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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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