James Thomas Murphy was born on September 30, 1920 in Livingston, Texas to General Houston Murphy and Erma Rose Murphy. Early the next year, the family moved to Port Arthur, where James' father worked for the Gulf Oil Company, although they later moved back to Livingston when James was fifteen following an explosion at the refinery, in which his father was injured. James finished high school in 1938, and shortly thereafter the family moved to Liberty, where his family ran a boarding house which enabled them to send James to the Chenier Business and Radio College in Beaumont. He graduated in February 1939, earning his radio operator's license. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps because he had heard of vacancies for two-year assignments as radio operators in the Philippines. So in 1939 he departed by train to San Francisco and was then taken by boat to Angel Island, where he was put on the kitchen police work detail to await the arrival of the Army transport Grant. Then he heard about the need for volunteers to take pack mules and horses for the 26th Cavalry aboard the U.S. Army transport vessel Meigs and decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Meigs left from Fort Mason around June 30, 1939. It stopped first at Hawaii, then Guam, before docking at Manila about 27 days after departure. After the animals were removed, Murphy and the other Air Corps men were taken in an Army truck to Nichols Field and their open bay barracks. Murphy had a month of basic recruit training before being assigned to the Air Corps 20th Base Squadron. He received a monthly flight pay for logging a minimum flying time. His term of duty was scheduled to end in the summer of 1941, but instead he found that his time overseas would be extended as American and Filipino troops were built up amidst increasing Japanese hostilities and the impending threat of war with Europe.
As a Sergeant, Murphy was the chief radio operator of base communications at Nichols Field, and he was on duty at the radio station in Hangar 2 on the flight line when a dispatch came in announcing that Pearl Harbor was under attack. A landline transmission gave orders to execute MacArthur's Rainbow 5 plan--bombing Formosa--but then it was cancelled. Only hours later, Japanese planes began bombing and strafing the Philippines, and Murphy's communications officer in Clark Field was killed, leaving Murphy to handle all communications at Nichols. On December 8, the Japanese bombed the officer's quarters at Nichols Field and then attacked again on the 9th. The next day, December 10, they sent in bombers and strafers, and all of the previously-hit military outposts had lost communication, so the station at Nichols was shut down. Murphy was assigned to set up and operate a machine gun emplacement with four other men. The Japanese made landfall on December 12 and landed on the beaches of Lingayen Gulf the next day.
War Plan Orange-3 went into effect on December 23, forestalling General Wainwright's plan of counterattack. Murphy and the other troops began retreating to the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula, existing on 1/8 rations and outdated, ineffectual weaponry. The Air Corps men became provisional infantry and were equipped with rifles to accompany their .45 pistols despite the fact that at the time they did not know how to fire them. As the Battle of Bataan raged, Murphy served as chief radio operator for General George Parker, commander of the second Corps.
General Edward P. King surrended Bataan on April 9, 1942, and Murphy, along with 800 others, were marched out in groups of 200 to Cabcaben and then to Lamao. Murphy was then part of a group of 600 men who were forced to go to the southern tip of Bataan, where they were used as a cover for the Japanese as they brought in their armaments over a two-day period. The prisoners were then marched to Orion and divided into smaller groups. At one point, Murphy fell into a ditch from sheer exhaustion, and a Japanese soldier attempted to bayonet him, but he moved out of the way just as the soldier gave a thrust, and a Japanese guard ordered the other guards to move faster, unintentionally allowing enough distraction for Murphy to join the rest of the men marching. Two brothers from the 200th Coast Artillery supported him until he was strong enough to walk on his own, but sadly they themselves later fell behind and were killed.
At one point, when the group stopped to rest, Murphy left them and found a guava tree and began gathering the fruit. A Japanese guard found him but for some reason resisted shooting him. Murphy also found a Japanese control point and ate a can of oats; his absence during this escapade was not noticed.
