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THE MERV RYAN STORY – Courage, Survival and Resilience


Edward Willis
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Merv Ryan [1]

Sporting journalist Ross Elliott headed a story about No. 2 Independent Company veteran Merv Ryan: ‘Hobbling Army mate is not a ghost’ [2].  The reason for him heading the article this way is revealed as the story unfolds:

It was February 1942 when the Japanese landed in Portuguese Timor in thousands.  To oppose them were 350 [sic] Australian commandos of the 2/2 Independent Company.

The Japs swept through the capital Dili and attacked the airfield.

Knowing there was no hope of holding the field, a small section covered the retreat of their mates to the hills which was to be the base from which they harassed the Japs for 12 months.

Bren gunner Merv Ryan was hit by a hand grenade and his leg shockingly injured.

Corporal (later Lieutenant) Kevin Curran gave Ryan a field dressing and also gave him his water bottle.  There was little else he could do.

Ryan was one of 17 men who were wounded and unable to get away.

In one of the first recorded atrocities of WWII, the wounded were shot and bayoneted.

At that time all the men were thought to be dead.

In 1948 Hawthorn ruck man Kevin Curran won the Simpson Medal as the best player of the match between WA and Victoria at the Subiaco Oval.  WA had won the match and as the siren sounded, thousands of delighted local fans swarmed on to the ground.

As the weary Curran trudged his way towards the Victorian dressing rooms he was brought up short as a man on a walking stick hobbled towards him.  A shaken Curran stammered ‘It must be – but it can’t be’ …… [2]

The hobbling man Curran encountered on the oval was his former compatriot, Merv Ryan who two years before this event, in late July 1946, had recorded a more detailed account of how he came to be injured in a sworn statement prepared for the 1st Australian War Crimes Section investigating the ‘Ration Truck Massacre’:

STATEMENT BY MERVYN PETER RYAN

IN THE MATTER of War Crimes

and

IN THE MATTER of the shooting of a party of Australian POW at DILI Aerodrome, Timor, during February 1942

I Mervyn Peter RYAN of 11 Federal Street, NORTH COTTESLOE, in the State of Western Australia, formerly WX13624 Private M.P. RYAN of 2/2 Aust Independent Company (AIF), being duly sworn, and say as follows:

1. I arrived with my Unit in Timor on or about 15 December 1941.  From the 15 December 1941 I camped with the main group of my unit on the aerodrome at DILI.  I was then removed with ‘A’ Platoon to an area known as 'Cactus Camp’ approximately 18 kilometres from DILI.  We were stationed there until approximately the first week in February 1942 and then proceeded to relieve No. 1 Section of guard duty on the Aerodrome, where we remained until action started against the Japanese on 19 February 1942.

2. On the night of the 19 February 1942 I went into action with my Company against the Japanese and was wounded in the leg and arm.  My mate, Private F. SMITH was also wounded and died later on.  I remained lying on the ground for 24 hours.  During that time, at approximately 1000 hrs on the morning of the 20 February 42, I happened to see a party of men being escorted by Japanese in front of the hangers our old gun positions.  I couldn’t see much as I was fired upon by some Japanese.  I was lying on top of a drain when they opened up on me and I rolled over into the drain, which was about six feet deep.  I could see, however, that the men being escorted were Australians by their physique and their looks, although I did not recognise any of them.  I did not actually see Private AIREY in this part as my visibility was poor and I was lying, on the ground.  I only assumed later that AIREY must have been in this party when I heard what had happened from Private ALEXANDER.

3 . After rolling into the drain, where I found Private SMITH dead, I remained there for approximately 8 hours.  I then crawled across the road to a seal drain where I must have laid for some time.  I was next awakened by the sound of an Army truck, which was an Australian truck bearing a Japanese flag.  I hailed for water and a Japanese officer got out of the truck and after interrogating shot me through the shoulder.  I collapsed and later on awakening I crawled to a nearby native hut.

