FLASHBACK FRIDAY – Bluebag Anzacs
Author: Terry Williams, NRLFC club historian
With this year marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War it’s appropriate this Anzac Day that we acknowledge those Bluebags that served in the armed forces between 1939-45.
The influence of the war on the nation, the game and our club provided major challenges, especially after Pearl Harbour when it came to our very doorstep.
Compulsory military service caused disruption to teams at all levels and impacted on training (even the rudimentary floodlights for evening training could not be used for fear they would provide an enemy target), preparation and combination.
More than 30 Newtown players from various eras served during the war, and some of their individual stories provide an insight into the impact of the war.
Bill Buckley, who had finished as a player but was a rising official in the club’s administration, served with distinction at Tobruk and in the North African campaign. He was a regular correspondent to his footy mates back home and knew the importance of sustaining those links for those who were in the front line. It’s no surprise that he went on a stellar career after the war as 1948 Kangaroo tour manager and then President of the NSWRL from 1961 until his death in 1973.
Bill Ryan, along with brother Bruce, had been glamour recruits for Newtown in 1941 and justified the high rating when he posted eleven tries in 12 matches in his debut season and represented City and NSW.
But with war close to home he enlisted and was given the rank of Lieutenant in the 55th/53rd Battalion, despite only being 23 years of age. His courageous leadership in battle brought about his end as the Anzacs tried to stem the Japanese advance in New Guinea in December 1942, as this graphic eyewitness account reveals:
Private G Shaw said: “Bill Ryan was as great a hero as New Guinea will ever know. Lieut. Ryan jumped out 30 yards ahead of us and called us to follow on. When one of our Bren men was knocked, Ryan threw down his rifle and took the Bren. Then he charged with the Bren shooting up the Jap machine gun posts.
Our men were getting knocked badly but Ryan kept charging ahead and calling us to follow. Side-stepping past Jap snipers and machine gun posts in real Rugby style Ryan killed Japs as he went and used up all his ammunition.
He seized an Owen gun and wiped out more Japs. When he jumped at some Japs in a pit, the Japs, taken by surprise, started to tear out the other end. After killing two of them, Ryan started in pursuit of the others. But as he pounced on a fleeing Jap, a sniper, perched high in a tree, tore a hole in his back.”
Daily Telegraph, January 14, 1943
Jim Kelly, who had hooked for the Bluebags in 1938 and ‘39 alongside Bumper Farrell in the front row was with the Australian Army Service Corps in Malaya when the Japanese advanced, and though not a front line soldier he was pressed into duty and captured in 1942, spending the rest of the war as a prisoner before he came home in late 1945.
Arthur Kell, who had been the Bluebags reserve grade halfback in 1938, enjoyed a stellar career in the RAAF even though it is unlikely he had even been in a plane before he enlisted. He rose to become a distinguished fighter pilot involved in some of the most daring and famous Allied raids of the war and was something of a celebrity, even being introduced to the crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York by heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis.
If we had space we could cover some of the other great names from the club who did their bit including Len Smith, who was also a Lieutenant in the AIF, wonder winger Athol Stewart and Herb Narvo who was a fitness instructor in the RAAF.
And we could ponder what might have been had Smith and Narvo been available for the 1944 Grand Final when we lost narrowly to Balmain, but military service came first and no-one was in a position to argue.
Either way, this 25th April we should pay our respects to all of them.
Lest we forget.
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Australia’s oldest rugby league football club celebrates its 115th birthday on Sunday, 8th January 2023
Newtown Jets respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the Land and pay our respects to their Elders past and present. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on and that the land area encompassing Henson Park traditionally belonged to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.