Accounts point at Sticpewich’s role in POW’s death
Published on: Sunday, August 18, 2019



Silver visiting the site with a sago palm tree that marks the place where Reither’s rice hut shelter was located. Inset: Reither
WAS Sticpewich a collaborator, as his fellow survivors maintained? It seems so, according to Lynette Silver.

There is “evidence in Sticpewich’s private papers that show that he had formed a highly irregular liaison with Lieutenant Nagai, whom Sticpewich had described as “one of the worst criminals”.

Silver said, “When Botterill discovered in 1946 that Nagai had been repatriated to Japan, he prepared a denunciation listing Nagai’s many crimes, which he gave to Sticpewich to present to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.”

She said although Botterill thought Sticpewich’s sarcastic remark at the time, “What do you want to do? Hang every Jap in Japan” was odd, he had no idea that Sticpewich, who had met Nagai face-to-face while in detention at Labuan, had formed some kind of last-minute mutual alliance with him, allowing Nagai to return home. The pair met in Tokyo, cementing an alliance that was so strong that they contemplated writing a book together.

Silver revealed that on his return to Australia, Sticpewich maintained a correspondence with his “always, Peter Nagai”.

The enmity felt by Sticpewich’s fellow survivors continued long after his death in 1977, when he was killed while crossing the street in Melbourne, Silver said.

“In 1995, 50 years after the end of the war, I attended a function in Sydney, to which the survivors, their spouses and widows were invited.”

She recounted, among the latter was Mrs Chris Sticpewich.

According to her, Nelson Short approached Mrs Chris Sticpewich’s table and, during one of those rare lulls in a room full of chattering people, silenced the room completely when he said,”And your husband, madam, was nothing but a collaborator”.

“Not even the very born-again Christian, Owen Campbell, had a good word to say. When I asked if the criticism levelled at Sticpewich by his fellow survivors was fair, he replied, ‘When I was young, my mother told me that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all – and I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about Warrant Officer Sticpewich’.

“Despite these very negative revelations by the survivors, and my own research, I tried to keep an open mind in relation to Reither’s death, especially when a former POW, Eric Davis, who had been at Sandakan for some months before being transferred to Kuching Camp, told me that a member of the war graves team had confided that Sticpewich had killed Reither.”

“However, while I had no reason to disbelieve Davis, with whom I was very friendly, I could find no evidence to support such an allegation, despite my searching through thousands of pieces of paper in various archival repositories.

“Twenty years passed. On Aug 23, 2017, I was at Marakau village, near Ranau, waiting for a death march trekking group to descend the nearby mountain, when Gery, son of Godohil’s daughter Ogog, and great-grandson of Godohil, approached me. He spoke fluent English. He knew who I was and had sought me out, after discovering that I was in the vicinity.

“Gery said that he had something to tell me about the escape of Sticpewich and the death of his companion, whose name he didn’t know. The information he wished to impart had come from Apin, the ex-police inspector and Godohil’s son, who was anxious for me to know the truth, and to pass it on to the family.

“The following is a combined account of two interviews. The first was conducted that day. The second was 12 months later, when I returned to visit the actual site of Reither’s death and met Gery’s grand-aunt,” Silver said.

 

Sticpewich at the War Crimes Tribunal Tokyo. 



 

Godohil’s story:

After Sticpewich and Reither escaped, Godohil was told by Ginssas bin Gunggas, who lived near a track leading to Sumaang, that two white men had escaped and were heading west, in his direction.

Godohil soon found them as they were following Sumaang Creek, which flowed through his farm. Sticpewich’s companion, Reither, had sustained lacerations to the backs of his calves. He also had a deeper wound, which had punctured his abdomen, just above his hip.

Although harbouring escapees was punishable by death, Godohil gave the men water and food and led them to two small rice huts on a hillside. Under each he dug a small cave, big enough for one man to hide, and covered it with bamboo matting.

Reither, because of his injuries, was hidden beside a small spring so that he could obtain water easily. The hut concealing the able-bodied Sticpewich was just to the west of a small creek, about 200-250 metres from Reither.

The lower farm, where they were hidden, was about 2km from the farmhouse. Each day Godohil would go to the lower farm at 6.30am, taking a different route each time and returning late afternoon.