On the morning of the 23 February 42 I came to again and tried to contact some natives travelling through the area.  At approximately 1100 hours I eventually got one native to contact the Portuguese doctors, who arrived about 1300 hours.  Travelling with the doctors were Portuguese Police who assisted me by having the doctors attend to me and remove me to the Portuguese hospital.  The Japanese interrogated me and other POW in the hospital at DILI, where I remained until April 42.  From hospital I went to the prison camp at DILI, where I met up with Private ALEXANDER.

4. The Portuguese Police were held responsible by the Japanese for holding me while I was in hospital at DILI.  A Portuguese Police Officer gave me the information that he had been a witness to the burial of approximately 11 or 12 Australian soldiers who were executed by the Japanese on the DILI aerodrome.  He could not give me information as to who was responsible for the executions although he tried to find out for me.  I did know the name of this officer at the time, but I have now forgotten it.  He actually took information from me to the Companies in the hills which can be verified by Private Mervyn WHEATLEY, who was a member of my unit and received information from him.

This Portuguese officer had lived in DILI for the best part of his life and was the owner of the Australian Tearooms in DILI which was run up till the time of the invasion when the Japanese took it over.  This Portuguese Officer was about 5'10" in height; weight about 10 stone; age about 45 years; could only speak Pidgin English.

5. While I was at the hospital a Portuguese Roman Catholic Priest came to the hospital.  The Portuguese Officer referred to above told me that this Priest had said that he had buried 11 or 12 Australian soldiers at DILI aerodrome.  This Priest visited me later on when I was still very low in health, but he would not give me any information about the men who were buried.  He just refused to tell me anything about the burials because of my sickness.  From what the Portuguese Police told me this Priest was a very creditable witness and these Police later brought me very accurate information on other subjects about the Japanese.  I saw this Priest about four times while I was at the hospital but only conversed with him the once.  The Portuguese Police said that the Priest could not identify the bodies as there were no identification discs and the bodies had suffered from attacks from animals.  I did not learn the name of this Priest, but he was a tall man, about 6'; weight about 13 stone; age about 30 years; spoke English very well.

6. While I was in hospital I had a native laundry boy to act as my servant.  He told me that he had heard from other natives that a party of men had been executed by the Japanese at the DILI aerodrome.  Three of the men he said had escaped and from the description of one who was found dead in a culvert I took this man to be S/Sgt WALKER who was CQMS of 2/2 Independent Coy.

I also learned :from this native boy that another soldier had died in a coconut plantation.  The third escapee I was given to understand had been treated by natives and returned inland.  When I returned to Australia I learned that this man was Pte. HAYES.

7. About two months after I became a POW I met Pte ALEXANDER at the DILI guard camp.  He related to me that about 0800 hours on the morning of the 20 February 42 one section of ‘B’ Company [Platoon] who were stationed approximately 20 miles out of DILI on outpost duty were proceeding to DILI in a ration truck for supplies and four hours leave.  He told me that he was a member of the party, which numbered approximately 15 men.  As the truck was entering a cutting through the hills near DILI I they were surrounded by Japanese who came out of the bush and opened fire on the truck, causing them to stop.  The party had no time to return the fire and they were all captured.  Pte. ALEXANDER said that no-one was wounded.  The Japanese then escorted the truck into DILI.  At the DILI aerodrome Pte. ALEXANDER said they were all taken away behind the hangars where he, ALEXANDER, was released from the file and escorted to DILI town where he was interrogated by the Japanese officer there.  He said that was the last he saw of the men.  Pte. ALEXANDER said he thought the men were being used by the Japanese as a working party.  I told him what I knew about a party of men being shot.

8. From April 42 I was a POW at DILI prison camp and then I went to KOEPANG about June 42. Until August the 3rd I was at KOEPANG and then I embarked for Java.

SWORN by the said Mervyn Peter RYAN at PERTH in the State of Western Australia this 30th day of August 1946

Before me: G. Neal

A Commissioner for taking affidavits in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. [3]

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Pte. Merv Ryan field tests the showers at Dili drome [4]

The Portuguese Dr Mario Borges Olivera who treated Merv Ryan’s wounds at the Lahane hospital also gave a statement to the 1st Australian War Crimes Section:

AFFIDAVIT

I MARIO BORGES OLIVERA, being duly sworn state:

I am a physician of the DILI HOSPITAL and reside at DILI.  I am a Portuguese subject and a captain in the Portuguese Army.

