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Did one Australian POW kill another?
Published on: Sunday, August 04, 2019
By: David Thien



Adihil bin Ambilid (Godohil) and Sticpewich in a painted colour photograph.
IN view of the Death March reenactment set to take place mid-August, the murder investigation of Australian soldier, Private Herman Reither, who died in then North Borneo on Aug 8, 1945, is narrated by renowned Australian historian and author Lynette Silver.

In April 2019, she contacted Daily Express to carry this exclusive account, as the newspaper had, in the past, helped publicise many other historic details on the fate of Commonwealth soldiers who perished in Death Marches during World War II (WWII) in North Borneo.

According to Lynette, in 1945, as the war in the Pacific drew towards an end, the greatest atrocity perpetrated against Australians by the Japanese was taking place on the island of Borneo.

 

Sticpewich at the Tokyo Trial in 1946.



Described as Australia’s holocaust, it took the lives of almost 1,800 prisoners of war (POWs), and is undoubtedly one of most infamous acts of barbarity of WWII.

“I spent six years researching and writing ‘Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence’. In doing so, I unlocked many secrets and uncovered the fate of every prisoner of war – bar one.

“Little did I know that 20 years would pass before the shocking circumstances of his death would be revealed, and that it would involve one controversial  – Warrant Officer William Hector Sticpewich, of the Australian Imperial Force.

“But before I lead you down that path, we need to take ourselves to Borneo, to try and understand the enormity of the tragedy that took place there in the latter months of 1945,” she said.

In 1942-43, 2,000 Australian and 750 British POWs, captured at the fall of Singapore, were shipped to Sandakan in British North Borneo to build a military airstrip for the Japanese.

Although the work was hard and the guards could be brutal, conditions were acceptable enough until mid-1943, when the Japanese secret police discovered that the Australians were involved in a subversive underground movement with local people.

Arrests and executions followed, almost all the officers were transferred to another camp in Kuching, Sarawak, and life became much harder for the remaining prisoners.

Following various transfers, in the latter half of 1944 there were 2,434 – dead and alive – in the camp.

Initially, the death toll was not high. However, as the war progressed, rations were cut back, illnesses increased and the death toll escalated.

 

Reither



In January 1945, following the destruction of the airstrip by Allied bombs, the Japanese decided to make use of the POWs’ labour by sending them on foot through the jungle to the West Coast.

However, due to Allied bombing they were halted at the small village of Ranau, 250km to the west of Sandakan.

The first draft of 455, who were still reasonably fit, left in groups of 50, one day apart, in late January and early February.

Most of the prisoners were barefooted and dressed in ragged clothing. At least 16km had to be covered each day, through crocodile-infested swamps and up precipitous mountain slopes.

Rations had not been properly organised en route, and often there were none. Exhaustion from lack of food and the gruelling terrain took its toll. Anyone who could not keep up was bayoneted or shot.

Despite this, about 75 per cent of the prisoners completed the march, which took between 14 and 18 days, only to die from starvation and appalling conditions at makeshift destination camps.

By June 20, just six of the 455 who had set out from Sandakan were still alive. This march, and two that followed, became known as “the death marches”.

Back in Sandakan, conditions had deteriorated alarmingly from January 1945 onwards and, by the end of May, there were just over 800 prisoners alive.

Following an intensive bombing raid on May 27, the Japanese became convinced that invasion from the east was imminent and, two days later, decided to pull most of their troops into the interior.

They took with them 536 emaciated POWs who were still able to walk. The remaining 288 were left behind at the camp. Sixty-four were sent on a third march but all were so weak and ill that they died or were shot before they had covered 50km or so.

 

The locals talking to Allied troops shortly after the war. 



The remaining POWs that were left at the camp died of starvation, illness or were executed. The last man left alive, John Skinner, was beheaded at 7.15am on Aug 15, bringing the death toll in Sandakan to almost 1,400.

Five hours later, Emperor Hirohito announced to the world that Japan had unconditionally surrendered.