When the prisoners reached San Fernando, Pampanga, they were kept in a cock-fighting pit arena for two nights before being loaded into boxcars and taken to Capas, from which point they marched six miles to Camp O'Donnell, where they were stripped of all personal belongings and shot if they were found with anything Japanese. The prisoners formed groups, Murphy being with the Army Air Corps. The Japanese thought of them in terms of ten-member "blood brother" groups; if one man escaped, nine more would be executed. Murphy did not go on the work details because he was ill with cerebral malaria, a form of malaria so virulent that it could go to the brain if left untreated.
In June, the prisoners at Camp O'Donnell were transferred 60 miles to Camp Cabanatuan No. 1, where General Wainwright's forces were taken after the surrender of Corregidor. The native Filipino prisoners were released once they signed statements of compliance with the Japanese occupation. Murphy left O'Donnell on June 15, 1942. Under senior commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Beecher, the camp was divided into three sections, including one for officers, one for the enlisted men, and one designated as a hospital. Beecher also worked on sanitation and the establishment of a drainage system for the water supply.
In December 1942, Murphy received a letter and package from home, and the prisoners were also given a nine-pound Red Cross box to be divided between two men. Murphy's package consisted of pictures and a khaki outfit as well as a leather billfold with his initials engraved, the latter being his intended 21st birthday present. His family also sent him some food and vitamins. Murphy traded the billfold to a Japanese guard for ten military tin cups of dried soybeans, which he made last for some time. He also traded his khaki uniform for food. That Christmas, the Japanese allowed the men to hold a midnight church service.
The officers held prisoner at Cabanatuan fared, by and large, considerably better than the enlisted men. They were permitted to establish a commissary and to make daily supervised trips to Cabanatuan City for food, which the officers then paid for with the allotment they received from the Japanese. Furthermore, the officers created a library, although to use it one had to contribute a book, which effectively excluded the enlisted men, particularly those who had been on the Death March.
In early 1943, Murphy joined a burial detail, interring bodies from Zero Ward, in order to earn a roll to eat after work, although he only received this reward once. Four men were assigned to each body, which was taken about a mile north of the camp on a makeshift stretcher after having been stripped.
Major Alva Fitch proved to be an asset to the Cabanatuan prisoners. He prevented Murphy from having to work after he suffered a heart attack (induced by beriberi) by making Murphy his orderly. Doctor Weinstein, too, helped Murphy avoid the more strenuous work details during his recovery, going out himself to fill the vacancy in the detail.
In May 1943 Murphy volunteered for a herd detail that was established to help in raising and tending to Brahma cattle which had been introduced into the Philippine climate for the benefit of the Filipinos but which since the war had been taken over by the Japanese. Work then began to construct an airport near the camp, and after six months the landing strip was finished and the first Japanse plane landed.
On August 27, 1944, over one thousand prisoners were placed aboard the Noto Maru in the forward hold. It then set sail from Manila on a twelve-day voyage. Although torpedoes could be heard in the surrounding water, none met their target on the unmarked hellship. Murphy made a hammock and hung it above the crowded men below.
The Noto Maru arrived in Moji, Japan on September 4. The men were then tested for amoebic dysentery, sprayed with disinfectant, and loaded onto railcars, in which they traveled for three days to Hanawa, arriving at the Sendai No. 6 prison camp on September 9, 1944. The men were put to work in the Mitsubishi copper mine. Murphy and the others had to walk into the laterals within the mine, blast and dig out ore, load the ore into railcars by hand, push the cars out of the mine, and dump the ore into holding bins to be crushed. The ore was then mixed with water and further pulverized, then filtered to extract the copper ore, which was melted into ingots. The men were provided with only a carbide headlamp and short hand picks and sledge hammers. POWs with technical training worked topside. Because so many of the men were too weak and ill to climb to the mine, the Japanese organized work for them to perform within the camp.
Murphy had developed tachycardia due to malnutrition, and as a result he worked mostly outside of the mines, making nails. He and the others in this detail did their best to sabotage Japanese efforts by leaving out the process of hardening the nails. Murphy also worked in an electrical gang, and one day they let the electrical drive motor that they were carrying fall down the mountain, destroying it.