On 20th February 1942 I was in Dili when the Japanese landed, and I remained in Dilli for four months after the first Japanese occupation.

At the time of the Japanese landing there was an Australian civilian named BRYANT living at the Australian Consulate.  Mr ROSS was the Australian Consul.  I had been treating BRYANT but when I went to visit him to give him an injection, I was prevented from entering the Consulate by the Japanese.  Both Mr ROSS and BRYANT were confined to the Consulate and no one was permitted to see them.

On the 20th February, a man named DOMING0S SALDANHA, a native, told me  there was a wounded Australian soldier lying on the DILI aerodrome.  Fighting between the Japanese and the Australians had taken place on the aerodrome.  I sent four men to bring the wounded soldier to the hospital.  He arrived at about 10 am and I examined him.  He was conscious and gave his name as RYAN.  He was suffering from a high fever and twenty seven wounds which appeared to have been caused by shrapnel.  The soldier was covered in blood.  He asked for water and I commenced my treatment of him.

The Australian soldier stayed at the hospital for one month.  During this time, he recovered and was able to walk.  At the end of his months stay in the hospital, a Japanese officer and three Japanese soldiers came to the hospital and took RYAN away together with one Dutch soldier and three Javanese soldiers.  All these soldiers had been wounded.

The Director-Doctor of the hospital protested to the Japanese officer telling him that the Portuguese were neutral and that the hospital was showing the Red Cross and under International Law, they could not be taken away.  The Japanese took no notice and the soldiers were taken away.

I do not know what happened to the soldiers and furthermore I do not know of anyone who does know what happened to them. [5]

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Annotation on rear of photo: Taken January 1942 – One of the carts used to a great extent – L to R – M. Ryan, F. Smith, A. Delbridge. [6]

News of Merv Ryan’s survival and capture by the Japanese was relayed to his parents after the No. 2 Independent Company was evacuated from Portuguese Timor:

A crumpled note, its pencilled message hardly decipherable, is a cherished possession of Mr. and Mrs. W. Ryan, of Simper Street, Wembley, for it is the last direct link they have with their 20-year-old son Pte. Mervyn Peter Ryan, now a prisoner of war.  The note was smuggled out to his mates by Ryan after he had been taken captive.  At first he was reported missing; later came advice that he was reported to be a prisoner of war, believed wounded in action.

Although he had fallen into enemy hands and was wounded Ryan did hot despair of his freedom.  Members of his own guerrilla company also had plans made to effect his escape.  A faithful native of the country in which they were fighting was their principal go-between.  Partly crippled, he is understood to have been shot later by the enemy as a spy.

Ryan's message, addressed to one of his company pals, was as follows:

Here's the answer to your note.  You will find it hard to read for I have lost the power of my right hand also my right leg.  But it won't keep me from having another go at these Japs.

I have been in hospital for five weeks now, but I won't be a pris[oner] for I am getting help from your native as you know.  Give my regards to all the boys.  I have some good information but dangerous to write.  See you all in two weeks. Your 'old faith, Merv.

ENEMY LANDING

Story of Ryan's adventures has been pieced together from scraps of information communicated to his parents by members of his company.

Ryan and another West Australian named Smith were out on patrol with a machinegun.  They were hidden at a point hear the coast about midnight when they heard the noises made by a party obviously landing in force.  At first they had reason to assume these were friends, not foes, but they soon learned to the contrary.  It was an enemy landing and Ryan and Smith found themselves in a tight corner.  They opened fire and in the exchange of shots Smith was killed by a grenade burst and Ryan wounded in the arm and leg.

