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The Witness

The fighting had ended but for Sandakan's most notorious prisoner

the war was not over

Tom Gilling

Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2022

Paperback   320pp   RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, November 2022


Born in Carrington, New South Wales in 1908, in his youth Bill Sticpewich became an enthusiastic, competent daredevil speedway rider and midget car driver. Enlisting in June 1940, by October he had been promoted to warrant officer. He sailed for Singapore assigned to the Australian Army Service Corps.

After the fall of Singapore in February 1942,1494 Australian Japanese prisoners of war (PWs) sailed in July for Sandakan, British North Borneo on the tramp steamer Ubi Maru. Sticpewich, during the journey, had already wangled his situation to minimize his personal discomfort and suffering.

The writing covers three distinct phases – the PW camp, escape attempts and war crimes trials. Vivid accounts of deprivation, sickness, torture, beatings, and overwork have been covered in detail. Bill, through his civilian work in abattoirs before enlistment, and personal manual and mechanical dexterity, became the ’go-to-man’ for both his captors and his fellow prisoners – avoiding being sent on work parties aerodrome constructing work parties whilst gaining additional food and medicine. HIs first priority was his own interest and survival, but he did not only act for himself. He was regarded by many prisoners as a ‘white Jap’, but his thorough knowledge of the workings of the camp, guard routines, allocation of rice and medicines, trading with local villages and a good grasp of Japanese and Malay enabled him to make a valuable contribution to his fellow prisoners.

In January 1945, as the tide turned against the Japanese and Sandakan was being bombed by American aircraft, more than 1000 prisoners were involved in three brutal forced marches through the jungle from Sandakan to Ranau (260 kilometres) between January to June. With little food and carrying Japanese equipment and ammunition, many of the ill fell by the wayside – never to be seen again (having been bashed, bayoneted, or shot). Opportunities to escape arose, but the conditions and lack of food made individual survival a very risky proposition. Bill was one of only six who escaped the marches and were eventually rescued. [In a post-war posting in an Australian Army War Graves Unit, Sticpewich’s efforts led to more than 100 ‘missed’ bodies being recovered along the Sandakan to Ranau route. A total of 2163 remains were recovered from the 2428 Australian and British prisoners known to have died at Sandakan.]

Being the fittest of the survivors, Bill was quickly on the scene at the compound on Labuan Island off the Borneo coast where suspected Japanese war criminals were interned (and who were shocked to see that he had survived). He was diligent in identifying his former captors and then participating in their pre-trial interviews. In the trials, his detailed recollections of personnel, events and outcomes made Sticpewich the star witness with the greatest influence on the sentences handed down.

 Whilst most of the writing is based around Sticpewich’s experiences, there is little to enable the reader to decide whether or not he was a Japanese collaborator. A fascinating story of Australia’s most ‘notorious’ prisoner of war that has been most professionally referenced.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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