They can't beat the boys of this old brigade

Name: Tom Murphy
Date: 1941-1945
Unit: No 4 Company, 8 Australian Signals
Location: Malaya, Japan

Despite being only 15 years old, Tom Murphy was so keen to go to war that he borrowed his older brother's birth certificate and put up his age. His big problem was that he only looked 15 and he was turned away by several recruitment officers.

Finally, he found one who, although suspicious, agreed to accept Tom's story. His scepticism was obvious when he told Tom:

"If you're 19, God help the air force."

The interesting development of this ploy by Tom was that when his brother Don, whose ID he had borrowed, went to enlist, his name was already on the books. Not to be outdone by his younger brother, Don then went and used his father's ID to enlist.

'Spud' Murphy, as he became known, teamed up with 'Slim' Bone and 'Red' Jenkins early in their training and the three managed to stay together through thick and thin till after the war. They were all signalmen and shared many adventures together.

So, Signalman Tom Murphy found himself serving in Malaya, and in December 1941, as Christmas approached, his thoughts naturally turned to home. Had he known what lay ahead he may not have been quite as optimistic in his letters to his family.

He had obviously been through some tough times financially and gratefully acknowledged receipt of a canteen voucher from his father.

"First of all I must thank you very much for the canteen order and blades. They arrived at a most opportune time," he told his Dad.

"However, I've drawn a big pay since then and am on my feet again. I have a fiver on hand in my purse and a fair roll that I have to my credit in my pay book. I'm banking 2/- [2 shillings] per day now and there is also another 2/- a day put away for you the day you leave Australia, so you can see I won't be altogether flat when I reach the homeland.

"Today is 21st of December and I can just imagine Mum getting ready to go to Sydney. Hil [his sister Hilary] is busy too, helping to get ready and also Mick and Don.

"Did the parcel I sent arrive home yet? I was broke when I sent the parcel (almost) and there are only a few small things enclosed. A wallet and some cuff links for you. If I had all the money I've got now there would be have been some decent things enclosed."

Tom appeared to be quite happy in Malaya.

"Although I'd love to be home for Christmas, I'm quite content here and am sure we'll have a big reunion next Christmas."

Of course that did not turn out to be the case, although Tom wasn't to know that at the time. He promised his Dad he would write every week and true to his word, sat down on New Year's Eve.

"So far I've only had four letters from home - one from you, two from Mum and one from my one and only best sister," Tom wrote. "Mail arrives here regularly and the average air-mail letter takes from four to seven days to reach here from Melbourne. This is very good considering all the hazards of war en route. Only a few of the letters from Australia are censored - but every letter leaving here is carefully censored."

Despite his youth, Tom had an understanding of life and world affairs that many older than him had yet to grasp.

"It is New Year's Eve today and nobody knows what the New Year holds in store for the World," he told his Dad. "Things don't look too bright do they? Every major nation in the world is fighting now and just making a bloody mess of everything.

"The Allies are putting up a good show though and Russia is showing us that they are not the mugs we were always led to believe they were. Musso [Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator] has suffered another kick in the tail at the hands of our boys in Libya."

Tom had obviously maintained his sense of humour while in Malaya.

"So far we haven't seen much action here - but the other night the big guns put up a heavy barrage but nothing fell near us. Saw half our air force yesterday but I think the other plane must be getting mended. Enough of the war though - the less we talk about it the better. Action speaks louder than words."

Tom went on to mention various mates back home who had not yet written to him and asked his father to give them a shake.

"Kevin Curly is somewhere over here in Malaya, isn't he? If you can find out his unit I might even be able to see him," he wrote. "He was a corporal wasn't he? Paul O'Day has his two stripes back now and I'm very glad even though he is a @+!*&### Military Policeman."

Not long after writing that letter, Tom was taken prisoner in Singapore and after some time in working parties around the region, he was shipped to Japan to work in shipyards and a coal mine. His family, like so many others, heard nothing from him and had no idea where he was for at least two years.

But on 10 August 1942, his sister Hilary wrote on the off chance her letter would get through.

"This is just a letter on speck, but hope it finds you, and as well as it leaves us all here," she wrote. "As space is rather confined I will just have to squeeze up my writing and fit in as much as I can.

"Well Tom, our main trouble these days is playing patience, and believe me, we will be quite good at it soon. But I feel sure we must hear from you soon and then, by gad, we wouldn't call the king our uncle, as the saying goes."

Hilary went on to tell Tom that she and her husband, Bert, had been married almost a year and hadn't had a row yet. They were still waiting for a house and would not start a family till they had a roof over their heads.

"Mum is as good a correspondent as ever, and even though there is a cloud she is still bright. Of course, the house still gets full of people somehow. You would be surprised how little things have changed. In fact, if you arrived home tomorrow I think the only difference you would find is in the size of Mick and Den [his younger brothers]. They are both growing.

"I haven't many more lines left but will continue this the very next time. I'm allowed. 1 per month. When we hear news and can send you any comforts, you won't see our hands for smoke."

The family eventually found out that Tom was still alive thanks to the local chip shop owner, a Greek named Vic, who listened to the Red Cross broadcasts which listed the names of POWs every day. When Dennis went to get the weekly fish and chips for his parents, the owner told him:

"Dennis, your brother Tom is alive."

Dennis ran all the way home shouting out the news,

"Tom is alive, Tom is alive".

Tom had been transferred with several of his mates, including 'Slim' Bone and 'Red' Jenkins, on the Kamakura Maru in a convoy to Japan, a journey not without its problems. One ship was sunk by a US submarine which did not realise there were POWs on board and many men were lost.

