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Thursday 13 August, 2015
Victory in the Pacific – four words that brought to an end three-and-a-half years of deprivation and enslavement for Jack Thomas and Keith Fowler. I had the privilege of interviewing these two veterans recently; they will be among our guests of honour at the RSL’s 70th VP Day anniversary service on August 15.
The Australian prime minister of the time, Ben Chifley, told the nation in a radio broadcast on August 15, 1945: “Fellow citizens, the war is over. Let us remember those whose lives were given that we may enjoy this glorious moment and may look forward to a peace which they have won for us.”
The announcement of Japan’s surrender triggered celebrations in the streets and in homes throughout Australia. For Jack Thomas and Keith Fowler, it simply meant they no longer had to go about a day’s perilous manual labour for their Japanese captors. Now, 70 years later, each retains vivid memories of suffering, fortitude, comradeship, and triumphant survival. Their stories are notably similar: lives shaped by the Great Depression, interrupted by war, and threatened with violent extinction.
Jack Thomas, son of a Broken Hill grocer, started work as an office boy at 15 shillings a week, enlisted in the 2/3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion, fought in Syria, then boarded the troopship Orcades for its ill-fated voyage to Java. There, he encountered “a debacle”. The unit was hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy, short of ammunition, and without its Vickers machine guns or its vehicles – for these had been sent on other ships, all the way back to Australia. He was taken prisoner.
Captivity would see him despatched to the Burma Railway: relentless work, debilitating tropical disease, painful ‘glass rod’ anal inspections for cholera, and ever-present physical abuse. He recalls in particular that a slap in the face from a beardless teenage guard would carry a humiliating sting for a soldier.
Even when the oppression of the Railway was over, more punishment awaited. SX6327 Pte Thomas was marched aboard the crudely patched-up hulk Byoki Maru for a 70-day voyage to Japan in appalling conditions. They eventually tied up at Mogi, the port of Nagasaki, and were taken by barge to Ohama to work in the coal mines.
Jack, though, refused to be broken by that either. A tall man, over 6ft, he bent his back to the task – working through the winter in thin cotton clothing and with belts wound around his feet as a makeshift form of footwear. The daily food issue consisted of pap (rice porridge) for breakfast, rice for lunch, then rice and soup as an evening meal. It appeared unlikely that the enslaved miners could have endured another winter, were it not for the atom bomb and Japan’s rapid surrender.
Keith Fowler’s childhood was shaped by the trauma of an earlier war as well as, subsequently, by the rigours of finding employment at a time of economic recession. His father was “blown up on the Western Front”, had a metal plate inserted in his head, “married my mother, 12 to 14 years his junior, when she was only 18, and cleared off when my sister was born in 1923”. Keith never saw him again.
His first job was at an automotive body manufacturing plant for ten shillings a week. It was a hard grind, demanding a daily ride by bicycle from his home in Mitcham to the Richards Bros company premises in Mile End. “Worse than being a POW”, was Keith’s verdict on those times. After finding somewhat easier work as a bread carter, he – just like Jack Thomas – joined the machine gunners in mid-1940.
Following active service in Syria (where he was temporarily blinded during a Vichy French bombardment), SX8150 Pte Fowler confronted the “shambles” that was Java. Captured, shipped to Singapore, and sent “up the line” to Thailand, he would somehow survive nearly three years on the Burma Railway. At war’s end, he was digging tunnels for an intended ‘last stand’ by the Japanese. He and his fellow prisoners fully expected to be shot when the project was complete. VP Day came just in time.
This 70th anniversary will find Jack Thomas and Keith Fowler, both now 95, among the congregation at the Drill Hall, Torrens Parade Ground. Their reflections, while coloured by the sadness of so much loss, are remarkable for their qualities of compassion and inner harmony.
Jack has made four post-war trips back to the site of the Burma Railway. Rather than dwelling on the atrocities of the time, he prefers to think of heroic comrades – especially ‘Weary’ Dunlop, the surgeon under whose command he served. He likes to recall in particular a recent pilgrimage to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: “I sat at the feet of a statue of ‘Weary’ and ate a frugal lunch. At peace with myself, I contemplated the life of this modest and great man. He stands there in grace, unmoved by the present, a perpetual reminder of the torments of the past.”
Keith displays a similar lack of bitterness. “I don’t regret being a prisoner of war,” he says,” because it was meant to be. I had to do it – to make myself a man.”