In 1943, a young man carved his name, the date, and his place of birth, into a rock outside the old Glenbrook Railway Tunnel, at the eastern side of the Blue Mountains.
Almost 80 years later, that small act has highlighted his remarkable involvement in the top-secret Australian storage of deadly mustard gas during World War II — despite a ban on its use after World War I.
The path to the discovery started last year after the Glenbrook District Historical Society sent a photo of the engraving to the Manning Wallamba Family History Society on the NSW Mid-North Coast.
It sparked the interest of local researcher Janine Roberts.
Ms Roberts started investigating who “R A Bryan” was and why he had engraved his name at that location.
“It’s these tiny little clues that give hints to what happened in the past,” she said.
She applied to the National Archives of Australia for the service record of R A Bryan.
“It confirmed to me he was in the RAAF, but the story that unfolded under that, I was just fascinated and shocked by,” Ms Roberts said.
‘Mustard gas men’
Ms Roberts discovered that Ross Ashley Bryan was born in Taree in 1924 and enlisted with the RAAF in 1943.
“I think he maybe had dreams of becoming a pilot, but he actually underwent training as an armourer at the Glenbrook RAAF base and was posted to Glenbrook Tunnel,” she said.
Ms Roberts discovered the disused Glenbrook railway tunnel was one of 14 bulk storage facilities in Australia used to secretly store poisonous phosgene and mustard gas during World War II.
She said mustard gas was used in World War I with devastating effects and many countries, including Australia, became signatories to the Geneva Protocol 1925 prohibiting the use of chemical warfare.
“As I researched the story, I read that there was a growing threat from the Japanese [in World War II], especially after the fall of Singapore … and it was suspected that chemical warfare had been used against the Chinese,” Ms Roberts said.
“They were stored in 14 different locations around the country, and this is where Ross Ashley Bryan’s story comes in.”
Ms Roberts said Mr Bryan was part of a specialist RAAF chemical warfare armourer unit set up to handle the chemical weapon stockpile.
“In later years those men have become referred to as the mustard gas men, and they handled, transported and eventually destroyed the chemical weapons,” she said.
She said the men did the highly dangerous work without suitable protective equipment, which led to gas burns and exposure to the carcinogen.
Ms Roberts said part of Mr Ross’s job at Glenbrook tunnel would have been to release the mustard gas that would build up under pressure in the drums, stored in this old railway tunnel.
“It would discharge the lethal gas into the air, and then they would repaint the drums and make sure all the seals were properly sealed so they could see if there were any gas leaks,” she said.
“He also went up to northern Queensland where they conducted human trials using mustard gas, and he was up there, at Innisfail, where they were doing trials nearby.
“It really is quite horrific what these men went through.”
Ms Roberts said the men suffered health complications in later years through their exposure, including respiratory problems such as emphysema, rashes that never healed, nervous conditions and cancers.
“These men were exposed to the phosgene and mustard gas on a daily basis,” she said.
“While these immediate injuries appeared to heal, the men didn’t know how badly they were being affected, and there was no one there to tell them.”
‘Almost like these men didn’t exist’
Ms Roberts said the men weren’t allowed to talk about their role.
“Because a lot of them had signed documents which under the Crimes Act bound them to secrecy for 50 years, they didn’t talk about it with their families, friends or anyone,” she said.
“So, it was this terrible secret they held on to for over 50 years. It wasn’t until the 1990s that knowledge of the operation started to come to public notice.
Ms Roberts said Mr Bryan married at Coopernook after the war and died in 2005, without receiving any acknowledgement for his role.
“In 2009 there was a plaque-laying ceremony to acknowledge the dangerous work these men undertook [at Glenbrook] and the sacrifices they made for our country,” she said.
‘We need to understand our own history’
Historian and researcher, Geoff Plunkett, has written many books about chemical warfare in Australia and interviewed some of the mustard gas men.
He said some of the men interviewed said they had signed secrecy acts.
“Most of them were about 18 in 1943, they were the old school gentlemen, so a lot of them hadn’t talked about it until I came along as an official historian,” Mr Plunkett said.
Mr Plunkett said it was important Australians were aware of their country’s involvement with chemical weapons.
“These men got criticised because they never left Australia, but most of them wanted to be air gunners in the air force — they were forced into doing this.
“In fact the first they knew about it was when they turned up at the units.”
He said they couldn’t get out if it because they became a really specialist important unit.
“But that became a consequence after the war because they weren’t eligible for various pensions because they didn’t serve overseas,” Mr Plunkett said.
“We had at least one million chemical weapons in Australia, which is by no means a small amount, but still a lot pf people don’t realise that … we certainly need to understand our own history.”
A surprise discovery for family
Ms Roberts wrote about Ross Bryan’s story for a local heritage website, MidCoast Stories, which she has co-founded.
It was through that story that Mr Bryan’s nephew, David Kedwell from Old Bar, NSW, first learnt of his uncle’s wartime role.
“It’s never been mentioned to me by any of my immediate family … it’s something that totally took me by surprise,” he said.
“Isn’t it an amazing thing, [it can come] from such a small act of carving your name into a rock,” Mr Kedwell said.
“And the fact he carved Taree, NSW into the rock — he might never have been found [without that].”
Ms Roberts said it was highly satisfying a small clue from the past had allowed a man’s life and his sacrifice to be remembered.
“It gives me such satisfaction to look at a photo — and to me I didn’t think it was going to be much — and then it ends up to be this amazing story,” she said.
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