We were very sad this week to learn of the death of Peter Ryan, former newspaper columnist, director of Melbourne University Press and author of the acclaimed memoir Fear Drive My Feet, which was republished as a Text Classic in June. Our sincere sympathies go out to Peter’s family.
In his introduction to Fear Drive My Feet, Peter Pierce describes it as ‘the finest Australian memoir of war’. Read it in full below.
ACROSS THE RIVER; INTO THE MOUNTAINS
by Peter Pierce
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 T. A. G. 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 twenty-one, and dealing with events of a couple of years earlier—Fear Drive My Feet.
As Peter Ryan recounts in the Preface to the 2001 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 former 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.
Fear Drive My Feet is a strange and striking account of an education, a non-fiction Bildungsroman.
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 soldiers 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 seventy-seven, ‘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 twenty-eight 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 non-fiction 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, mapreading, prismatic-compass 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, mementoes and photographs. Moreover, Ryan’s father taught him to speak Tok Pisin, a deal of which he remembered when his assignment began and its use was essential.
Vital to his operations, intelligence gathering and survival is sustaining bonds with not only those natives employed to assist him (for whom he holds deep respect and affection) but the people of remote villages and perhaps doubtful loyalty, on whom he depends for supplies. In exchange for fresh food, Ryan can offer ‘Trade tobacco, sheets of newspapers [for rolling cigarettes], coarse salt, and New Guinea shilling-pieces! Strange currency, I thought.’ The authors of The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History wryly agree. The New Guinea campaign, they write, was ‘fought on a logistic shoestring’. Burdened with his miscellaneous cargo (even that begrudged by the ‘base bludgers’ away from the front line, whom he has cause to execrate), Ryan heads north: ‘In this line of mountains, like gates in a wall, were the dark gashes of the valleys of the three main tributary streams on the north side of the Markham—the Leron, the Irumu, and the Erap.’ This is a visceral but also an expressionistic journey—into a landscape of terror and exhilaration.
Ryan’s youthful spirit is tested relentlessly: he has to judge whom to trust, what path to follow, where danger might lie. Few narratives of growing up involve ordeals so arduous, whether monotonous or deadly.
Ryan moves through country rocked by earth tremors, roamed by shit-eating pigs, within earshot of Allied bombs falling on the Japanese base at Lae, though it is days’ trek distant. His little party sometimes presses on through deep fog: ‘it was unnerving to walk into the valley as the unseen stream roared below, or to make what seemed to be an endless ascent into space.’ All the time, as the tension steadily increases, the enemy remains unseen, if present in rumour. Are they sticking to the coast or ‘now warily extending patrols up the valleys’?
In the climactic sequence of Fear Drive My Feet, Ryan is sent back into action in the company of Captain Les Howlett, an experienced New Guinea patrol officer. Once again the Markham has to be traversed: ‘All the hazards of a sea voyage were to be had in a trip across this incredible stream—reefs, islands, currents, waves, and sand-banks—any one of which might have wrecked us.’ This ordeal convinces Ryan that the Markham is the very ‘boundary of creation’.
Now there are clear signs of a Japanese presence and native collaboration: a new rest-house has been built, and bridges constructed across streams. It seems to Ryan that the villagers ‘were concealing what they knew: either lying to us or keeping silent’. He discovers that the Japanese know of the hazardous trip that he made to seek information from Chinese prisoners outside Lae, and there is now a price on his head, dead or alive—two cases of meat and five Australian pounds. This is mentioned stoically, but in good humour.
Ryan’s youthful spirit is tested relentlessly: he has to judge whom to trust, what path to follow, where danger might lie. Few narratives of growing up involve ordeals so arduous, whether monotonous or deadly. Ryan knows the measure of what is taken from him: ‘All sense of adventure and excitement had long since vanished from this patrol, leaving behind an empty flatness that was only one degree removed from despair.’
Plagued by ‘headaches, faintness, giddiness and attacks of nose-bleeding’, Ryan and Howlett return over the mountains to the village of Chivasing, where they are betrayed by the natives and ambushed by the Japanese. Howlett is shot; Ryan survives by burying himself ‘deep in the mud of a place where the pigs used to wallow, with only my nose showing’. He can hear the Japanese calling out to each other,
and their feet sucking and squelching in the mud as they searched. I could not see, so I did not know exactly how close they were, but I could feel in my ears the pressure of their feet as they squeezed through the mud. It occurred to me that this was probably an occasion on which one might pray, and indeed was about to start a prayer. Then something stopped me. I said to myself so fiercely that I seemed to be shouting under the mud, ‘To Hell with God! If I get out of this bloody mess, I’ll do it by myself!’
Later, at the Bulolo base, Ryan is berated by a stock figure of military bureaucracy: ‘Don’t you realise it’s a crime in the Army to lose your pay book?’ While a battle is fought nearby, Ryan recuperates before being flown to the coast, over ‘the land which had soaked up the sweat of two years’. He reflects on man’s bravery, on patience and endurance, and hopes it will also be learned that ‘wars and calamities of nature are not the only occasions when such qualities are needed’.
The book concludes with this prose of noble plainness, but its story and the manner of its telling have resonated for more than fifty years. Richly realised are aims modestly stated: the depiction of war, but ‘on the smallest possible scale’, and ‘what happened to one man—what he did, and how he felt about it’. Fear Drive My Feet is informed by Ryan’s admiration for the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to whose counsel for the control of fear, ‘cease to be whirled around’, he paid special notice when under aerial bombardment.
The book has two telling epigraphs. One is Erasmus’s remark that ‘in the Military Service, there is a busy kind of Time-Wasting.’ This speaks to the long periods of inaction that the book describes—waiting in lonely bush camps to go into action, recovering from malaria and the broken bones caused by falls, at the mercy of intermittent orders and supplies. The second epigraph is from Job, 18.11: ‘Terrors shall make him afraid on every side, and shall drive him to his feet.’ The facing and surmounting of those terrors, mental and physical, is the matter of Peter Ryan’s book—the finest Australian memoir of war.