Flight Lieutenant Duncan John Murchison, 9 Squadron (HMAS Canberra)
When Robyn Gladwin was growing up, her mother Marjorie rarely spoke about her father, Flight Lieutenant Duncan John Murchison. But she said she knew the exact moment he was killed when Robyn was just a newborn baby.
“She was still in the hospital in north Sydney. The photograph of him on the dressing table in the room suddenly fell over, and she called one of the nurses, and said, ‘Sister, my husband’s been killed.’
It was 9 August 1942 and Robyn was just six days old. Her father had been killed on HMAS Canberra when it was attacked in the early hours of the morning by a group of Japanese cruisers and a destroyer in what became known as the battle of Savo Island.
“My mother was later told that they knew [on the ship] that I had arrived, that a message had come through that he’d had a baby daughter and that they toasted me in cold tea,” Robyn recalled.
Duncan Murchison was born on 20 January 1916 in Melbourne, the son of Finlay and Fanny Louise Murchison. At the outbreak of the war, Duncan was living in Sydney. He married his sweetheart, Marjorie Ferguson of Mosman in 1940 before embarking.
Duncan joined 9 Squadron in December 1940 and served with them on HMAS Canberra doing air reconnaissance, anti-submarine activity, and artillery spotting. A talented and reliable pilot, he flew Supermarine Seagull aircraft which launched from the ship’s deck with the use of a catapult, and on returning, landed on water.
In a recommendation for promotion in March 1942, an officer wrote:
“Flying Officer Murchison is a particularly good type. He has a pleasing personality and is popular in all company. He is loyal, tactful and keeps himself physically fit. [He is] considered by the Navy to be their best Air Force officer and naval co-operation pilot.”
Duncan was promoted again to Flight Lieutenant on 1 April 1942.
Just before 2am on 9 August 1942, Duncan was aboard the Canberra when it came under heavy Japanese attack while supporting US Marines near Savo Island in the Pacific. As the lead ship, Canberra received the full force of the barrage. The ship was hit 24 times in less than two minutes, and 84 of her crew were killed, including Duncan and the Captain, Frank E Getting.
Stoker John Oliver Rosynski later described the scene, recounting how Captain Getting had stood on the bridge, slowly and calmly giving orders.
“It seems some power, some unknown devil steered the old ‘Canberra’ through thick and thin for nearly three years, then it let us have it all at once. She never had a chance.”
Duncan was 26 years old, and would never meet his infant daughter Robyn. His wife, Marjorie, never remarried.
His name is commemorated on the Port Moresby Memorial in Papua New Guinea with over 700 Australians who served in the Second World War and have no known grave.
David Sutton, Historian, Military History Section