He took with him food concealed in lengths of hollow bamboo which he dropped onto the matting covering Sticpewich’s hiding place. Close relatives in the small family village saw Godohil preparing the food, so they followed him.

Discovering that he was hiding POWs, they became very angry, as they feared everyone would be killed if the Japanese found out. Godohil dismissed their protests, saying, “We must look after our fellow men”, whereupon his brother-in-law hit him on the head with a hoe, slicing his head open just above his left ear.

Godohil had the scar for the rest of his life. The family members then quit the village, leaving Godohil and his wife alone.

Reither’s wounds became infected. Godohil obtained local herbs to treat him, but had no success. As the infection spread, Reither ran a fever, became delirious and was calling out.

Sticpewich told Godohil he was worried that someone might hear Reither, and in order to save his own life and the lives of Godohil and his wife, they would have to kill him.

However, Sticpewich had sent a message with a runner in the hope of contacting Allied forces. The death must look like an accident, in case questions were asked.

 

Gery, with his aunt, Godohil’s daughter-in-law. 
 



About 50 metres from Reither’s hiding place, the stream had carved out a section of the watercourse, creating a cave beneath an overhang. Sticpewich helped Reither from beneath the hut, telling him that he had to do a reconnaissance of the area, and that while he was away Reither was to wait in the cave beside the creek, sheltered from view by the overhang. He would be safe there. Sticpewich instructed Reither, “Don’t move”.

Meanwhile, Godohil was waiting nearby with two stout and heavy poles, made of belian or iron wood, which were used by his wife to pound rice to separate the husk from the grain.

Standing on the bank above Reither’s hiding place, the pair used the poles to collapse the overhang, suffocating him. They left the body where it was. Pigs discovered it and what was left of Reither’s remains were later moved for burial by Godohil in a spot near the old Ranau POW Camp.

When a war graves recovery team found the new gravesite some months later, they noted that the remains were incomplete.

Later, when recounting the story of his role in the escape to investigators, Godohil said that the lacerations “looked like” bayonet wounds. He did not mean that they had been actually caused by a bayonet. The lacerations were deep and penetrating, and he thought they were probably caused when Reither fell onto sharp sticks, possibly cut bamboo, while they were on the run.

No questions were ever asked about the circumstances leading to Reither’s death, or even where he had actually died. After the war, Sticpewich had a house built for Godohil as a means of thanking his accomplice.

Silver said desperate situations call for desperate measures: Murder or manslaughter is not unknown when people in hiding are confronted by the very real possibility of detection by the enemy.

“In Nazi-occupied Europe, Jewish women hiding in secret attics, in concealed basements or behind false walls, were forced to smother their crying babies for fear that the entire family or group would be discovered, with disastrous consequences.

“In February 1942, civilians, military personnel and British soldiers who had deserted as Singapore fell, were on an evacuation ship, Rooseboom, when it was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean. Survivors took to a lifeboat where, as days wore on with no hope of relief in sight, a group of deserters began killing the boat’s other occupants by cutting their throats, and drinking their blood.

“Despite their bloodthirsty fight for survival, all perished, leaving a lone woman and a Scottish drummer to tell the tale.

“Borneo, too, saw men reduced to savages. Escapee Dick Braithwaite confided to his family that the situation became desperate on the second march. With the last vestiges of civilised behaviour breaking down, starving men killed each other for small amounts of food.

“Furthermore, the overwhelming need to survive brought to an end the mateship that had hitherto sustained four of the escapees, in hiding during very dark days. As Botterill confessed, ‘It was every man for himself. We watched each other like hawks, in case someone took one more rice grain than another. We were like wild animals.’

“And in order to survive, all six survivors were involved in a murder or a killing of some kind. Braithwaite killed a lone Japanese soldier that he encountered on the track, shortly after his escape from the death march column. He beat him to death with a piece of wood.

“While on the run, Owen Campbell left his ill companion and fellow escapee, Ted Skinner, to forage for food in the jungle. He returned to find that he had cut his own throat with a piece of tin from cans of fish that they were carrying for the Japanese when they escaped. Unfortunately, he did not make a good job of it and Campbell, as an act of mercy, had to finish him off.

“Campbell in later years refused to talk publicly about Skinner’s death. He would only say that things that had happened were so terrible that, if told, they would make your hair go white overnight.

