Tue, 27 Feb 2024



Finding fault has to stop
Published on: Sunday, August 11, 2019
By: Avtar Singh
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The Sandakan POW camp.
In a recent article in the Daily Express by David Thien titled “Did one Australian POW kill another?” which was published on the 4th August 2019,  allegations were made by a respected historian and author about the circumstances surrounding the death of one Australian soldier, Private Herman Reither, who died in North Borneo on Aug 8, 1945 during the infamous Borneo Death March of 1945 where allied prisoners of war were forced marched from Sandakan to Ranau, with only 6 prisoners surviving the ordeal.

There are allegations that fellow prisoner Bill Sticpewich, who escaped with Reither was responsible for the death of his friend and his death has now, somehow, become this historian’s personal “investigation.”

But this controversy is NOT new; this issue has already been discussed years back by both Paul Ham and Professor Richard Wallace Braithwaite in both their books. So to suggest this is new, startling discovery is perhaps not correct.

But then again, this is not the first “shocking revelation” by this respected historian about respected war veterans who are deceased and have no opportunity to defend themselves from serious allegations.

It is important to note that everything that has been written, said, shared and discussed about the Borneo Death March has had to be pieced together from records and archived documents as well as what interviews were possible with men and women who may or may not remember everything first hand and or may not be actually giving wholly accurate information (maybe because of age and because of how young they were at the time as children and teenagers).  

In some instances, the answers have been extremely vague and through translations through third parties who may or may not have been translating the information correctly.

In some cases, some of the survivors like Moxham and Botterill even gave false testimony in court during the trial of Japanese prison guards, some of whom were completely innocent of specific crimes in specific locations just to take revenge on some of the guards. 

The subject of the Borneo Death March was originally discussed in a 1988 book called “Sandakan-The Last March,” a book by Don Wall, himself an ex-POW of the Burma-Thailand railway. The Last March used the testimony of the six survivors, Japanese guards and local people to reveal the horrific circumstances in which the Sandakan prisoners had died. Wall also produced a list of all those Australians who had died at Sandakan, supplemented in 1997 by a list of the British POWs which appeared in his subsequent book—Kill the Prisoners.

Also in 1988, historian Hank Nelson and the ABC’s Tim Bowden brought the story of the horrors of the Sandakan Death March to an Australia-wide public with a radio documentary series entitled Prisoners of War. Their sections on Sandakan were based on the testimony of the six survivors and others who had escaped in earlier years from among those Australians brought to the area. Nelson then produced a book titled “Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon.” 

In 1989, Athol Moffitt’s book “Project Kingfisher” was published; Moffitt, who had been the Australian prosecutor at the trial in 1946 of Sandakan camp commander, Captain Hoshijima Susumi, was able to reveal from his knowledge of the war crimes interrogation documents that the last POWs had been killed at Ranau on 27 August 1945, well after the Japanese surrender. They had undoubtedly died, in Moffitt’s view, to stop them being able to testify to the atrocities committed by the guards. Moffitt also revealed, for the first time since the 1940s, that there had been a plan—Project Kingfisher—to rescue the prisoners. The reasons why the plan was never put into operation remain contentious and will be discussed in a follow up article in next week’s edition of the Daily Express.

The reason I bring up these names and books is that there for some reason, seems to be some sort of a “claim” by 1-2 historians as to the history of the Borneo Death March and what transpired to the point that they are now using our local media outlets to release alleged incidents that may or may not have happened during the Death March. It is as though they are laying a claim over the Death March and anything to do with the tragic history of the Death March as their own which I find a little bit unnerving.

There is no “ownership” of the Borneo Death March. There is no outright expert on the Borneo Death March. Many people have researched and dedicated vast amounts of time and effort writing about the Death March. It is not exclusive to just one person. 

Much of the controversy raised about Reither’s death has to do with different accounts as to how he died. One person say he died of infection and disease. Another account states he was shot whilst trying to escape Japanese forces and died later from infection in his wounds. 

Is a young native boy in the middle of a jungle likely to know what bullet wounds look like in 1945 as compared to multiple stab wounds? Probably not. The size of bullet wounds would depend on the calibre and distance the weapon was fired and can at times look like stab wounds which would explain the confusion between stab wounds and actual bullet wounds.

Bill Sticpewich had told the family of Reither after the war that he had died from illness but told his interrogators after the war he was shot by Japanese forces and badly injured and passed away from infection. 

Let’s look at things in context.  All the veterans who survived the death march and prison camps lived tortured lives the rest of their years in Australia because of the trauma and horror they saw and lived with. We all know how poorly fed and treated the prisoners were and how they had very little access to medical supplies, clean clothes and basic hygiene. Everyone was doing everything they could to live another day. 

