Keith John (Chook) FOWLER OAM

FOWLER, Keith John

Service Number: SX8150
Enlisted: 6 July 1940
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion
Born: Magill, South Australia, 19 November 1920
Home Town: Mitcham, Mitcham, South Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Grocers Assistant
Died: Natural causes, Adelaide, South Australia, 30 November 2023, aged 103 years
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
Memorials: Ballarat Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial
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World War 2 Service

6 Jul 1940: Involvement Private, SX8150
6 Jul 1940: Enlisted Adelaide, SA
6 Jul 1940: Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, SX8150
29 Nov 1945: Discharged Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion


By: Emily Olle

As the sun bore down on a flag at half mast, West Terrace Cemetery hosted South Australia’s – and likely Australia’s – largest gathering of World War II veterans to commemorate Remembrance Day.
Sitting among the graves of 4167 former servicemen and women in Australia’s first dedicated military cemetery, nine WWII veterans – four more than 100 years old – were surrounded by family as the Last Post rang out.
Behind them were family, friends and students from 10 primary and secondary schools, who laid wreaths in honour of those lost in battle.
Among the attendees was Keith ‘Chook’ Fowler, who turns 102 next week, believed to be the last surviving South Australian prisoner of war of the Japanese.
A beloved Somerton Park resident, Mr Fowler recently had a street named after him – Fowler Lane – to commemorate his service.
He enlisted in July, 1940 and served in the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion in the Middle East, Java, Jakarta, Thailand, in the Syria campaign, and also a prisoner of war working on the Thai-Burma Railway.
For three years he saw friends die by his side, was beaten, contracted malaria – with his temperature shooting to above 42 degrees – and suffered severe burns to his leg after falling while carrying a bucket of scalding hot tea.
Mr Fowler has been through trauma few could imagine, but said it was the bright side of life that kept him going through his darkest hours.
“I was like every other idiot. We all felt we had to go and save the world. That was the adventure,” Mr Fowler said. “The experience I had turned me from a boy to a man – but it did have its effects.
“I received treatment to help me black out the past and now I only look at the bright side of life. I’ve been happy as a lark, I don’t let anything worry me now.
“I’ve had a very, very happy life. I have no regrets.”
For Mr Fowler, the last surviving member of his squadron, Remembrance Day was a day to commemorate those affected by war – not just servicemen and women, but their families.
Military service runs deep in 100-year-old Thelma Zimmerman’s blood. On Friday, she took a quiet moment to lay flowers on the grave of her father, George Kinsman.
A World War I veteran, Mr Kinsman saw action on the Western front. He was gassed, shipped back to Britain and, after “some repairs” as Ms Zimmerman says, was sent straight back to the trenches.
When her father returned to Australia, he recounted the horrors of war and refused to allow his son and Ms Zimmerman’s brother, Sydney Kinsman, to enlist.
But when Mr Kinsman died aged 46, Sydney enlisted as a Rat of Tobruk while Ms Zimmerman – then working at an ice cream factory – and her husband, Albert ‘Alby’ Zimmerman, decided to join the military.
“It’s been lovely to see so many young people attending to remember the wonderful things and sacrifices that the older people made,” she said.
Primary and secondary students adorned the cemetery’s graves with poppies to commemorate those lost – a gesture Adelaide Cemeteries chief executive Michael Robertson said signified how the event brought together generations.

Adelaide Advertiser
12th November 2022



By: Agnes Gichuhi

THAI-Burma Railway survivor Keith Fowler has received an honourable gift for his 102nd birthday.
Fowler Lane at Somerton Park was named after Mr Fowler to commemorate his service in World War II and his time as a prisoner of war.
“I never thought anyone would do something like this for me,” he said.
“It was the biggest surprise and I feel honoured that my community thought I was worthy.”
As a treasured member of Scarborough Mews retirement village, the residents gave him a token of gratitude for his service and friendship,
Mr Fowler served in Syria and Java. He experienced the hell of being put to work on the Thai-Burma Railway for more than three years. Looking back he is grateful to be alive.
“I think about all my fellow veterans who are no longer here and I’m very proud of what we all achieved together,” he said.
His most life-changing experience happened when he returned to Australia and stumbled on medical documents while working for Department of Veterans Affairs that described him as an unhappy and troubled ex-serviceman.
“I decided that if someone else thought I could turn my life around, it was worth giving it a try. I’m so glad it did because it’s helped me to live a very happy life since then.” Mr Fowler said.
“I had to go through those experiences to make me who I am, now I just want to make other people happy.”

