good, except that severe malaria forced his return to Australia. The family home in Glen Iris, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, was full of New Guinea artefacts, mementos and photographs. Moreover, Ryan’s father taught him to speak Tok Pisin, a deal of which