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 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.