NEWS AT LAST

For two days Ryan was able to lie hidden, thanks to the co-operation of friendly people.  A revolver was procured for him and patrols from his company instituted a search for him and for others.  A note was got through to Ryan and the message quoted was his reply.  The enemy evidently got wind of the rescue attempts before escape plans could be fulfilled.  That was the last heard of Ryan until recently when news came that he was well and that his people should not worry.  Ryan was well-known in the Brunswick district and was employed there when he enlisted.  A younger brother, Private Ronald Patrick Ryan, is serving with an A.I.F. engineering unit. [7]

After his repatriation to Australia at the end of the war, Merv Ryan gave more detail about his wartime experiences in a newspaper interview:

Wounded badly, in an agony of thirst, and on the point of exhaustion, Private Mervyn Peter Ryan pleaded with a Japanese guard for water.  Laughing his request to scorn, the Jap whipped out his revolver and shot him through the shoulder.  This was the worst but not the only example of the enemy's inhuman treatment which came the way of Ryan, now home at Shenton Park after being a P.O.W. in Timor, Java and Malaya since late 1941.

Ryan, who is 23 and a strapping physical specimen, lost more than four stone during his incarceration.  He belonged to the 2/2nd Commandos who landed on Timor shortly before Christmas, 1941.  He and the two other members of his gun crew shared the brunt of the fighting when the battle occurred for Dilli drome.  One of the trio escaped unwounded, a grenade burst open Ryan's right leg some inches above the ankle, while the third man was severely wounded and died two days afterwards.  As the scene of the fighting moved away the two men lay in their 'nest’.  With his mate dead Ryan crawled painfully towards the native house.  Lack of food and water and the untreated, bleeding wound caused him torture and he had spells of dizziness and coma.  It was while he was making this desperate journey that the water incident occurred.  He was apparently left for as good as dead.  It took him four hours to cover 25 yards.

RAW MEAT

Near the house he located a kerosene tin half-filled with brackish water, risked drinking it and munched buffalo grass shoots.  He awakened from another fainting fit to find himself surrounded by a group of gesticulating natives.

These gave him buffalo meat which he sucked raw, water and rice.  They then brought Portuguese and native doctors to him and they got permission for him to be taken through the enemy defence lines to the nearby hospital.  Here he had to be given intravenously such sustaining liquids as goat's milk.  The doctors and natives established communication with his unit which was then engaged in furious fighting with the Japanese in the foothills.  He planned an escape but was put in a prison camp.

NIGHT RAIDERS

One night in May, 1942 a small party of his unit daringly stormed the camp, apparently bent on rescuing him and Peter Alexander, of Kalgoorlie, who was also in the camp.  They heard the sound of .303 bullets and a volley of these was fired on to the verandah of their camp hut, the guard being wounded.  The whole camp was roused and the Dilli town alarm sounded while Jap infantry moved off with armoured cars and M.G. carriers.  They claimed next day to have, shot one of the raiding party.

With his leg wound still unhealed Ryan was moved south to Asaper Bessar camp from where, after a spell of hard work, he was sent to Batavia, still having to spend periods in hospital for treatment of his leg and shoulder.  Here a number of Australians worked in the gardens and found the food situation greatly improved, but when there came another shift to Singapore the food was scarce and unsuitable, consisting almost exclusively of rice.  They crossed to Singapore in a ship carrying 2000 prisoners who were so jammed they had to remain seated for the three-day voyage.

TORTURE

While working in the Singapore docks area they had a grandstand view of an Allied air raid which burned out the installations.  Fires burned for four days.  The Japs persistently tried to draw out Ryan regarding our guerrilla operations and were particularly inquisitive to find out why our men persisted in fighting in the interior.  Once he was examined along these' lines by a Jap admiral and three generals.  They usually had some fiendish torture to accompany these interrogations.  Considering the great hardships and suffering he was forced to endure Ryan has made a remarkable recovery. [8]

Merv Ryan was in fact much closer to the raiding party than they realised.  Here is his account of the raid as experienced as a Jap prisoner:

May 15, 1942 - was being held a prisoner of war by the Japanese at Dili.  About midnight Peter Alexander and I were asleep in a house with about 30 soldiers of different nationalities, when all of a sudden hell broke loose.  We had a window open to let some air into the room.  I dived over and closed it so no silly bugger would throw a grenade in.  The bullets were really flying around the place.  303s and Tommy guns could well be heard.  After about a quarter of an hour the world around us became quite calm until the Nips started to have their say.  They sure gave us a headache that night.  Peter and I were repeatedly woken up to make sure we had not gone A.W.L.  They came and checked us every hour.  (Do you think I hated the army then?)

