The Trials of Mangrove Murphy by Philip Selth, OAM
Lieutenant John Joseph Murphy took part in the first Japanese assault on Mubo, where the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) soundly repulsed them, inflicting many casualties. When NGVR was disbanded, he joined the coastwatcher organisation.
On the night of 28 September 1943 three coastwatcher parties were landed by American submarine at Cape Orford in New Britain. Their task was to give warnings of Japanese air attacks on the American forces landing at Arawe and Cape Gloucester. The parties had to be in place by 1 November, and Capt Murphy’s group had barely enough time to reach their position, seventy miles away.
To reach his position Murphy chose to travel along the coast, as to divert inland would lose time. The coast route was by far the most dangerous but Murphy and his men were all above the average in courage, and so he accepted the risk.
Murphy’s radio was unserviceable owing to flat batteries. It was arranged to airdrop batteries at a set position en route. His party travelled thirty miles without interruption and then disaster overtook his party. A native sent to fetch carriers brought instead a Japanese patrol, which attacked the jungle camp. In the melee which followed Murphy was captured, and his men and two natives were killed.
In early 1946 at Lae, PNG, Captain John Joseph Murphy, a former PNG patrol officer and coastwatcher on New Britain was tried by court martial for 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.
Murphy had spent more than a year as a prisoner of the Japanese at Rabaul. Only seven of the original sixty-three 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.
Defended by his cousin, the Sydney QC Eric Miller, Murphy was honourably acquitted of all charges.
After the war, Murphy returned to PNG, finishing his career as District Commissioner of the Gulf District, based at Kerema.
Attempts have been made to persuade the 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.
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).
John Murphy passed away on 5 March 1991, aged eighty-two.
Edited extract from Keepers of the Gate: Personal Stories by NGVR Soldiers, NGVR and PNGVR Ex-Members’ Association Inc., 2016