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Friday 30 October, 2015
Source: RSL South Australia
The RSL-SA Board and staff have hosted a morning tea for Jack Thomas and Keith (‘Chook’) Fowler who have been nominated to represent Australia in a Japanese cultural exchange. Jack and Keith went through hell in World War 2. Captured in Java, they endured more than three years as prisoners of the Japanese.
Both survived the horrors of the Burma Railway. Then Keith was despatched to Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai-Burma border to build tunnels for his captors, while Jack was shipped to Japan to work in the coal mines.
Now, though, these two Adelaide-based former prisoners of war have been selected as the Japanese government’s guests of honour on a reconciliation mission. Jack, 94, of Modbury, and Keith, 95, of Somerton Park, leave next month for an eight-day visit under the ‘Japan-Australia Grassroots Exchange Programme’. Both have been nominated by the RSL (SA/NT).
They will be welcomed in Tokyo by a Japanese government minister, hosted to an official dinner, escorted around the Commonwealth war cemetery in Yokohama, introduced to schoolchildren, and shown wartime POW archives at Kyoto’s Ryozen Kannon temple. All expenses are covered by the Japanese authorities. The aim, say their hosts, is to “deepen mutual understanding”.
According to Australian War Memorial records, of the 22,376 Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, 8,031 died in captivity. Addressing ex-POWs at Adelaide’s recent Victory in the Pacific service, the RSL (SA/NT) president, Brigadier Tim Hanna, said: “That many of you have forgiven your former enemies and captors, and embraced the future, is something we deeply respect.”
SX6327 Private Jack Renton Thomas (b. Broken Hill NSW, November 4 1920) enlisted in the 2/3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion in Adelaide on June 22 1940. After active service in Syria, his unit was sent to Java. Hopelessly outnumbered by the Japanese, and with their ammunition supply exhausted, Jack and his comrades were captured and sent to Changi POW camp in Singapore. From there, this grocer’s son from Broken Hill became a slave labourer on the Burma Railway and, subsequently, in a coal mine under the Sea of Japan. A tall man, over 6ft in height, he worked through the Japanese winter in thin cotton clothing and with belts around his feet as a makeshift form of footwear. The purgatory was brought to an end by the atom-bombing of 1945. After the war, he became secretary-manager of the Broken Hill Club prior to retirement in Adelaide.
SX 8150 Private Keith John (‘Chook’) Fowler (b. Magill SA, November 19 1919) enlisted in the 2/3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion in Adelaide on July 6 1940. In civilian life, he had been a bread carter for the Adelaide Co-operative Society. He, too, endured active service in Syria, capture in Java, transfer in appalling conditions to Singapore, and then the deprivations of the Burma Railway. Flown back to Australia at war’s end, he landed at Parafield, where he kissed the ground. Keith subsequently became an enquiries officer for Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “I don’t regret being a POW,” he says. “I had to do it – to make myself a man.”