In 1943, a young man carved his name, date, and place of birth, on a rock outside the Glenbrook Railway Tunnel, on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains.
Nearly 80 years later, that small act highlighted his extraordinary involvement in the highly classified storage of deadly mustard gas in Australia during World War II – despite a ban on its use after World War I.
The road to discovery began last year after the Glenbrook District Historical Society submitted a photo of the engraving to the Manning Wallamba Family History Society on the NSW Mid-North Coast.
This sparked the interest of local researcher Janine Roberts.
Ms Roberts began investigating who “RA Bryan” was and why she had her name engraved on that location.
“It’s these little little clues that give clues about what happened in the past,” he said.
He applied to the Australian National Archives for RA Bryan service records.
“It confirmed to me that he was in the RAAF, but the story that unfolded below, I was just blown away and shocked,” said Roberts.
‘Mustard gas man’
Ms Roberts discovered that Ross Ashley Bryan was born in Taree in 1924 and registered with the RAAF in 1943.
“I thought he might be dreaming of becoming a pilot, but he was actually training as a protector at RAAF Glenbrook base and stationed in the Glenbrook Tunnel,” he said.
Ms Roberts discovered the unused Glenbrook Railway Tunnel was one of 14 mass storage facilities in Australia that was used covertly to store toxic phosgene and mustard gas during World War II.
He said mustard gas was used in World War I with devastating effects and many countries, including Australia, became signatories to the 1925 Geneva Protocol which prohibits the use of chemical warfare.
“When I researched the story, I read that there was a growing threat from Japan [in World War II], especially after the fall of Singapore… and it is suspected that chemical warfare was used against China, ”said Roberts.
“They’re stored in 14 different locations across the country, and this is where Ross Ashley Bryan’s story comes in.”
Ms Roberts said Mr Bryan was part of the RAAF’s specialist chemical warfare protection unit set up to handle chemical weapons supplies.
“In the following years those people were called mustard gasmen, and they handled, transported and ended up destroying the chemical weapons,” he said.
He said the men did very hazardous work without suitable protective equipment, leading to gas burns and exposure to carcinogens.
Ms Roberts said part of Mr Ross’s work on the Glenbrook tunnel would be releasing mustard gas which would build up under pressure in the drums stored in this old railway tunnel.
“That would release lethal gas into the air, and then they repainted the drums and made sure all the seals were properly sealed so they could see if there was a gas leak,” he said.
“He also went to north Queensland where they tested humans using mustard gas, and he was there, in Innisfail, where they were doing the test nearby.
“It’s really awful what these people go through.”
Roberts said the men suffered health complications in the following years through their exposure, including respiratory problems such as emphysema, a rash that never went away, neurological conditions and cancer.
“These people are exposed to phosgene and mustard gas every day,” he said.
“While these immediate wounds appear to be healing, the people don’t know how badly it has affected them, and no one there told them.”
‘It’s almost like these people don’t exist’
Ms Roberts said the men were not allowed to talk about their roles.
“Because many of them have signed the documents bound in the Crime Law being kept secret for 50 years, they don’t discuss it with their family, friends or anyone else,” he said.
“So it is this terrible secret they have been holding on to for more than 50 years. It was only in the 1990s that knowledge of the operation began to become public.
Ms Roberts said Mr Bryan married in Coopernook after the war and died in 2005, without receiving any acknowledgment of his role.
“In 2009 there was a plaque laying ceremony to acknowledge the dangerous work these people were doing [at Glenbrook] and the sacrifices they make for our country, “he said.
‘We need to understand our own history’
Historian and researcher, Geoff Plunkett, has written numerous books on chemical warfare in Australia and interviewed several mustard gas man.
He said several of the men interviewed said they had signed a confidentiality act.
“Most of them were around 18 years old in 1943, they were old people, so a lot of them didn’t talk about it until I came along as official historians,” said Plunkett.
Mr Plunkett said it was important for Australians to be aware of their country’s involvement with chemical weapons.
“These people were criticized because they never left Australia, but most of them wanted to become air gunners in the air force – they were forced to do this.
“In fact, the first thing they know is when they show up in the unit.”
He said they couldn’t come out if it was because they became an important unit that was very specialized.
“But it was a consequence after the war because they were not entitled to multiple pensions because they did not serve abroad,” said Plunkett.
“We have at least one million chemical weapons in Australia, which is not necessarily a small number, but there are still a lot of people who don’t realize that … we certainly need to understand our own history.”
A surprise find for the family
Ms Roberts wrote about Ross Bryan’s story for a local heritage website, MidCoast Stories, which she co-founded.
It was through this story that Mr Bryan’s nephew, David Kedwell of Old Bar, NSW, first learned of his uncle’s wartime role.
“It was never mentioned to me by my immediate family … that’s something that really surprised me,” he said.
“Isn’t that a wonderful thing, [it can come] from the little act of carving your name into stone, “says Kedwell.
“And the fact he’s carved Taree, NSW into stone – he’ll probably never be found [without that]. “
Ms Roberts said it was very satisfying that little hints from the past have allowed a man’s life and sacrifice to be remembered.
“It gives me the satisfaction of looking at a photo – and to me I don’t think it will be much – and then it ends up being this incredible story,” he said.