Letters show famous slice of time as WWII collection is donated

Joan Murphy, widow of the late John Cullen Murphy, recently donated a vast collection of letters and photos he had sent home detailing his experiences in World War II to Andrew Woelflein, at right, presiding trustee for Brown University’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection. — John Ferris Robben photo

Joan Murphy, widow of the late John Cullen Murphy, recently donated a vast collection of letters and photos he had sent home detailing his experiences in World War II to Andrew Woelflein, at right, presiding trustee for Brown University’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection.
— John Ferris Robben photo

Photos were taken by Post photographer John Ferris Robben of John Cullen Murphy’s photos, sketches and letters that he sent home while serving in the Pacific.

For historians it’s one of those treasure troves of information that are vital for providing a complete context of a time and place, and it was lying in wait here in Greenwich.

Greenwich resident John Cullen Murphy was someone who had a close view of history throughout his life. He was discovered and mentored as an artist by the legendary Norman Rockwell, and while serving in World War II, he was an aide to a key member of the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and served with him throughout the Pacific before getting a firsthand look at post-war Japan. When Mr. Murphy passed away in 2004, left behind were letters he had sent home to his mother, who had saved them all.

Now those letters have been donated by Mr. Murphy’s family to Brown University’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, which is considered the foremost American collection of material devoted to the history and iconography of soldiers and soldiering. The Murphy family had donated some of his artwork to the collection before, but nothing to this extent; the letters number close to 900 documents, covering the years 1940 to 1946.

This is all the result of happenstance. Andrew Woelflein, who is the presiding trustee for the collection, attended his Greenwich High School reunion last July and reconnected with an old classmate married to Mr. Murphy’s daughter Meg, who knew Mr. Woelflein through her older brother who played hockey with his brother at St. Mary’s High School in town. They all got to talking, and when she mentioned the letters, it piqued his interest.

Mr. Murphy’s widow, Joan, did not want to divide the collection by leaving the letters among her eight children but rather wanted to keep them together as whole, and Mr. Woelflein knew that the place for them was the collection at the university, of which he is an alumnus. The collection exceeded his expectations, as there were also photographs of occupied Japan, including of the war crimes trial and of both Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Gen. Tojo as well as from other areas during the war, like New Guinea on D-Day.

“This is primary source material,” Mr. Woelflein said. “These letters are quite remarkable because they cover such a long period of time and are from such an unusual person. He was an artist on a general’s staff, and it’s a view into the course of what’s happening in the Pacific throughout the war. This is a collection that historians can access and use for research for generations to come. It’s very exciting.”

Mr. Woelflein said there remains a demand among historians for World War II study, particularly with fewer and fewer veterans of the war alive today.

“It’s a fascinating conflict that was so enormous and in so many areas of the world that it continues to interest scholars today,” Mr. Woelflein said. “It’s very important to keep the art with the letters, and we’re going to scan all of these so they will be digitally available to anyone who wants to go online and access them. I think there is a lot that historians will be able to pull from these letters.”

Byrne Sleeper, one of Mr. Murphy’s daughters, told the Post that the letters have emerged over the years and it’s good for the family to get them all together.

“They take on more meaning over the years, and I love the idea of people writing a novel about this time and using these letters as a basis for describing what it was like to be away from home during these times,” Ms. Sleeper said. “He wrote home every single day, and … it gives a real sense of the time. Letter writing is a lost art, and you just don’t get this today from electronic communication.”

Donating her late husband’s letters was “very, very emotional” for Mrs. Murphy but she was glad she was doing it.

“It’s a part of him that won’t be here anymore,” Mrs. Murphy said. “But it’s the right place for them to be. You can see how fragile everything is and they need to be preserved, but it’s very hard to let them go. These were such an important part of his life.”

After weeks of examining the letters, Mr. Woelflein said that they truly are a “unique time capsule” of the World War II era and offer several fascinating links to the past, including the connection to Gen. MacArthur as Mr. Murphy journeyed along with him during his “island hopping” strategy of fighting the Japanese forces. The letters provide a diary of sorts to the war in the Pacific, from Australia to Tokyo, with stops in New Guinea and the Philippines, thanks to the frequency with which Mr. Murphy wrote home and because of the unusual position he had, working so close to the head of the command.

But they’re also a link to Norman Rockwell, whose works are iconic symbols of America that also proved interesting, according to Mr. Woelflein. In the letters, Mr. Murphy talks about his artistic mentor quite often, and many of the letters have sketches in them. There’s also a lot of information about the popular culture at the time, with discussions about the latest books and movies as well as an outsider’s view of post-war Japan, with written recollections and drawings.

Mrs. Murphy said she hopes the letters will give people a sense of what a soldier’s life was like during this time, as her husband started out as a private and rose to the rank of major during the war.

The letters do not provide a window into MacArthur’s strategy or delve too deeply into the plans of attack, but they do set the context for the time and place, something Mr. Woelflein says is vital for a full understanding of the time.

“History is a collage,” Mr. Woelflein said. “To really understand it, you have to see the big picture and all of the detail.”


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