The Sole Survivor by Ralph Sawyer

The District Office at Kerema

Congratulations are due to Philip Selth for his balanced article on John Joseph Murphy in Una Voce’s March 2019 Issue. ‘The Trials of Mangrove Murphy’ highlights one of the common problems that occurs when sole survivors are involved. The survivor has to come to terms with the fact that he is the sole survivor and that reconciliation process can last for years. What was even more daunting for Murphy was the question that would inevitably arise: ‘How come you’re the only one left alive?’
Murphy was exonerated on all charges but was never rewarded for his services. Selth states that both the prosecution and defence presentations were flawed. The prosecution case was mainly based on Japanese records, which may not have been that accurate. Nearly all of the Japanese garrison was stranded in Rabaul until the end of the war, and it is possible that many records were shredded or sanitised before they were examined.
There were cases of missing Australians and downed American airmen shot down near Rabaul with no record of their fate. Some were explained by the incomplete records of Montevideo Maru. Perhaps the exhumed pilots’ bodies after the war did not merit recording in the Japanese order of importance.
On being interrogated, John Murphy should have given his name, rank, serial number and remained silent. This sounds proper but how realistic is it

He was dealing with the notorious Kempeitai intelligence officers who were the equivalent roughly of the Nazi SS. For anyone in this situation with the threat of torture, some dialogue with the enemy was understandable. It meant you were more likely to survive, and safely give credible false intelligence to the enemy.

If Murphy had given vital intelligence, it is unlikely that he would have been later acquitted. It is more likely that his information was false or already known. In a similar situation, an Australian prisoner qualified his information with ‘and you can tell that to the marines’, a coded message that later exonerated him. And what do we know about Murphy’s activities during captivity?
Civilian prisoners later testified that Murphy helped them survive. We do know that Murphy cared for a herd of mules that were used as pack animals. Food was short in Rabaul as the garrison was cut off from homeland supplies. Mule feed could have been copra meal and sago, both of which could double as human food at a pinch. By the end of the war even the mules were eaten.
John Murphy was a fluent linguist in pidgin and place talk. It is reasonable to assume that he acquired a modicum of Japanese, and used it to his advantage in his struggle to survive.
We do know that Murphy did communicate with a Christian Kempetai officer. When this officer came to court in 1946, Murphy volunteered as a friendly witness, which would not have earned him brownie points.
Like many of the ex-servicemen who became senior DNA officers in the 1960s, Murphy was one of that select group who managed miracles with scanty resources.
In the 1950s the district headquarters of the Gulf district was transferred from Kikori to Kerema. Murphy was appointed as the new DC to administer from a prewar sak sak office. Kerema was serviced by a weekly Catalina flying boat. There was a need for a permanent airstrip. Fortuitously, Arthur Carey had arrested about thirty Kuku Kuku tribesmen who were sentenced to long terms at Kerema. Murphy soon had them clearing a sago swamp (no mean task in bare feet) for a landing strip.
The new Kerema club needed stock so the Magila was despatched to Thursday Island to pick up a load of lolly water. This prompted a few questions from customs, which the DC deftly handled.
There were other tasks that were performed at minimum cost, but unless you had experienced the perilous black palm floor of the ancient district office you would not fully appreciate the need to improvise at all times. Even as late as 1962, I was gratuitously and confidentially informed: ‘Of course, you know he was on collaboration charges after the war.’
‘Honourably acquitted on all charges’ seems definite enough but even the mention of ‘charges’ creates reservations with the ill-disposed person. The modern civil jargon ‘no case to answer’ has a similar ring to it.
With the distance of seventy-five years, most fair-minded people would agree that John Joseph Murphy was not given his full due as an officer and a gentleman.

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