Peter Ryan’s story of endurance & courage
28 July 2022
Warrant Officer Ryan did not blame the Papua New Guineans for prevaricating about which side to choose when they sometimes preferred to help neither. Even when betrayed to the Japanese, Ryan understood that the same dynamic was at work
Fear Drive My Feet by Peter Ryan, Text Publishing Company, new edition with introduction by Peter Pierce, 2015, 336 pages. ISBN: 9781925240054. Purchase from Booktopia: paperback $13.50 (ebook) $12.75
ADELAIDE - I have just finished reading Peter Ryan’s book ‘Fear drive my feet’, first published in 1959.
Ryan tells the story of his nearly two years patrolling in the mountainous country adjacent to the Markham Valley as an intelligence operative during World War II.
As a former Patrol Officer there are many aspects of his story that resonated powerfully with me, notably his vivid descriptions of both the joys and the sheer hard grind of patrolling in Papua New Guinea’s incredibly rugged and challenging terrain.
Unlike Ryan, I was never being pursued by people determined to kill me but I have had firsthand experience of some of the rigours and trials he describes so eloquently.
Consequently, I can confidently assert that while someone unfamiliar with PNG might imagine that he has exercised a degree of poetic licence in describing his adventures, I have no doubt about either the truth or accuracy of his descriptions.
While some of the language used to describe the indigenous people and the attitudes displayed towards them reflect the prejudices of the time, it is very clear that Ryan is deeply impressed by the knowledge, skills and fortitude of the Papua New Guineans who helped him.
To some at least, as he freely acknowledges, he owed his life.
Ryan’s obvious resentment and anger at the way at least some of the Australian military personnel regarded Papua New Guineans as lesser beings (or ‘units of energy’) reflects both his experience working with them and an instinctively egalitarian outlook combined with basic humanity.
Even when some local people were disinclined to help him or his patrol Ryan, was insightful enough to realise that the war had placed them in the invidious position of having to choose which group of unwanted interlopers they could or should support.
Thus he did not blame them for prevaricating about which side to choose when, instead, they sometimes preferred to help neither.
Even when betrayed to the Japanese, Ryan understood that the same dynamic was at work.
When someone has effectively put a gun to your head, heroic resistance is an improbable response.
The astonishing fortitude of a handful of Australian intelligence operatives, supported by their brave and resourceful Papua New Guinean police and carriers, is difficult to imagine in the modern era when their exploits would seem to be the stuff of Hollywood movies, not reality. Yet that is exactly what is portrayed in Ryan’s book.
Ryan’s two years of active patrolling was arduous in the extreme and his health eventually collapsed under the strain.
He suffered greatly from severe exhaustion and the cumulative impact of malaria, dysentery and various other tropical maladies.
He returned to Australia to recover and subsequently was awarded a well deserved Military Medal and also was Mentioned in Dispatches.
He went on to have a distinguished career in publishing with Melbourne University Press and, later, in journalism. He died in 2015 at the age of 92.
I recommend this book to anyone keen to understand just what it was like to patrol in Papua New Guinea’s wonderful but intimidating mountains with minimal outside support and only the bush craft, guidance and wisdom of so-called ‘ignorant savages’ or ‘boys’ standing between you and catastrophe.
Hi Tony - You guys were dudded by the powers that be, but probably enjoyed much better company in the Sergeants Mess.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 30 July 2022 at 12:21 PM
Re non admission to Officers Mess. We were all P.O.’s having completed at least our first term and satisfactorily completed the Correspondence course of assignments in various subjects which was required for selection to attend the 12 month long course at ASOPA.
We were issued with standard army fatigue uniforms for the course and probably didn’t scrub up well enough for the Officers.
Posted by: Tony Wright | 29 July 2022 at 08:25 PM
I am intrigued by Tony Wright's comment that he and other Patrol Officers were sent to the Sargeant's Mess in 1964.
If Tony was then only a CPO this makes sense because the equivalent army rank would be either Sargeant or Warrant Officer. However, if he had been formally promoted to PO he was then equivalent to at least a Second Lieutenant.
Generally speaking, a senior PO would be a First Lieutenant, an ADO a Captain, a DO or ADC a Major and a DC a Lieutenant Colonel.
As I recall, a PO's RPNGC rank was Sub Inspector, thus making us senior to all station police but subordinate to the District Inspector.