Most didn’t and perished at some point in time in Sandakan, or at Kuching prison or along the Death March route. Others were blatantly murdered at the close of the war in Ranau. 

Those who did survive may have realized the only way to survive was to be friendly with the guards and to build relationships and to gain their goodwill and what little help they could as long as it meant they could live another day.

Nobody came out of the Borneo experience sane. It is important to remember this. These were men who were so desperate to survive, they did anything and everything they could, even in their weakened state to live.

David Porter, an Australian who has read the history of the Borneo Death March, has written to me and suggested that “…we forget that Keith Botterill gave false evidence during trial against a Japanese guard who was then executed. Dick Braithwaite killed a Japanese guard by beating him to death with a tree branch. One Australian soldier was killed by his compatriot when he went mad and was likely to betray their position, and (another) cut his own throat with a can and was possibly “finished off” by his mate out of mercy.”

In the case of Sticpewich and Reither, could it be that Reither was not going to survive the escape and was already ill or badly injured? Or was Reither so ill that he too was going mad and likely to compromise Sticpewich? Would Sticpewich have survived with Reither in tow in this situation? 

What is recorded and known is that none of the other survivors wanted anything to do with Sticpewich after the war. Some absolutely resented him but kept their opinions to themselves as to why they hated him.

Porter adds “….at the end of the day, who are we to judge or to pass judgement on Sticpewich? We were not there. We didn’t have to go through the horrors of being in a Japanese Prison of War camp.”

Porter further adds that “some men just gave up....others refused to, and against the odds, (survived). All were at the extreme of existence, unimaginable to us, and basically reduced to basic animalistic responses.”

Professor Richard Braithwaite son, of one of the 6 survivors wrote in his book “Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy,” that based on his observations as the son of a survivor, he felt they were all ‘fighting monsters’ (in their heads due to the trauma they endured in Sandakan and on the Death March and they were all mentally affected by the experiences). Two out of the six survivors lived short and tortured lives; Bill Moxham put a shotgun to his head and killed himself after living what his daughter called an ‘angry life,’ whilst Sticpewich eventually walked in front of two oncoming cars and ended his life in Melbourne to end his pain and mental anguish. 

Think of how a human being reacts when drowning; their first instinct is to grab anything they can, no matter how big or small, no matter if that person is coming to rescue them or is also drowning. They will do whatever they can do to keep their head above the water to live.

Porter also suggested to me that “whilst we all appreciate the efforts and research done by historians in trying to get the facts of the Death March, it is perhaps better to give “context” to these facts.” And I wholly agree with him in this regard.

But further to this Braithwaite also quotes Julian Barnes and perhaps this is more pertinent to the work of this historian in that “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” 

But finding fault for war veterans and then going after them in public has to stop. They had suffered enough both during and after the war. And let’s remember, nobody profits from these allegations and these stories. 

Families are hurt and memories of their loved ones tainted once allegations come out. Let’s be civil about this and let them rest in peace and let them be remembered for their service and sacrifices the way all war veterans rightfully deserve to be remembered for the rest of our lives.

On a separate note, it would be interesting to see a book published based on factual documents and archived materials on the mass atrocities committed by the Royal Australian Air Force and the United States Air Force during 1944-1945 in the bombing campaigns that destroyed all our major towns in North Borneo and to find out who was the chief culprit responsible for ordering these bombing raids that killed hundreds of locals. 

Till today, neither the Australian government nor the United States government has formally apologized to the people of Sabah for these unnecessary and tragic bombing campaigns.

Local natives in fact had begged Braithwaite during his successful escape from the Death March in 1945 to please ask the Australians and American’s to stop bombing their villages and shooting them in their fishing boats and trawlers. 

Many were killed on such missions by both aircraft gunners firing away at “targets” of opportunity and anything that looked like a target.

These appeals fell on deaf ears. 

Why is that? Maybe, instead of rehashing old stories and opening up old wounds, these historians can perhaps dedicate their efforts towards finding out the names of the decision makers responsible for these atrocities in North Borneo?

Note: This article was written with the help of Australian David Porter who is also a son of Sabah and North Borneo. The writer is also grateful to Dr.Ravi Mandalam and Christopher Chin from Sabah Society and Tham Yau Kong and his team from TYK Tours and Travel for their dedication and hard work in finding the Death March route between 2004-2005 and ensuring the history of the Borneo Death March is not forgotten. 


1- Dad told the truth – Perth Now article by Yasmine Philips, 16th April 2011

2- Fighting Monsters: An intimate history of the Sandakan Tragedy” by  Professor Richard Wallace Braithwaite.

3- Sandakan – The Last March by Don Wall

4- Project Kingfisher by Athol Moffit

5- Sandakan by Paul Ham


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