The Witness by Tom Gilling

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This is the nonfictional account of the precarious lives led by Australian prisoners of war at the infamous Sandakan POW camp in Borneo in WW2. It purports to tell the story through the eyes of Warrant Officer Bill Sticpewich’s, whom some see as a hero, others as a collaborator. The story belongs to the soldiers, those men who died of starvation, sickness, and overwork, or were shot and bayoneted to death by Japanese guards on forced marches through the jungle. This story tells of an outrage that blackened the pages of humanity – of 2400 prisoners at Sandakan, only six survived Hoshijima’s rule.

Sticpewich’s well considered testimony at the trials of Japanese leaders at the close of the war sent some to the gallows and some to prison for long periods. But Sticpewich’s role in the days of WW2 was never clear and becomes even more cloudy as a result of Gilling’s book.

Much of this story can be sectionalised. It deals with the horrible privations that faced the prisoners and the inhuman physical stresses to which they were subjected. The focus then changes to anecdotes of prisoners attempting to escape from Japanese hands. A final section looks at war trials and their aftermath. Bill Sticpewich figures prominently throughout the book.

The intolerable, cruel and inhuman practices that were levied upon Australian troops by their Japanese captors have been well documented. This book is among the best for supplying details of Japanese atrocities. The Basher squad, the shooting of prisoners who were unable to keep up with the main party as it travelled from one location to another, and the search for a hidden radio are but three examples of Japanese extreme behaviour.

One of the most interesting areas was when prisoners had escaped and were roaming the bush. Decision-making was shown to be vital, and success was either achieved or capture and death was assured. This was a fascinating part of the book, one in which I spent considerable time. By contrast, the treatment of the Japanese by the allies at the war trials was not an outright slaughter but derived from logical consideration of the evidence.

However, a major focus was to be on W/O Bill Sticpewich. In elucidating whether Sticpewich was a collaborator or a person who was good at reading the signs that would allow him to retain his integrity, the book is not very helpful. Clearly, the soldiers adopted a measure of disdain when interacting with him. At the same time, his focus on ensuring that many of the prisoners at the Allied war trials received sentences commensurate with their offences left many of the troops puzzled. That some of the sworn evidence he gave was patently incorrect and some was clearly not an eyewitness account was puzzling.

Sticpewich, while an interesting character, was not the prime focus of the memoir. The real interest lay with the interactions between prisoners and captors. Here the book more than holds its own in this particular genre.

The Witness

(2022)

By Tom Gilling

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76087-927-3

$34.99; 320 pp

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