Adelaide Advertiser
5th November 2022


From Soldiers to Centenarians

By: Andrew Faulkner

They sailed to war together, became PoWs together and survived the Burma Railway together. This month, Jack Thomas and Keith Fowler will turn 100 together.

Reclining after fish and chips and a couple of beers, Jack Thomas and Keith Fowler reflect on their happy lot.

“You can’t beat a really cold beer,” Thomas says.

“We’ve had a pretty good day,” Fowler replies . “We’ve had a lot of pretty good days,” Thomas says.

“Actually, I might join up again,” Fowler says. “We’d do it all again mate,” his comrade replies.

Do all what again? Oh, wage fierce war in the Middle East and the Pacific, endure the Burma Railway with Weary Dunlop’s Thousand , and, as part of the greatest generation , build a new prosperity after the world’s bloodiest conflagration.

They are both about to turn 100. Thomas on Wednesday (November 4) and Fowler on November 19.

“It’s only in the last month or so that I’ve realised what a momentous moment it is,” Fowler says.

“When you go back and think about your life and all the things that have happened … well, I’m bloody glad I’ve done something that was worthwhile.”

After experiencing so much – and living so long – minor celebrity has been thrust upon men who acutely feel the responsibility of being two of the few left standing.

“Keith and I feel very fortunate to have grown old together,” Thomas says. “It really is a wonderful thing. It’s been a very interesting part of our lives. I like to think that I’ve been privileged to have been part of history . I was privileged to have served with some great heroes. I don’t look back at it as a bad time – it was an adventure.”

Thomas and Fowler share much more than camaraderie and a birth month. They were both grocer’s assistants when they enlisted in the same unit within days of each other in 1940. Their 2/3rd Machinegun Battalion was bivouacked at Wayville Showgrounds and commanded by the legendary Arthur Blackburn VC. Thomas and Fowler quickly learned the army was not all smart uniforms and glory and VCs.

Thomas was sent to the mess and spent his first day in the army stirring porridge. The meals were served in the poultry pavilion under a sign that read ‘Turkeys and Geese” . (“ Chook” Fowler was right at home. When told the special at the pub we visited for this interview was chicken, he screwed up his face and said: “I always feel like a bloody cannibal when I eat it.”)

They embarked for the Middle East in April 1941. Thomas’s recollection of their troopship steaming “on a millpond Red Sea towards a fiery sunset” is typical of a thoughtful and reflective man with a penchant for the sublime.

As the Diggers prepared for the Allied invasion of Syria, security was paramount. Australian sentries challenged strangers with: “Halt! Where is the kookaburra?” The password was Canberra. “Ask any Arab in the Middle East and they all knew the kookaburra was in Canberra,” Thomas says.

The five-week Syrian campaign was a rare Allied victory in the dark early days of the war. It was a costly triumph; 416 Diggers were killed and 1100 wounded. Including Fowler, who was hugging a comrade made insensible by shelling when he realised he also had a problem – he couldn’t see. He was admitted to hospital but mercifully the blindness was temporary.

Victory earned them a blissful respite garrisoning Syria and Lebanon; they toured ancient ruins, got drunk on Arak – a potent local spirit – and skied among Lebanon’s mountain cedars. Broken Hill-born Thomas saw his first snow after an overnight dusting of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains: “It was a benign time,” he says. “The Mediterranean lapping at our feet, the Biblical hills up behind us, and us in our little bivouacs.”

They knew it was a reprieve, not a release. In time they’d be pitched into the campaign to stop the Axis powers seizing the Suez Canal. Until Japan intervened, and the 2/3rd Machinegun Battalion steamed south-by-southeast to meet the Japanese thrust. As they steamed the troops were lectured about “myopic Japanese and their planes made of bamboo” . Their transport, the liner Orcades, was the fastest ship in the convoy, which was great for outrunning submarines, but the flip side was they were the first troops to arrive from the Middle East. The Orcades deposited Thomas and Fowler at Batavia and the Diggers readied for a last stand in central Java.

Fighting as infantry, because their machineguns had been loaded on a different ship and also because there was no infantry, the battalion performed brilliantly. A scratch Australian force of a few thousand troops held up the enemy for three days, making the invaders believe they faced 15,000 or more Australians. Outnumbered and without air cover or support, the doomed stand ended in their capitulation on March 9, 1942. Thomas and Fowler went into the bag with the rest of their lost legion … officially they were “missing” until confirmed as prisoners of war 15 months later.