“At the urging of Nelson Short, Keith Botterill and Bill Moxham agreed to kill ‘Andy’ Anderson who was suffering from severe dysentery and was calling out in his delirium. At the time of the murder, on July 28, 1945, they were in hiding, in a deep gully to the west of the main Ranau-Kota Belud track.

“Terrified his cries would be heard, they picked up a lump of wood and hit him over the head. They buried the body but pigs found it, necessitating a reburial using stones. 

“With the remains savaged by pigs, any damage to Andy’s skull went unremarked by the recovery team. For years, Botterill was haunted by nightmares, crying out in his sleep ‘We had to kill him’, and studiously avoided answering any questions about Anderson,” Silver recalled.

“However disturbing though these deaths are, all were spur of the moment killings. The murder of Reither, however, was ruthless, premeditated and very cunningly planned.

“Furthermore, having been to see where the events unfolded, I doubt that Reither was killed because he was calling out in his delirium. The farm, even today, is remote, and it was a long way from any track used by Japanese or locals. The place where Reither was murdered can only be reached after a long walk from the nearest habitation or a drive across paddocks in a four-wheel drive.

“I suspect, with Sticpewich hoping to reach Allied troops, whom he knew had landed on the West Coast, that Reither had become an encumbrance. There was no way he could undertake such a journey. 

“This is a view shared by ex-POW Billy Young, who was at Sandakan until 1943, when he was transferred to Singapore for trying to escape. He is the only person still alive who was at the camp and who saw Sticpewich in action.

“He remembers Sticpewich, who did not work on the airfield himself, giving to the Japanese the names of fellow POWs who had not reported to work. He also controlled the camp gambling and wielded enormous power over the rank and file,” Silver narrated.

 

Silver interviewing Gery, Godohil’s son, at the family farm.



She said according to Billy, Sticpewich’s self-interest outstripped all other considerations, even to the extent of killing someone who had become a liability to his escape plans.

“In his letter to the Reither family, Sticpewich said that, had the medicine arrived a day earlier, Reither would still be alive, thereby giving the impression that his death was simply a matter of bad timing.

“Did Sticpewich ever feel any remorse for murdering a man he called a friend? We will never know, as he left no record in relation to Reither’s death, other than the barest details. His reluctance to meet the Reither family is telling, as is the revelation by his confessor, Father Brendan Rodgers, himself a former POW, that ‘Sticpewich was a very troubled man’.

“There is some speculation that Sticpewich, the ultimate survivor, who managed to be run over by not one vehicle but two, was so troubled that his death was no accident.”

Silver said that Sticpewich and Godohil killed Reither on the morning of Aug 8.

“Later that same day, the message sent by Sticpewich bore fruit, not from troops on the West Coast but from an Australian Special Operations team. Inserted behind the lines into British North Borneo, they had arrived the previous day at Lansat, to the north of Ranau, after an arduous five-week trek through the jungle.

“The agent brought with him food and potentially life-saving medicine, but it was too late for Reither. The following day Sticpewich was led a relatively short distance to safety by his rescuers.”

She said those events had weighed heavily on the mind and conscience of Godohil’s last surviving son as an ex-police inspector, he understood the gravity of his father’s action and the implications of speaking out and admitting that Godohil engaged in pre-meditated murder.

“Given that he was a local hero, feted and admired for his bravery in sheltering the escapees, the decision to tell the truth after 75 years is remarkable. The loss of face for the family in their small community will be substantial. 

“They are to be admired for taking such a courageous stand in the interests of truth, and for allowing the Reither family to have some closure,” Silver concluded.

She rues that, “War is a very grim business. It brings out the worst and best in people. Irrespective of what motivated the survivors, or whether all the murders were justified, the fact that they were prepared to kill a fellow human being in order to survive demonstrates just how desperate the situation had become.

“There is no question that this very dark side of the Sandakan story is shocking, and that some may not welcome revelations that rock our deeply ingrained and idealised concept of Australian mate-ship.

“However, it is a story that needs to be told. Not only is it an integral part of our wartime history, it underlines the reality, unpalatable though it may be, of decisions that need to be made when a situation becomes a matter of life, or death.

“Almost 75 years on, Sandakan is still giving up its secrets,” Silver said.

 





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