What started as a trip to a second-hand bookstore resulted in UNSW Canberra alumnus Gary Followill uncovering a cover up in Borneo during World War II, and turning his thesis into a published book.   

In 2010, Gary started his Master of Art in Military History after seeing an advertisement for the online course in the Australian Financial Review.

"I started my initial university studies in the 1970’s, studying history and physical education, but switched to business when I saw how much teachers and coaches were paid,” Gary said.

"I loved the Masters coursework and learning again, and online learning suited me well as I was also working. I finished my first Masters degree in 2015, but once I finished I just felt like I had a huge gap in my life. So, I rang Professor Craig Stockings and he suggested I do a Master of Art by research. He advised that I would need a topic to research, to be approved by his department, and a supervising professor.”

While in a second-hand bookstore, Gary bought a copy of Athol Moffitt’s book, “Project Kingfisher”, which dealt with Japanese war crime trials in Borneo, and devoted a chapter to a plan to rescue Australian and British prisoners of war (POW) at the Sandakan POW camp in Borneo. 

“I immediately thought, there is more to this story than meets the eye, possibly even a conspiracy,” Gary said. 

Gary knew he found the topic for his research and was then encouraged to get in touch with Honorary Professor Peter Stanley, due to his work in Australian military-social history and ask him to be his supervisor for the research project. 

“We hit it off straight away,” Professor Stanley said. 

“There have been many books and research undertaken about what happened in Sandakan, but Gary was looking at it from a new angle of beyond the failed rescue mission, to who were the key players and what was their decision making in the lead up to this mission.

“It was rewarding as a supervisor to see Gary’s development, especially with navigating and learning how to use archives.”

Gary was fortunate to travel for his business, so while traveling he would make time to visit the National Archives in the United Kingdom and Unites States of America to help with his research to uncover key information. 

"My 'smoking-gun' moment happened when I went to the UK Archives,” he said. 

“I had an idea of what had happened, but I needed the name of one person to tie it all together and prove my arguments.

"I realised one file was only recently released, and there was the name tying all the research together.

"I celebrated with a small fist-pump in the air and a beer at a nearby London pub."

Once the thesis was completed and passed in 2020, Gary then set about turning his thesis into a book which was published by Big Sky Publishing in June 2023. 

“I never thought I would write a book. I had incredible support from Professor Peter Stanley and Bernadette MacDermott at UNSW Canberra, and Zena Shapter, a writer and writing instructor, who was instrumental in converting my thesis into a book for general reading,” Gary said.

“The skills you learn doing uni research can be applied to any type of research. Whether it is online or in a book, you start to learn where to go and how to dig deeper into websites, for anything.”

Professor Stanley said as long as people want to contribute and make an impact then they shouldn’t be put off by undertaking study or even trying to publish a book. 

“This is all just coming from a Masters by Research, it just goes to show that you can come up with novel and interesting research at a Masters level,” he said.

“Gary also helped the families impacted by these events who to this day are still asking questions as to what happened. He is giving back to them.

“UNSW has a commitment to lifelong learning. Back in the day an MA (Master of Arts) would be full of young people around 25-years-old, now we are seeing more mature age students studying.”

After successfully publishing, Gary feels it has been a springboard and has now discovered his interest in the Pacific during World War II. He is currently writing a new book based on the decisions and events in the lead up to Japan's surrender in WWII.  

Gary’s book Operation Kingfisher can be found here

UNSW Canberra Masters graduate Gary Followill.
The cover of Gary's book 'Operation Kingfisher'.