The raid certainly worried the little ape men.  They raced through the town like mad, bringing anything that would roll on wheels for we could count the carriers and trucks going up and down the road all night long.  For a long time after they would patrol at night, so the raid gave them a lot of sleepless nights.

May 16, 1942, 5.30 a.m. - We were all made to stand under a big tree and were told by Gorilla Pete that the Australians who made the raid were all wiped out.  They produced one hat and one rifle, but we had found out that it was a Jap body, so we all started to laugh.  The Japs didn't appreciate our mirth, so they made us face each other and told us to slap each our mate's face.  (That Alexander sure can throw a good right).  After the show had quietened down I went out the front of the house to have a look.  Was I pleased to be behind a 12 inch stone wall in that raid for the verandah was just riddled with bullet holes.  I spent a whole day digging out .303 bullets and Tommy gun rounds. [9]

Merv Ryan’s parents were unaware of his fate after the report they had received in March 1943, so it was a great relief for them when a photo of him appeared in a newspaper report about released Australian prisoners of war in Singapore at the end of the war:

Pte M.P. Ryan pictured in the group published in yesterday's issue of ‘The West Australian’.

The first indication that her son, a prisoner of war in Japanese hands since his capture on Timor, was alive and well was when Mrs W. Ryan of 39 Evans Street, Shenton Park, saw his photograph in a group published in yesterday's issue of ‘The West Australian’ under the caption ‘The Australians Enjoy the Situation’.  She recognised her son and hurried into this office to see the original print – ‘just to make sure’ she said.

He is WX13624 Pte Mervyn Peter Ryan, who was one of the famed Timor guerrillas and a member of the Second Independent Company (commandos).  Pte Ryan was wounded at Dilli aerodrome on February 19, 1942 and captured by the Japanese.  He was immediately dispatched to a Japanese [Portuguese] hospital where he remained for about five weeks.  This information was relayed to his unit by a native messenger who was subsequently shot by the Japanese as a ‘spy’.  The next indication of his whereabouts was about five months later when he was located in Java X camp - the news also being received by a native messenger.

During his internment his mother received no mail from him.  On Monday, however, she was informed by a telegram from the Minister for the Army that Pte Ryan had been reported alive at Tangong Pagar, Singapore, on September 4.  However, it was not divulged whether he was in good health.

Mrs Ryan saw his likeness for the first time for nearly four years when the photograph was published in ‘The West Australian’.  That morning she received a letter from him stating that he would be home in about a fortnight.  ‘It is the greatest day in my life’, she said, ‘and I have never felt so excited.  I did not know whether he was alive or dead and the photo in the paper dispelled any doubts I had.  It was marvellous’.  Pte Ryan is 23 years of age and was educated at the Leederville State school.  He was born at Goomalling. [10]

Merv Ryan’s travails and adventures weren’t concluded at the end of the war as related by Col Doig in this ‘friendly fire’ anecdote about the aftermath of the Association 1947 reunion dinner:

Perhaps the highlight of this function was the aftermath.  Jack Denman had his car and when the show was over got a few passengers to be delivered in all directions.  Merv Ryan was precariously perched on the running board (yes, cars had running boards in 1947) and in swerving to avoid another vehicle coming onto the Causeway, sideswiped Merv on to a light pole, leaving him grounded, slightly bruised only (who ever heard of a drunk getting hurt in a minor accident) and proceeded over the Causeway unaware that one of his precious cargo was adrift on the roadside. [11]

Merv Ryan passed away in 1986 aged 64 years:

VALE - MERV RYAN

With a great depth of sadness we report the passing of a man who put up a grand fight against tremendous odds and finally, after courageously attending the Canberra Safari, succumbed to the almost unbeatable scourge.

Merv was an original in our formative days at Foster and was a member of 2 Section, 'A' Platoon, under Gerry McKenzie, his platoon commander, Rolf (Baldy) Baldwin.  From the word go Merv made his mark in a very competitive section, the earmarks of a fine soldier apparent from very early days, so it turned out to be.