Winter in Hanawa proved to be formidable for the POWs, who had become accustomed to the warmth of the Philippines. Now they had to deal with cold temperatures and inadequate clothing as well as insufficient insulation in their barracks. For Christmas, the Japanese brought in some of the Red Cross food which they had formerly withheld from the prisoners, but after taking a picture with an Italian diplomat and a priest present, the Japanese quickly confiscated all of the food.
In the spring of 1945, a few prisoners were allowed to send messages home. They organized a lottery to determine who would get this privilege, and a man by the name of Hobert Trout won, but he gave the opportunity to Murphy.
Murphy managed to obtain a packet of paper from a mine office, and he used it to make a calendar, dating from September 1944 to September 1945, which was then hung in the shoe repair shop because one of the POWs worked there and because it would enable prisoners to view it out of sight of the Japanese. Murphy also made a small notebook from the remaining paper, and he began to keep a small diary in August 1945.
In mid-August, the POWs were told that they would not be going to the mines for work. Although the prisoners were as yet unaware, the Japanese Emperor had delivered his surrender speech on August 15 after the atomic bombs had been dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 17, Murphy and the others learned that an American fleet was in Yokohama Bay. Three days later, the Japanese Commander informed them that peace had been established and that the men were now under their own American officers. Accordingly, the Japanese had become very cordial with their former prisoners, most of whom did not wish to perpetuate friendships with their former oppressors.
Soon American Grumman fighter planes began dropping food, medicine, clothing, and other necessities to the POWs, who used whitewash on the rooftops to communicate with them. On September 5, the men visited a nearby Chinese slave labor work battalion, which they found to be in worse condition than they themselves had been. They took them clothing and supplies, for which the Chinese were extremely grateful.
On September 13, around midnight, Murphy was one of 550 ex-prisoners of war who left Hanawa, marching to the local train station. From there they were taken to Shiogama Harbor, where Navy crewmen met them and took them on landing crafts to the Navy hospital ship the USS Rescue. The seriously ill remained aboard the hospital ship, and the rest, Murphy included, were transferred to the naval auxiliary ship USS Garrard. They went to Yokohama Harbor, where they were interviewed and told that they were officially now under the control of U.S. Military Forces. This occurred on September 15, which was the last day that Murphy had put on his calendar at Hanawa. Murphy attributed his survival to his ongoing faith and to his undying hope.
Murphy then went aboard a Navy Landing Ship Vehicle, the USS Monitor, from which he sent his first uncensored message home. The vessel headed for Manila and the 29th Replacement Center, arriving on September 25. On October 9, Murphy left Manila for San Francisco on the USS Klipfontain, although the ship had to dock at Seattle on October 28 due to a Navy celebration in San Francisco. The men were taken to Madigan General Hospital at Fort Lewis, Washington on the 29th. Murphy was able to telephone his family from the hospital. Then on November 2 he was transferred on a hospital train to Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. Two other men were from Houston, where Murphy's family had relocated, and so they all rode together with one of the men's family members, who had come to pick them up. Murphy and the second man then took taxi cabs the rest of the way.
Murphy arrived home and was joyously reunited with his family before dawn on November 8, 1945. After his seventy-day furlough, he reported to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he taught celestial navigation. He also went to various Air Force bases and military installations in several states. As a Master Sergeant, in 1950 Murphy joined the 530th Aviation Squadron, 9th Bomb Group at Travis Air Force Base in California. He married Nancy Ann Brunscher there in 1951 and shortly thereafter received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in Communications. He was later promoted to 1st Lieutenant and then Captain, serving in Saudi Arabia and Germany before commanding a project for the Atlas missile sites in New Mexico with the Ground Electronics Engineering Installation Agency.
After twenty-three years of honorable military service, Murphy returned to civilian life in 1962 and became an electronic systems design engineer with an aerospace company at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for another twenty-three years. The Veterans Administration then considered him to be fully disabled as a result of the residual effects from his POW experience.
Read James Murphy's entire story in When Men Must Live by Kenneth B. Murphy and James T. Murphy.