BY PHILIP SELTH OAM
IN EARLY 1946 AT LAE, Captain John Joseph Murphy, a former Papua New Guinea Patrol Officer and Coastwatcher on New Britain was tried by court-martial.
He was charged with having ‘treacherously given intelligence to the Japanese’ and, under section 40 of the Army Act, with ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline’ in that while a prisoner-of-war he gave to the Japanese more than his name, rank and number.
The charges, two of which carried the death penalty, were based on a captured document purportedly a record of Murphy’s interrogation when captured and statements taken by the Allies from Japanese soldiers at the end of the War.
Defended by his cousin, the Sydney QC Eric Miller, Murphy was honourably acquitted of all charges.
Murphy had spent more than a year as a prisoner of the Japanese at Rabaul. Only seven of the original 63 prisoners in the Tunnel Hill camp survived; Murphy was the only Australian.
The court-martial arose from information Murphy allegedly gave the Japanese when he was captured in October 1943. At the court martial the defence argued that Japanese documents had been incorrectly translated and that others had given information to the Japanese under torture.
After the war, Murphy returned to PNG, finishing his career as District Commissioner of the Gulf District, based at Kerema.
A film documentary is now being made on John Murphy’s life. A radio program on the ABC is imminent.
Attempts have been made to persuade the [federal] government to posthumously recognise John Murphy’s service as a Coastwatcher and in helping keep fellow prisoners alive in Rabaul.
But not everyone accepts the court-martial verdict.
Murphy was a well-regarded Administration officer. His actions in the Rabaul POW camps clearly saved lives. For that alone he deserves recognition.
But how can one explain the captured Japanese documents and testimony of Murphy’s interrogators? Records now available show the case the defence mounted at the court-martial was in part flawed. The prosecution and conduct of the case, too, was flawed. Today, it is most unlikely the case would get to trial.
John Murphy does deserve public recognition for his time as a POW. But one cannot simply say the court-martial should never have been held. There were questions to be answered (although they should have been addressed by an inquiry rather than by a court martial.)
I am writing a biography of Eric Miller QC, having written his entry for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In the course of my research into Miller QC’s life, I stumbled upon John Murphy’s story, with which I have become fascinated. (Others use the term ‘obsessed’.)
So I am now trying to juggle my professional and family life with researching and writing two biographies, both about Australians who deserve greater recognition that they have received to date.
Philip Selth is Executive Director of the New South Wales Bar Association and a former President of the Canberra & District Historical Society. This note was originally published in the CDHS Newsletter from a paper Mr Selth gave at the National Archives of Australia, Canberra, on 13 July 2010