Meanwhile, on June 26, four weeks after leaving Sandakan, 183 skeletal-looking POWs, who had survived the second march, shuffled into a remote jungle camp 8km to the south of Ranau, in the mountainous heart of British North Borneo.

Two Australians – Gunner Owen Campbell and Bombardier Dick Braithwaite – managed to escape and would reach Allied hands in the nearby Philippines. The rest died or were “disposed of”.

A month later, there were only about 40 POWs left alive out of the more than 1,000 POWs who had left Sandakan for Ranau on the three death marches.

By Aug 27, all POWs, apart from six Australians who had successfully escaped, were dead – the final 32 murdered in cold blood, 15 of them 12 days after the war ended.

A total of 2,428 prisoners died. Not one of the 641 British POWs survived. The Australian death toll was 1,787, a death rate of 99.75 per cent.

“Sandakan and the death marches were the worst tragedy to befall our nation in WWII,” Silver said.

Six Australians successfully made a break from the final camp, hidden deep in a valley. The first to go on July 7, was a party of four – Private Keith Botterill, Bombardier Bill Moxham, Private Nelson Short and Gunner Francis ‘Andy’ Anderson.

 

Godohil in 1985.



They were taken in by a villager and hidden in the jungle to the west of Ranau for several weeks. During this period Anderson died.

Three weeks later, warned by Takahara, a friendly Christian guard, that all were earmarked for death, Warrant Officer William Sticpewich and his friend Private Herman ‘Alby’ Reither escaped from the camp on the night of July 28.

They did not go far, concealing themselves in thickets on the hillside to the north of the camp as they watched guards searching for them the next morning. Takahara, the guard who had warned Sticpewich to flee, found them but did not betray them.

The pair then moved on, seeking refuge that night in the hut of Ginssas bin Gunggas, who hid them under a grass mat when a lone Japanese dropped by.

They then moved further to the west, where they were found by a Kadazandusun Christian, Adihil bin Ambilid (known as Godohil) who risked his life to give them shelter on his farm.

On Aug 8, while in hiding, Reither died.

According to the investigation by Silver: “Godohil, who sheltered Sticpewich and Reither, had three children – a daughter Ogog and two sons, Amin and Apin.

“I had interviewed Amin some years ago, when I visited Godohil’s house and his grave in Marakau village, just to the east of Ranau.

“Amin is now deceased. Apin, a former police inspector, is the last surviving child of Godohil.

“After researching Sticpewich’s escape in the 1990s, I became convinced that he was not telling the entire story. Godohil had told post-war investigators and a local journalist that Reither had suffered stab-like injuries to his legs that looked like bayonet wounds,” Silver said.

 


A rice hut similar to the huts under which Sticpewich and Reither were hidden.



She revealed that there was also a deeper wound to his abdomen that Godohil thought may have been caused by a bullet, as he had heard gunshots the night of the escape.

Sticpewich, who said little about the escape, had never mentioned these injuries. He simply reported that Reither had died of dysentery. There was no mention of being shot at, or of Reither sustaining any wounds from bayonet jabs or from any other source.

“Sticpewich had plenty to say about conditions in the camps and on the march, so the paucity of detail regarding his own escape, and his failure to mention Reither’s injuries set me thinking.

“If Reither had indeed been injured, maybe Sticpewich had killed him because he was a liability,” Silver said, adding that over the years, others interested in the Sandakan story have also wondered if Sticpewich played some part in Reither’s death. 

One, on learning of Godohil’s description of Reither’s injuries, even surmised that he might have been stabbed to death.

She recalled that Reither’s family certainly believed something was amiss. In 1951, six years after the war had ended, they finally managed to contact   Sticpewich, who told them that Reither had died of illness.

The family later managed to force a face-to-face meeting so Sticpewich could hand over Reither’s bible and a letter written by his mother. After speaking to Sticpewich, they were certain that he was not telling the whole truth about Reither’s death, Silver said.

“In August 2013, when the son of survivor Dick Braithwaite met up with Apin, Godohil’s youngest son, he concluded that Apin was withholding information and that there was definitely more to the story.

