The trials of J J ‘Mangrove’ Murphy, 1914-97
24 February 2012
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
Hi Kerry, is there any way i can get in contact with you?
Posted by: Ben Murphy | 26 October 2022 at 02:50 PM
Did John Murphy write the ‘Pidgin English Dictionary of common nouns and phrases‘ (Townsville, 1937)?
Posted by: Mick O’Loghlen | 31 July 2019 at 06:17 PM
Does anybody know if Philip Selth is still alive? My last contact with him was by email in 2016. He was researching my father's career (Lt Col Duncan LB Goslett, CO of the Australian War Crimes Unit in Japan after WWII).
Haven't heard from Philip since he stepped down from the NSW Bar Association last year, Peter. I suggest you contact the Association to get a contact email - KJ
Posted by: Peter Goslett | 15 June 2017 at 03:48 AM
Hi Kerry, I am wondering if the documentary was ever produced. Your Dad was a good friend of many of the older Parers & Philip Selth OAM was in contact with me in 2011 & I was not much help other than to say they all held him in the highest respect & considered him the bravest of men & certainly an unsung hero.
I have a copy of a four page handwritten letter to Eric Miller QC from James Austin McMurria of Georgia USA who was piloting a bomber & shot down out to sea from Aitape in 1943.
Our beautiful Island people of Aitape looked after him for some months until he was captured & taken to Rabaul in August. Tragic that James McMurria was not contacted before the court-martial in 1946 as his testimony would have ruled out it proceeding.
He wrote about your father's qualities of leadership, energy & efficency which truly afforded a buffer between the POWs & the Japanese.
He was regarded by all the POW with admiration, respect & with something close to worship. Many occassions he broke out of prison at the risk of death to steal Aterbrin & other medicines for the POWs.
Posted by: Rob Parer | 06 November 2015 at 04:55 PM
I lived in Kerema during the time John Murphy was District Commissioner. As a school friend of his daughters I don't remember him being anything but very well respected.
There is plenty of information on him at the Fryer Library at University of Queensland (I presume donated by his family). It would be very interesting to see a documentary of his life - has this happened yet?
Not to our knowledge, R Rusch - KJ
Posted by: R Rusch | 11 February 2015 at 04:06 PM
Of course I have my father's diaries from PNG and his original manuscript and photos of his life . And yet no one has taken the time or seen the necessity to get in touch with me. My father and I spoke often about his experiences throughout his life and I have been present when he has been discussing his prisoner of war experiences with his friends.
Posted by: Kerry Murphy (his Son) | 11 August 2012 at 06:28 PM
Sounds like the book on John Murphy will be quite interesting. Does anybody here remember Mr. Murphy; or the circumstances surrounding his court martial?
Posted by: Tavurvur | 24 February 2012 at 10:20 AM