Tom, Slim and Red ended up working in the Kawasaki shipyards in Japan where Tom's job was to push lengths of pipe on a cart to wherever they were needed. Slim worked on gantry cranes unloading sheets of steel.

Towards the end of his time in captivity, Tom began keeping a diary of the daily happenings in his life as a POW. On 6 May 1945, while at Takatoumichi, he wrote:

"Mother's Day today. Received first letter from mother one year ago today. The boys wore white flowers in their hats as on every other Mother's Day since being POWs."

Three days later he wrote about preparations for a move to a Japanese coal mining area, expected to take place the following day. Meanwhile, he had some personal property returned.

"Dad's watch returned from Dr McSwiney today. Pleased to have it in my keeping."

[The watch had been given to him by his father but had been used by the medical staff in the prison camp as it was the only one that continued to work. The watch is still working and is worn every day by Tom's son Paul.]

And there was some good news for Tom with new arrivals at the camp.

"Great thrill to meet some new people and see some new faces again - 21/2 years without seeing a new face or talking to new people - appallingly monotonous."

Then came the day of the move. The prisoners were put on a train and given boxed meals. Their train was eventually shunted into a siding and they slept on board all night.

"Good breakfast - boxed. Remained siding all day. Lunch same. While washing in an empty carriage, half the train was shunted away. Four of us were left behind. Chased the other train and caught it just in time. Guards very good, regarded it as a joke!!!!!!.

"Travelled all night intermittent stopping and starting. Going to a coal mining camp? Country very green and well cultivated - mostly grain, fruit and vegetables. Arrived coal mining town [Nagasaki] and proceeded to camp."

Tom said their billets were exceptionally good with 25 men to a room and plenty of coal for hot baths. He described the daily routine:

"First meal cooked by Nip women - not too bad. Roll call 8.30pm lights out 9pm. Good soft mats with five blankets. Reveille to be at 7am."

On May 13 he wrote that flares had been dropped from aircraft during the night and reveille had been at 6.30am owing to a dawn raid. They had received a speech from the camp commandant and had the works manager introduced to them.

That evening they were allowed to buy one cigarette each but there had been sirens all day with raiders passing over head. One bright moment came with the visit of the Red Cross who arrived in the camp at tea time.

"Food parcels??? If so - 140 or 210 parcels. 200 men in this camp."

Food was a constant problem with rations being reduced. The American prisoners found a way to supplement their meagre supplies.

"The Americans in this camp are eating frogs and snakes which are common here. The Aussies can still grin - they don't eat frogs or snakes YET!!. Roll on Uncle Sam."

The next day, 31 May, things had changed.

"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. The end of an interesting but hungry month."

The prisoners were starved of news as well as food and had only rumours to go on. Their one great wish was to be freed from captivity and to return home to their families. One 1 June Tom wrote:

"Something must happen this month. Roll on Uncle Sam."

But work went on both on the roads and at the coal mine.

"Started work at the coal mine. Working on the surface all day, hard at it. Animal bosses. About two miles to walk each way to work. Too tired to even read tonight."

Next day reveille was at 5am.

"Long day. Never any news. Three holidays a month. Light grub. Blast the bastards."

And the following day:

"Perhaps the hardest day's work of my life. Everybody exhausted. Impossible to carry on much longer."

On 6 June it was just as tough.

"Very hard day. About 100 tons of coal loaded by 22 men. Driven like niggers all day. Rained late. Arrived back soaked. Men walking two miles to work over broken roads with no boots - while the Nips are holding new Red Cross boots in the camp store. Two cigarettes for hard work!!!"

And on 9 June:

"Not so hard today but hard enough. Bashings and holding weights above the head for those who are considered not to have worked hard enough."

On 13 June Tom was due to work on the roads again but heavy rain meant a day off.

"Read Twenty Years After, sequel to Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas." And the following day he worked down the mine for the first time. The next day he was back on the surface.

"Not as hard as usual. Received beating for being a good worker but having the wrong 'attitude'." [Beatings were a regular feature of life as a POW under the Japanese.]

The following day he was back on the road.

"Received a cigarette for hard work. After yesterday - well !!!!. Rations growing smaller + smaller though there is plenty of rice in store."

And the next day:

"Smallest ration of rice ever received yet. Sick men had half their rice taken from them."

At the monthly weighing of prisoners, Tom discovered he was 50 kg down from his normal weight of 70kg.

"The work is very hard and the men are terribly weak," he wrote. "Who said 'Oh Death, where is thy sting?' But they can't beat the boys of this old brigade."

And there Tom's diary ended.

Tom's mate Slim Bone recalls the working conditions were horrific.

"We had men who'd worked in mines in Australia where they wouldn't work on a coal face less than 6ft high [1.8m]," Slim said. "In these mines we had to crawl through on our bellies and work an 18 inch [45cm] face, pushing the coal back past us for loading onto skips."

Tom , Slim and Red were still together when the atom bomb exploded over Nagasaki and for once working at the mine probably saved their lives.

Tom and his mates were released at the end of the war and returned to Australia. Tom began work with a stockbroking firm. He married his wife, Shirley, in 1953 and they had two boys, Steven and Paul. He lived to the age of 73.

The material for this article was supplied by Paul Murphy of Victoria who has produced a five-minute film documentary on the life of his father
7/01/2002 8:26:24 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), They can't beat the boys of this old brigade, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/they-cant-beat-boys-old-brigade
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