“There have always been question marks over Sticpewich’s behaviour. Described as ‘a Jack of all trades’, as soon as he reached Sandakan he made himself indispensable to the Japanese and, therefore, avoided labour on the airstrip.

“By his own admission, he went to the airstrip on one occasion only – in late 1942 when all POWs, including the sick and officers, were put to work to ensure the first stage of construction was finished in time for a grand opening,” Silver narrated.

She said Sticpewich lived in special quarters outside the compound, not far from the Japanese barracks, and received rations far in excess of other prisoners.

“Evidently, this preferential treatment, which included supplies of anti-malarial tablets, continued throughout his captivity.

When he arrived at the last camp, having completed the gruelling four-week trek over steep mountain ranges and through swampland, he was far from a shuffling, hollow-eyed skeleton.

“Botterill, who failed to recognise his closest mates, recognised Sticpewich at once. Why? ‘Because he was in fantastic condition’.”

Silver acknowledged that although Bill Sticpewich appeared to tread a very fine line between collaboration and survival, he did keep excellent camp records and identified many Japanese responsible for the deaths of his countrymen.

“A consummate performer in the witness box, he was described as ‘a prosecutor’s dream’, giving powerful and convincing testimony, which resulted in convictions. This, and his participation in lengthy searches for bodies scattered along the death march track, led to his being awarded an MBE.

“On the face of it, Sticpewich appeared to be a genuine war hero.”

So, who was Warrant Officer William Hector Sticpewich? 

Silver recounted: “Sticpewich stayed on in the army after WWII, attaining the rank of major. He claimed that he had received his lieutenant’s commission ‘in the field’ from no lesser personage than Lord Louis Mountbatten.

“Although he had met Mountbatten, Sticpewich was not promoted to lieutenant until March 17, 1947, by which time Lord Louis was definitely out of the field as he had been appointed Viceroy of India the previous month.

“It was the Australian army which, although it regarded Sticpewich as an upstart, had very reluctantly promoted him, when he refused to undertake a further search for bodies in Borneo unless he received his commission.

“As he was the only survivor fit enough to travel and undertake an arduous trek along the death march route, the army acceded to his demands.

“Despite his elevation to the officer ranks, and his MBE, his fellow survivors viewed Sticpewich as nothing more than a collaborator or ‘white Jap’. So much so that, post-war, they refused to have anything to do with him.

“Survivor Bill Moxham, on learning shortly after his own rescue by a party of commandos that Sticpewich had survived, flew into a terrible rage, although he was at death’s door. He told rescuer John ‘Lofty’ Hodges – ‘that bastard’s still alive? I’m going to kill him with my bare hands’.

“Hodges, disturbed by the vehemence of this threat, made sure that Moxham was kept well away from Sticpewich. Post-war, when survivors met at the ABC studios in Sydney to record a radio documentary, Moxham still wanted to kill him,” Silver said.

 

The creekbed where Reither was killed.


She opined that Hodges understood the source of the fury – although the other survivors were skin and bone from prolonged starvation and terrible privation, Sticpewich was amazingly fit – so fit that within weeks of his rescue, instead of being sent home with the others for further hospitalisation, he was tramping hundreds of kilometres across the mountains of Borneo with a war graves’ recovery team.



“There is no doubt that Sticpewich engendered feelings of deep enmity among the other survivors. Botterill told me one day that he and Moxham had made a pact. Should either of them survive, he would pursue five Australians the pair believed were guilty of collaboration.”

Silver said four of those named had died in captivity. The fifth was Sticpewich.

“The pact was broken when Botterill realised that Sticpewich, who had a prodigious memory, was vital to securing convictions against the camp guards. He told me ‘Sticpewich had a fantastic memory and because of that he was the best liar I have ever met. 

“‘He could argue black was white and the court would believe him. To get the Japanese we needed him to lie for us in court, so me and Moxham decided we needed to get the Japs more than we needed to get Sticpewich’,” Silver recalled.

 





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