The Boy Soldier from Ballarat

A child soldier: Tom Murphy shortly after enlisting in 1941. Picture: Paul Murphy.

A child soldier: Tom Murphy shortly after enlisting in 1941. Picture: Paul Murphy.

At 15, most youths are probably thinking about anything other than enlisting in the army and going to war.

But for Tom Murphy the chance to fight fascism meant he was willing to lie about his age and pinch his older brother’s birth certificate in a series of attempts to join the Second AIF.

Knocked back after several efforts, he finally finds an almost-willing recruitment officer, who looks at him with scepticism.

“If you're 19, God help the air force,” Captain Wainwright says wryly. 

As far as the army was concerned, Tomas Francis Murphy was now his brother Donal James. To his army mates, he’s ‘Spud’.

Just my luck. A war wound I can never show anyone.

Tom Murphy on being struck by shrapnel in the buttocks.

The war is not what Tom expects. He enlisted to fight the Germans and Italians, but instead finds himself in Malaya in the face of the fast-conquering Japanese army.

By 1942 he is their prisoner.

How a boy of 15 from Ballarat finds himself working in a Japanese coal mine as a prisoner of war for three long years is just part of the remarkable story of Tom Murphy.

One of five sons of Jack and Margaret Murphy, his family are ardent unionists and politically left-leaning. 

A voracious reader, he is consuming Joyce’s Ulysses at the outbreak of war. (It’s banned by the Minister for Customs shortly after.)

Tom decides to enlist after hearing his father’s outraged vituperation over a photograph showing a Catholic priest blessing Italian warships. 

After his successful subterfuge to join up, he’s sent to Bonegilla where he makes friends with two men who will stick by him throughout the war.

Bonegilla Army Camp: Tom Murphy is at the centre-rear without helmet. Picture: Paul Murphy.

Bonegilla Army Camp: Tom Murphy is at the centre-rear without helmet. Picture: Paul Murphy.

Charles Bone and Wilfred Jenkins are known as ‘Slim’ and ‘Red’ respectively. The two older men decide to look after their young friend, especially after meeting his mother on a trip to the Murphy home.

The three soldiers are assigned to the 8th Division Signals Unit and sent to Malaya. Signallers are responsible for the essential role of communications, including repairs to telegraph lines. It’s in repairing one of these that Tom sees his only significant action of the war – and is wounded.

A Japanese gun emplacement within the Sultan of Johor’s palace compound opens fire on the Australian troops. They dive for cover, and a shell splinter rips through the exposed buttock of Tom Murphy.

“Just my luck,” he says.

“A war wound I can never show anyone.”

Tom Murphy's war

Tom Murphy's war

Tom Murphy’s sense of humour will sustain him through the dark days to come. He writes letters home to his parents with wry observations.

“Saw half our air force yesterday. I think the other plane is being mended,” he writes.

In February 1942 Singapore falls to the Japanese. Spud, Red and Slim becomes prisoners of war. They are held for a time in Changi prison, then shipped on the Kamakura Maru to Nagasaki in Japan.

Set to work in the shipyards and later in Japan’s coal mines at Fukuoka, Tom starts keeping a diary after the shipyard is bombed. Keeping a diary is a dangerous prospect. Men have been executed for keeping notes.

He makes observations about daily life as a POW: how the men wear flowers on Mother’s Day, the pleasure of meeting new arrivals in the camp, of having his father’s gold watch returned to him after the camp’s medical staff had needed it for timing their operations.

Preserved: the watch used by medical practitioners in the prison camp and later returned to Tom Murphy. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

Preserved: the watch used by medical practitioners in the prison camp and later returned to Tom Murphy. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

Later he notes the conditions of the move to the coal mines.

“The Americans in this camp are eating frogs and snakes which are common here. The Aussies can grin – they don’t eat frogs or snakes YET!,” Murphy writes.

His tone soon changes as rations shrink.

“Several men collapsed today. The boys got five snakes and some frogs and about a dozen pounds of spuds. The spuds were beautiful but I couldn't tackle the snake or frogs.”

A dangerous practice: the cover of Tom Murphy's wartime diary. Some of the early pages are damaged and illegible. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

A dangerous practice: the cover of Tom Murphy's wartime diary. Some of the early pages are damaged and illegible. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

His notes about the conditions he and his fellow prisoners are forced to undergo make for harrowing reading.

“Very hard day. About 100 tons of coal loaded by 22 men. Driven like n*****s all day. Rained late. Arrived back soaked . Men walking two miles to work over broken roads with no boots…

“Bashings and holding weights above the head for those who are considered not to have worked hard enough.”

His family in Australia find out that their missing son is still alive when a Greek fish and chip shop owner hears his name read out in a Red Cross broadcast.

A dangerous practice: the interior of the diary of Tom Murphy. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

A dangerous practice: the interior of the diary of Tom Murphy. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

What they don’t hear of is the bashings and starvation diets, the cruel treatments meted out to the prisoners that inflict deep mental scars on the men. Tom Murphy has to learn to become a man very quickly.

Bashings and holding weights above the head for those who are considered not to have worked hard enough.

Diary entry, Tom Murphy

Tom’s diary concludes in June 1945. On August 9 the United States drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Some of the men in the camp report seeing the mushroom cloud 100 kilometres away. Six days later Japan surrenders. The prisoner’s lives change instantly.

The Japanese guards disappear, handing control of the camp to the prisoners. The men organise cooking and scavenging details, raiding the local villages but also feeding children who are starving.

Emaciated: prisoners of war after their release in Japan. Picture: Paul Murphy.

Emaciated: prisoners of war after their release in Japan. Picture: Paul Murphy.

Tom likes the raiding expeditions. He comes back, like any young man, with armfuls of discarded traditional swords, katana and wakizashi. The swords have been outlawed by the occupying government of Douglas Macarthur. One he trades for a Colt .45 pistol. He brings it back to Australia.

The men take trucks on ‘tours’ of the countryside, seeking food. On one trip they encounter a former prison guard walking on the roadside.

What happens next is unclear. He’s allegedly taken by the ex-prisoners into the truck, and is never seen alive again.

It’s a terrible moment in a war full of indescribable horror. Except the war is ended, and Tom Murphy knows what they have done is murder.

It’s not the only episode of summary retribution recorded in post-war occupied Japan, but it affects Tom ‘Spud’ Murphy for the rest of his life. His sons remember a man whose explosive temper was to be feared, a man whose conscience never resolves itself with his actions, who spends nights alone on his boat in Port Phillip Bay staring at the sky.

Who keeps a samurai sword under his bed.

Before the Australians are repatriated, they tour the remains of Nagasaki. They find the devastation of the atomic blast ‘unbelievable’.

“It was a bloody atrocious thing,” wrote Slim Bone.

“Hit the dock, hit the workplaces, but not the kids going to school.”

Before the storm: Tom in uniform with his brothers Denis and Mick in 1941. Picture: Paul Murphy.

Before the storm: Tom in uniform with his brothers Denis and Mick in 1941. Picture: Paul Murphy.

Soon after, the three former prisoners of war return to Australia.

‘Donal James’, nee Tomas Francis ‘Spud’ Murphy, is not yet 20 years old.

This story relies on the memoirs of Paul Murphy, Tom’s son, and the excellent article A look that spoke of horror by Paul Heinrichs, which first appeared in The Age in 2005.