None of this really matters but interests me as a student of military history and culture.
As a matter of interest, those having Warrant Officer rank are usually recognised by the troops and field grade officers (Major and above) as being more knowledgeable and experienced than the junior officers who command them.
My daughter is a WO-1 in the RAAF and gets ready access to and respect from the senior officers who recognise her very high level operational service in war like conditions combined with Masters level tertiary qualifications.
This is a round about way of saying that military rank alone is not universally indicative of either the bearer's experience orr capability or influence.
Those medals, badges and ribbons that are worn actually tell the informed observer the wearer's story more than any rank insignia.
Ryan's ribbon for his Military Medal and Mentioned in Despatchs badge would have instantly been understood as conferring special status above and beyond mere officer's rank.
In Ryan's case he was undoubtedly in this category after his 2 years patrolling in truly wild country.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 28 July 2022 at 11:12 PM
An excellent book by a man who bravely served his nation at a very young age.
After reading his book some years ago I was motivated to write to him and express my admiration for both his service and writing. He replied and seemed very pleased by receiving comments from an ex kiap.
Paul, regarding your comment on him not being accepted by the Officer’s Mess. Our 1964 ASOPA P.O. long course spent a week at an Army base near Sydney being instructed in various useful skills. However the Officers did not accept us as their equals and we were taken in by the Sergeants. They were much more friendly and good hosts.
Posted by: Tony Wright | 28 July 2022 at 08:19 PM
Here is another interesting link:
Members included Frank Espie's son (Paul Espie) and James Packer, who were both allegedly involved in the burning of some aboriginal artefacts within the club grounds during a night of bacchanalian debauchery at the turn of the millennium.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 28 July 2022 at 08:04 PM
He wrote some fine articles for The Spectator Australia and I suspect he was a member of The Carlton Club, which is Melbourne's version of The Cabbage Tree Club at Palm Beach in Sydney and yet another notorious bastion of white male privilege.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 28 July 2022 at 06:52 PM
Thanks for that reflection Chris. I was given his book to read when I first arrived and it proved very useful.
The mention of where, as a Cadet Patrol Officer, he was denied entry to the Army Officers mess tent due to the cultural divide between officers and other ranks and directed to the Senior NCO's mess, is fascinating for he was an officer of the constabulary but as a cadet, only then equated to a WO2.
I was lucky enough to correspond and talk with with Peter Ryan some time prior to his death and he was very supportive of my feeble efforts in writing.
Being previously stationed in the Morobe District as it was then known, I experienced some of the areas Ryan patrolled and possibly met some of the people he mentioned.
We will never see his like again.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 28 July 2022 at 05:02 PM
Bernard, as I understand it the Encyclopaedia of PNG was Ryan's effort to educated both Australians and Papua New Guineans about the country, its history and its cultures.
He was motivated, in part at least, by what he regarded as the abysmal ignorance of most Australians about PNG and our role in its governance for nearly a century.
Sadly, his efforts seem to have been largely in vain, as very few Australians seem to know or care about PNG, including the political class.
The latter seem almost wilfully blind to the opportunities that exist to build stronger relations with PNG, notably by allowing its citizens easier access to our labour market.
Why this may be is a bit of a mystery to me and I certainly have never heard any coherent explanation as to why Papua New Guineans ought not be permitted relatively easy access to work visas in our rural industries and elsewhere.
It seems that, like so many of us who lived and worked in PNG, Ryan never forgot his experiences and developed an enduring about its peoples and their fate.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 28 July 2022 at 04:24 PM
I've got a copy of the Encylopaedia too, Bernard. Two volumes and a separate index. A marvellous resource.
Ryan was later a contributor to Quadrant magazine, edited by the arch-conservative Keith Windschuttle who notoriously denies that Aboriginal massacres occurred in Australia.
He was also a promoter of the 'black armband' view of history, which Ryan reflected in some of his articles.
Ryan's other articles were also extremely conservative but he did write a very nice review of my book 'Bamahuta: Leaving Papua'.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 28 July 2022 at 03:04 PM
Dear Chris, I have the two fascinating volumes of the Encyclopaedia of PNG, which he edited and were published by the MUP and UPNG back in 1972.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 28 July 2022 at 12:21 PM