He was tall, athletic, tough, full of humour, very much a man's man who acquitted himself in every possible situation with distinction.  He was well liked by every member of the Unit and that continued into post war years.

Merv's war years were destined to be served under the yoke of the Japanese for on the night of the 19th February 1942, when 2 Section took the brunt of the Japanese landing, he was badly wounded in close contact with the enemy and that was the last we saw of him until the war ended.

The years under the Japanese were torrid indeed, that is putting it mildly, but Merv made of the right stuff, terrible injuries and all, was still in there punching, making his presence felt, as Nippon would well know.  For a short while he had Peter Alexander from 7 Section as a mate but that was only temporary.  Merv's injuries could not see him moved from Singapore and Peter was sent up to the ‘Railway’.

August 1945 saw the Japanese surrender and in its wake came the emotional reunion of families long parted.  So it was with Merv who settled back into civilian life easily for he had a tremendous partner in Dulcie, raised a family, worked hard on the wharves at Fremantle and threw in his lot with our 2/2nd Commando Association and he was an invaluable member.

He showed the same fortitude post war as he did when a P.O.W., for life was not easy.  The injuries received on that fateful night in February 1942 caused untold problems and pain, but he dismissed them all with the well-known Ryan grin.

Over all the years Dulcie was a tower of strength to Merv, a wonderful wife and mother, a lovely person.  We send our heartfelt sympathy to Dulcie and her family and trust time will in some way heal the great void left by Merv's passing.  May God give you and yours strength to face the years ahead with peace of heart and mind being yours in abundance.

We will miss Merv so very much, a well-loved mate and comrade.  To all with whom he had contact his memory will make these words live for they are indelibly imprinted in our hearts.

'LEST WE FORGET' [12]

REFERENCES

[1] Cyril Ayris. - All the Bull's men : No. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron) / Cyril Ayris. - [Perth, W.A.] : 2/2nd Commando Association, 2006: 109.

[2] [Newspaper article - Source unknown]

[3] ‘Statement by Mervyn Peter Ryan’ in National Archives of Australia: MP742/1, War crimes - Timor Asia (general) : TIMOR 4 - War crimes - Timor Asia (general) [component 1 of 7] 336/1/1724 PART 1.

[4] Archie Campbell. - The Double Reds of Timor. - Swanbourne, W.A.: John Burridge Military Antiques, c1995: 33.

[5] ‘Affidavit of Dr Mario Borges Olivera, Physician, Dili Hospital (Lahane), Dili, Portuguese Timor, 25th June,1946’ in National Archives of Australia: MP742/1, War crimes - Timor Asia (general) : TIMOR 4 - War crimes - Timor Asia (general) [component 1 of 7] 336/1/1724 PART 1.

[6] Source: 2/2 Commando Association of Australia photo archive.

[7] ‘Japs thwart escape plan’ Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950), Friday 19 March 1943: 7.  (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page7966930)

[8] ‘Wounded man shot when craved water’ Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950), Saturday 20 October 1945: 15.  (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/rendition/nla.news-article78481096.txt)

[9] A history of the 2nd Independent Company and 2/2 Commando Squadron / compiled by C.D. Doig. - Carlisle, W.A. : Hesperian Press, 2009. [First published: 1986]: 115-116.

[10] ‘Son recognised in Singapore picture: WA mother's "greatest day”’ West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), Thursday 20 September 1945: 4.  (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51769482)

[11] A great fraternity: the story of [the] 2/2nd Commando Association, 1946-1992 / compiled by C.D. Doig. -  [Perth, W.A.: C.D. Doig], 1993: 28.

[12] ‘Vale - Merv Ryan’ 2/2 Commando Courier vol. 62, August 1986: 7-8.

 

Prepared by Ed Willis

29 June 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ed, thanks once again, for all the time you invest in researching and recording these forgotten articles. 

Well done.

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Thanks John - discovered Merv Ryan's statement to the Australian War Crimes Section team in a file at the National Archives in Melbourne - a real 'eye opener' - I don't think his story has been fully told before.

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