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John Keith McCarthy (1905–1976)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published:

John Keith McCarthy (1905-1976), government officer, soldier and writer, was born on 20 January 1905 at St Kilda, Melbourne, son of Thomas McCarthy, a warehouseman from Galway, Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Genevieve, née Gibbs. After completing his Leaving certificate at Christian Brothers' College, St Kilda, Keith went jackerooing in New South Wales, worked at Mark Foys Ltd in Melbourne, and cut cane in North Queensland.

In 1927 McCarthy sailed for the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Strongly built, 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, with wavy fair-to-reddish hair, he had found a government position that matched his natural curiosity, energy and humanity. He was introduced to the work of the Department of Native Affairs at Kokopo, near Rabaul, then travelled alone to a new station at Malutu among the Nakanai of central New Britain. In 1929 he was one of five who completed a short course at the University of Sydney in subjects thought relevant to native affairs.

Posted in 1930 to the Sepik district, McCarthy served at Ambunti and Marienberg. While extending control both north and south of the river, he had his first experience of police under his command shooting and killing a villager. When he was transferred to Kavieng on New Ireland, he antagonized the planters by encouraging villagers to make their own copra, and he was shifted again. Briefly at Salamaua, McCarthy went to Kainantu in 1932 for an encounter with eastern highlanders and was then asked to lead a major patrol through the Kukukuku territory west of the Bulolo goldfields. By Anzac Day 1933 McCarthy's men had walked 240 miles (386 km) in two and a half months, and had almost reached Otibanda when they were ambushed: seven Kukukukus were killed, a number of New Guinean police were wounded (one mortally), and McCarthy was struck by arrows in the thigh and stomach. He subsequently developed a station at Menyamya, but the government closed it to reduce expenditure, and the value of much tough pioneer patrolling was lost.

McCarthy spent his leave working his way to and from South Africa in a cargo ship. Back in the Territory, he held a short posting on the Madang coast and returned in 1935 to the Sepik as assistant district officer at Aitape. He accompanied the administrator (Sir) Walter McNicoll up the Sepik beyond the Dutch border, patrolled across the Torricelli Mountains, and led the government's response when an earthquake killed more than one hundred people and destroyed gardens and houses. On leave in Victoria, McCarthy married with Anglican rites Jean Letitia Beilby on 30 April 1937 at All Saints Church, East St Kilda. They arrived in Rabaul a week before the volcanic eruptions of 29 and 30 May in which nearly 450 people died.

Taking a series of postings on Bougainville and New Britain, McCarthy was at Talasea when the Japanese invaded Rabaul in January 1942. Jean had been evacuated with other White women and children, and Keith made a dangerous journey into the Japanese-influenced area to radio the first report of the fate of Rabaul. Assisted by a few planters, missionaries and other government officers, he directed some two hundred survivors south and west by foot, canoe and small boat; they boarded the Lakatoi, which arrived at Cairns, Queensland, on 28 March. For his 'bravery and enterprise' he was to be appointed M.B.E. (1943).

On 12 February 1942 McCarthy enlisted in the Militia; in July he was appointed captain (temporary major 1943), Australian Imperial Force. He returned to the Territory in September, served with the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, and fought behind enemy lines with the Allied Intelligence Bureau's 'M' and 'Z' Special Units. Commanding an A.N.G.A.U. and native police detachment, he landed on Los Negros and Manus islands with a squadron of the 5th United States Cavalry Regiment in February 1944 and was included in the award of a Presidential Unit Citation for the action. In 1946 he was seconded to the British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit as lieutenant colonel and was military resident commissioner in Sarawak before transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 11 December.

As district officer at Madang from 1947, McCarthy oversaw war-damage reconstruction and attempted to redirect cult movements. Two years later he was appointed to the new rank of district commissioner, at Rabaul. In 1955 he went to Port Moresby as executive-officer in the Department of the Administrator and in 1960 became director of Native Affairs (District Administration from 1964). A member (from 1951) of the Legislative Council, he entered the first elected House of Assembly in 1964 as one of the most experienced official members and served as deputy-speaker until 1968. He had represented Papua and New Guinea on delegations to other countries and acted (1957) as administrator of Nauru. His memoir, Patrol into Yesterday, was published in Melbourne in 1963. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1965.

Following his retirement from the administration in 1967, McCarthy unsuccessfully contested the seat of Port Moresby in the 1968 elections. Three years later he and Jean left Papua New Guinea for Mount Eliza, Victoria. Survived by his wife, he died on 29 October 1976 at Frankston and was cremated with Catholic rites. A memorial to 'Makarti' stands at Rabaul, a tribute from those he saved in 1942.

Volatile, but always generous and witty, McCarthy was one of the most forward-looking and perceptive of Australian officials. His own cartooning and painting made him an appreciative collector of Melanesian art, and his capacity for story-telling translated into an engaging prose. He was one of the few officials who made the difficult transition from the adventure of exploratory patrols, to departmental head, to the willing devolution of power.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Epstein et al (eds), Politics of Dependence (Canb, 1971)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Dec 1976, pp 5, 69
  • J. K. McCarthy papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Evacuation Scheme, AWM 54, 607/8/1 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'McCarthy, John Keith (1905–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 January, 1905
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


29 October, 1976 (aged 71)
Frankston, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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