The Australians had been beaten but remained unbowed. They mocked the Japanese by growing beards to parody their captors’ goatees. There were retaliatory beatings. So an Australian officer posted an order on the camp noticeboard: “Truculent, spadelike or revolutionary beards shall not be worn.”

In time, Thomas and Fowler were shipped to Changi in Singapore and then sent up the line to labour on the Burma Railway. “No fat, so salt, no sugar, no smokes, no beer, so soap,” says Thomas, but “lots of exercise” . Lots of malaria too, and dysentery. The dreaded cholera. And tropical ulcers that “smelt like death itself” .

Thomas found solace in nature. “It was a beautiful place. Siam sunsets and lovely birds on the river. Your soul could fly free.” Fellow captive Ray Parkin was also set free by nature’s wonder; wonder he portrayed in sketches of butterflies and lizards and flowers.

The celebrated artist and author also captured a prostrate Thomas wearing only a loin cloth, a bandage on his leg and a slouch hat tipped over his face. It is the final picture in Parkin’s seminal account of the Burma Railway, Into the Smother.

After the Railway, Thomas was shipped to Japan, an unimaginable 70-day ordeal on a Japanese rust-bucket . The Australians were then made to work in a coal mine sunk under the Inland Sea; their camp was roughly halfway between Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thomas and his mates were likely saved by the atomic bombs that razed both cities.

When it was over, the survivors assembled for photos, arranged in rows like footballers after a premiership. Thomas missed the moment – he was on a barracks roof, painting a huge “400” to alert the American pilots to their whereabouts and number. Soon the Americans dropped “44-gallon drums filled with chocolate and cigarettes and boots and flea powder” . He was evacuated to Okinawa, or as he described it, a “land of plenty”. One clement evening, after a dinner of turkey, apple pie and Coca-Cola , he lay on a blanket watching an outdoor movie. The soundtrack could not have been more apt – Don’t Fence Me In. “My cup was full,” he says.

When the war ended, Fowler was still in Thailand, cutting a rail tunnel through a mountain. His work gang included a couple of tough Western Australian miners, who one day refused to enter the shaft because the tunnel was “talking” . This sent the Japanese sergeant into a rage and had a naive Fowler asking: “How the hell can a tunnel talk?” It was miner-speak for creaking. The Japanese sergeant stormed into the shaft to prove it was safe, whereupon the tunnel collapsed, Fowler was spared, and the war was over.

The incident was the last of a string of lucky escapes, starting with Fowler being passed as medically unfit when he first tried to join up. “They said: ‘This man is not fit for overseas service.’ You’ve got to be kidding – I’m as fit as a wild Mallee bull.” He counted it as a blessing, for had he passed he would’ve been posted to the 2/10th infantry battalion, a unit that suffered high casualties in Tobruk and New Guinea.

Fate smiled again on the Railway. Debilitated by dysentery and starvation rations, Fowler wore what the men of the line called the “jungle stare” . “My whole system was breaking down.” But he had a guardian angel in Sergeant Red Sheedy. “I can’t remember ever meeting Red Sheedy before that day,” he says. “He said, ‘You follow me’ . He took me into the jungle and lit a fire.” Anyone who missed a work party was beaten at a minimum. But inexplicably there was no roll call on the day that Fowler rested in the jungle. Sheedy returned in the evening to guide him back to camp.

“Nobody knew that I wasn’t out on the line,” Fowler says. “It was the first bloody time that they didn’t have a count. Why me, out of a thousand men? I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since. I was blessed. Someone must have been watching over me given all the times I’ve been such a silly bastard.”

Both men have forgiven the Japanese. Both men receive a calendar every year from the Japanese embassy in Melbourne. Thomas has been helping a Japanese migrant improve his English: “When he came to see me it was such a joy,” Thomas says. “He is a very fine young man.” Both old Diggers have been to Japan as honoured guests accompanied by gaggles of nurses to care for them. Fowler likes to tell the story of Sascha the Japanese nurse: “She’d take your temperature every night. She came in this night and said ‘Oh Mr Fowler, your temperature’s up’ . I said, ‘Well don’t worry Sascha, it’ll soon go down when you leave’ .”

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