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BOOK REVIEW | 'The Witness' by Tom Gilling

This account of the tragic Sandakan POW march focuses on witness and survivor Bill Sticpewich, exploring the boundaries between cooperation and collaboration.



"The Witness" (Allen & Unwin, 2022) by Tom Gilling

Prisoners of war commandants are tasked with keeping POWs both incarcerated and alive. And prisoners of war are well served in assisting camp commandants to meet the second of these aims. But how much assistance can POWs provide before cooperation is deemed collaboration? How severely should camp commandants be judged when the progress of the war and the actions of POWs make the task of POW survival problematic? These are two of the questions posed in The Witness by Tom Gilling, published by Allen & Unwin in 2022.

The title refers to Australian POW, Warrant Officer Bill Sticpewich. He was one of only six POWs, out of 2,440, who survived internment at the Sandakan POW camp in Northeast Borneo during the Second World War. Sticpewich would go on to serve as the chief witness in scores of war crimes trials of Japanese officers and POW guards, and as the "repository of the camp's shared memory." 

Warrant Officer William (Bill) Hector Sticpewich, one of only six survivors of the Sandakan POW march, in May 1947.

The Sandakan POW camp 

The Sandakan POWs were relocated from Singapore in July 1942 in order to build a military airfield. As the war ground on, the airfield, still under construction, lost strategic significance. On Christmas Day, 1944, it was officially made redundant by American bombers. The POWs, guards, and garrison troops then found themselves isolated and in need of relocation to the West coast of Borneo island. 

The ruined airfield made transport by plane impossible. A ship would have inevitably been sunk by a United States submarine. There were no roads that vehicles could traverse. Therefore, the only option was to walk. The prisoners attempted the trek in three separate marches, the fittest in the first, and the weakest in the third. Many didn't make it. Those who fell out and were unable to continue were shot by the Japanese guards.

The Sandakan "death marches" have become iconic in the most severely impacted nation: Australia. The culpability of the Japanese for the loss of the POWs is seen as absolute. A powerful mitigating argument from the point of the Japanese, however, is that Japanese troops were dying alongside the POWs. In the third of the three marches, 75 POWs were escorted by two Formosan (Taiwanese) guards and 55 Japanese soldiers. Only one, a Formosan guard, reached the destination of Ranau but died shortly after. 

"A succession of troop movements by Japanese infantry battalions in both directions along the track" Gilling explains, "had cost the lives of thousands of Japanese soldiers." The Japanese, therefore, were faring little better than the POWs themselves.

False Interpretation of the 'Kill All' Order

It is similarly widely felt within Australia that the purpose of the death marches was to murder the POWs. Gilling contributes towards this perception through the erroneous interpretation of a widely referenced order to "dispose" of the POWs if there is a risk of them becoming a "hostile force" following an Allied landing. The directive originated "from Tokyo," Gilling claims. 

In this much-quoted "kill all" order, previously dealt with in an article on JAPAN Forward, the information is flowing the wrong way. It was formulated at a local level in Taiwan and sent up the chain of command to Taiwan Army headquarters. Far from constituting proof of centralized policy, it proves the exact opposite. If a policy directive had been issued out of Tokyo, there would have been no need for the Taiwan camp to formulate one of its own. 

Aerial view of Sandakan POW Camp, North Borneo in 1944.

An Appreciation of Realities 

On several of the practical concerns that afflicted the Japanese POW commandants in Borneo, Gilling is uncommonly sympathetic. "With American troops firmly in control of the Philippines" he concedes, "a move against Japanese forces along the west coast of Borneo looked increasingly likely. Allied submarine activity made the transfer [...] by ship impossible, so walking was the only option."

On the issue of the shooting of those unable to continue on the marches, he quotes the Australian judge advocate general when considering the guards' petition for mitigation. There is "no doubt that the shooting of these prisoners of war amounted to murder." But it must be conceded "that the only option that the Japanese had was either to murder them or abandon them to die on the track or in the jungle beside the track, and it is certain that it was more humane to shoot such prisoners of war." Gilling additionally quotes the testimony of a Japanese officer who stated that "both Japanese and POW were to be disposed of" during the marches, if "nothing further could be done."

On other occasions, Gilling's sense of perspective deserts him. In early 1945, with airfield construction abandoned, he writes that "other tasks" for the prisoners "had to be found." The punitory nature of the sentence is ill-suited because the tasks in question were related to the collection of food and wood. They were tasks that contributed to the well-being of the prisoners. 


Warrant Officer Bill Sticpewich — The Witness

The primary focus of the book, however, is on Bill Sticpewich. Warrant Officer Sticpewich was an unpopular figure at the Sandakan camp. A jack of all trades, he avoided the physical hardship of airfield construction by making himself indispensable to the Japanese. Sticpewich was in charge of the "technical department" of carpenters, engineers, plumbers, electricians and drivers. An experienced abattoir, he remained close to the supply of food. "I have done work for all guards, at some time or other" he stated postwar, such as repairing their watches and other personal effects. The guards repaid his attention with extra rations of food. 

Sticpewich had presumably concluded that his best chances of survival were to work with the Japanese, not against them — to cooperate rather than confront. For this, he was deemed a collaborator by those who found hostility and confrontation the preferable path. "Bill Sticpewich would have been killed by his fellow prisoners as a collaborator" stated Owen Campbell, another of the six surviving POWs, if liberation had occurred before the first death march. 

Gunner Owen Campbell in May 1947.

