02 NOVEMBER 2020
PHYLISS PHILIP BABLIS
Armed with his ‘bible’, a blue covered book called Standing Instructions which was issued to Cadets and Patrol Officers during pre-war days, John Keith McCarthy headed out into the big rugged island to the north of Australia.
McCarthy was a government officer, soldier and writer. He was born on 20 January 1905 at St Kilda, Melbourne, to Thomas McCarthy, a warehouseman from Galway, Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Genevieve, née Gibbs. He was a curious and energetic young man who was keen on venturing into the rugged terrains of New Guinea to interact with natives. In 1927, McCarthy set sail to New Guinea aboard the sailing ship Masina, bound for Rabaul for his first posting as a Patrol Officer. After meeting with the Government Secretary, he was sent to a new station at Malutu in the Nakanai Ranges.
In 1930, he was posted to the Sepik district and worked at Ambunti and Marienberg travelling both north and south of the river banks making contact with natives and exchanging salt, knives and fish hooks for artifacts. The river country was a hard one with the ‘mozzies’ (mosquitoes) being unbelievably vicious and a river course that coils like a carelessly flung rope. There McCarthy realized that hardships make great artists and the people of Sepik were proof of this. They were the greatest sculptors of wood in New Guinea – and in the world I might add.
He worked in Kavieng for a short while and briefly at Salamaua before being sent to Kainantu in 1932 for an encounter with the Eastern Highlanders that included a patrol to the Bulolo goldfields through the Kukukuku territory to set up a post. During a patrol, they were ambushed by disgruntled Kukukuku natives and a number of New Guinea Police were wounded. McCarthy was struck by arrows in the thigh and stomach and was seconds away from being clubbed to death when his cook, Boko, shot the kukukuku man with his Winchester .44 rifle.
McCarthy was the Assistant District Officer (A.D.O.) at Aitape in 1935 when an earthquake killed more than one hundred people and destroyed gardens and houses. In 1937, he was in Rabaul when Vulcan and Tavurvur erupted killing up to five hundred people and the Administration staff assisted to organize food supplies and cleanup of the town. Two years after the eruptions, he worked in the township of Kokopo, then to the island of Bougainville, later to Talasea and a short time again in the Sepik district before going back to Talasea as the A.D.O.
When the Japanese invaded Rabaul in 1942, McCarthy organized the evacuation of civilians and troops by land and sea and for this he was appointed M.B.E. in 1943 for his bravery. His ordeal and heroics – escaping from Rabaul then trekking to the northwest coast of East New Britain and leaving aboard Burns Philp ship, Lakatoi – is regarded as one of the great Pacific escape stories of WWII.
McCarthy was also an artist who published his own cartoons and held exhibitions of his oil paintings and had great regard for native art which he collected during his patrol days. After almost eight years in New Guinea, he started to understand some of the ideas of what so-called “primitive” man wanted to achieve when carving and painting. To him, primitive art in New Guinea was perhaps the beginning of all art. In 1965, the J.K. McCarthy Museum opened in Goroka with the first 64 artifacts donated from McCarthy’s own personal collection. The J.K. McCarthy Museum is now a branch of the PNG National Museum & Art Gallery and has collections of over 6,000 items on display.
- Phyliss Philip Bablis holds a Bachelors Degree in Tourism & Hospitality Management from Divine Word University and has worked for over a decade with the Bank of South Pacific.