A Hollywood Myth

A popular perception exists that POWs were required to attempt escape and ensure that as many enemy soldiers as possible were expended in guarding them. It is a perception created by Hollywood for which no factual foundation has been produced — certainly not in the case of the Australian military. This is a central issue to the Sandakan experience and one which Gilling fails to adequately address. 

The Japanese understood they were grossly undermanned at their POW and interment facilities. They essentially offered POWs and internees a deal: Promise not to escape and be granted considerable freedoms and privileges, or engage in escape attempts and endure levels of supervision and living densities from which escape attempts can be prevented. In tropical Asia, living density was paramount. A high-density living experience would result in the spread of tropical diseases and death. 

Duty to Escape?

The deal, at first implicit, was ultimately formalized at camp after camp when the POWs were asked to sign non-escape pledges. This occurred at Sandakan on September 2, 1942. The commanding officer of the Sandakan POWs, Lieutenant-Colonel Alf Walsh, announced that while not issuing an order, he would not sign. "Walsh could hardly have done otherwise," writes Gilling, "having already told the Japanese military police, the Kempeitai, that he had no authority to order prisoners not to escape since under Australian Army regulations each man had a duty to escape if he could." The book is produced without extensive endnotes, so we do not know to whom Gilling credits this interaction between Walsh and the Kempeitai. Neither does he provide a reference for the regulation itself. 

Does Gilling actually have the reference for the regulation that so many claim exists but none have been able to produce, or has he fallen for the Hollywood myth? The lack of clarity on this most central of issues is a failing of the book. 

What it Takes to Survive 

The POWs who survived the march to its final destination of Ranau were housed in a makeshift camp. They rapidly began to perish from tropical disease. When only a few remained, an organized massacre occurred. The six Sandakan POWs to survive the war all escaped during a march or from the Ranau camp. A disturbing conclusion of the book relates to the personal characteristics and traits of the six, all of whom were self-centered, none of whom were saints.  

Australia's most famous WWII hero is Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, a medical officer who was remarkably successful in keeping his men alive during the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand railway. Dunlop's primary attribute in achieving this goal was his selflessness. To many, he was indeed, a saint. Dunlop understood that a general resourcefulness and the contribution of the officer salaries in procuring additional foodstuff from local traders was key. "The financial aid of the officers together with occasional collection in lines of old tins, cloths, bottles, wire, nails," he wrote late in the war, "is 60% of the battle won.

Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop (right) with Sir Albert Ernest Coates on September 15, 1945.

He was famously scathing of some British officers who sat around contemplating how they would spend their accumulating funds, as their men died in droves around them. "Ever think of buying a few lives," Dunlop dryly advised. 

In North Borneo, however, circumstances ultimately moved past the point where unity made a difference to survival. "Personal traits instilled and valued by the army and by society as a whole — for example, honesty, obedience, and self-sacrifice — were no guarantee of survival at Sandakan" Gilling quite reasonably concludes. "The selfless did not survive."

Hygiene Was Key

Another of Dunlop's realizations was the imperative of countering the ever-present threat of tropical disease. On this point, both Dunlop and Sticpewich were of a similar mind. When rain fell, Sticpewich "used to take off all his clothes and wash himself with gravel," recounted Sticpewich's nephew to Gilling. As with the more celebrated Dunlop, Sticpewich had correctly assessed the risks that came with being incarcerated in tropical Asia on a deficient diet and with limited medical resources. 

Interestingly, this comment about attention to hygiene by Bill Sticpewich appears by Gilling in a footnote. It may strike some as worthy of considerably more ministration. I personally found it one of the most significant revelations contained within the book. 


Collaboration or a Longing for Home? 

Gilling is ultimately ambiguous in whether he considers Sticpewich to have collaborated, or worse. The most serious accusation against Sticpewich is that he killed Private Herbert Reither, his partner in his escape. Reither had allegedly become delirious and was threatening to give his and Sticpewich's hiding location away. It is an accusation that Gilling appears more than happy to entertain. Gilling also places weight on the cordiality between Sticpewich and some of the Japanese officers postwar, alluding to quid pro quo of a questionable kind. 

It could just as easily be concluded, however, that there were two basic types of residents at POW camps, on both sides of the divide. There were those who sought confrontation and others who simply wanted to get through the war and get back to their families and homes. POWs looking for confrontation had little trouble finding guards willing to reciprocate. Why should the same not be true of those dreaming of home? Why should they too, not be drawn towards each and develop genuine friendships?

When it comes to Japan, the answer to that question too often relates to an inability to perceive the Japanese in humanistic terms. There is a preference to believe that the Japanese soldier had no stronger desire than death in the name of his emperor. Gilling will occasionally fall into this trap, but far less frequently than some. Bill Sticpewich did not seem to fall into it at all. 

The Era of Dispassionate Debate

There are certain historical events that cannot be dispassionately discussed until the participants have passed from this earth. The Sandakan POW experience is most surely one. Tom Gilling's highly readable account appears close to 80 years after the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific War. It is therefore one of the first to be published in the era following the passing of most of the wartime generation. Of course, it is not the final word on the Sandakan experience. However, viewed within this context, it is a very good start.  

The Sandakan Memorial in New South Wales, Australia, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial. (©Australian War Memorial)

About the Book:

Title: The Witness

Author: Tom Gilling

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781760879273

Price: Hardcover ($13.44 USD) and eBook ($13.29 USD)


Reviewed by: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.


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