While I can, I must

Former DVA employee Keith Fowler, who turned 102 in November, spent three gruelling years in Japanese captivity during the Second World War, a significant part of that time on the Burma–Thailand Railway. For anyone who wasn’t there, or somewhere like it, it’s very hard to imagine what he and the some 60,000 other Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and an estimated 200,000 Asian labourers went through.

Vetaffairs asked Keith what kept him going.

‘My fiancée,’ he said. ‘I just kept thinking of her. But also somehow I didn’t think I was going to die. You’ve got to remember that often you’re not thinking of anything. You’re so exhausted, so sick, so starved, that your brain stops operating. You get what we called a jungle stare.’

That he did survive, he puts down to providence. ‘Someone was watching over me, as there were so many times I should’ve been killed. I don’t know why [I was spared].’

Studio portrait photo of young man in Army uniform

On one occasion, he was so exhausted, his health so poor, that he was no longer able to work. An Australian medical officer came across him and at risk to himself, found somewhere where Keith could sleep for a few hours. On another, he nearly died from malaria as his temperature soared to 41.8°C. He was saved by the prisoners’ commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, who got him into a makeshift cold-water shower, which he’d recently persuaded the Japanese to let him build.

‘Weary Dunlop was a marvel,’ says Keith. ‘The way he stood up to the Japanese over and over, despite getting bashed. Major [Ewan] Corlette was the same. They worked well together. We were very lucky to have them.’

Another low point was when he seriously scalded his legs having tripped over carrying a bucket of tea. Keith got the sense that Weary Dunlop thought he wouldn’t survive. But almost miraculously he did.

In the past Keith has also reflected a gritty steadfastness embodied in his words, ‘While I can, I must.’ It’s why he does all he can to help out his neighbours at the Adelaide retirement home where he has lived independently for 15 years.

Keith was born in Adelaide on 19 November 1920. He left school at 14 and worked in a car factory, then later at a bakery and in a grocery store.

Keith enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in July 1940, having served in a civilian militia unit for several years. He was posted to the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, which was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Blackburn VC. Keith and the battalion were sent to the Middle East where in June 1941 they took part in the invasion of Syria and defeated the Vichy French after a month of heavy fighting.

Having remained in Syria as part of an occupation force, the battalion left for Australia on 1 February 1942. However, Keith’s troopship was diverted to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The 2/3rd was one of a small number of Australian, British and American units under (now Brigadier) Blackburn whose job it was to defend the capital Batavia (now Jakarta) from the oncoming Japanese. After only two days of fighting, they were ordered to surrender.

Of the 800 or so men in the battalion, 139 died in Japanese captivity. Keith is now the last survivor.

‘I think about all my fellow veterans who are no longer here and am very proud of what we all achieved together,’ he says. ‘War is a wicked waste of life and time.’

Keith was one of the lucky few liberated prisoners who was flown home. ‘I landed in Australia, kissed the ground and [felt] as though I’d only been away a fortnight.’

He went on to marry his fiancée Hazel, had two children and many grandchildren.

When asked how he feels about the Japanese, Keith says that after the war he ‘hated their guts’. But time has mellowed his view. About six years after the war, Keith experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘The whole episode of my POW life hit me like a storm,’ he says. ‘I had ten years of hell and I wasn’t a very nice person to be around.’

In a decision that was unusual for the time, he got psychotherapy. It took eight months and the experience was challenging but well worthwhile.

‘It changed my life,’ he says.  ‘And it put me in a position where I was able to help other blokes. I’m never unhappy now.’

It also had the effect that his view of the Japanese softened as he came to recognise that the Japanese military at the time was distinct from the Japanese people as a whole.

Portrait photo of elderly man

But the real change came in 2015 when a Japanese youth organisation invited him and other POWs to Japan. With the help of the RSL, Keith spent nine days going round the country meeting young people who treated him with great kindness and respect.

‘They were so beautiful to us,’ says Keith. ‘How could I hate a people like that?’

In the late 1940s, Keith joined DVA and stayed with the department for more than 30 years until his retirement. He describes it as the best years of his life, largely because of the people he worked with. He was for many years a medical clerk, which meant he processed medical treatment and pension applications.

Keith’s scalded legs still give him trouble 80 years later. But he can still walk and until a few months ago was still driving. Recently, the management of his retirement village named a lane after him.

‘I’m thinking of opening a toll booth,’ laughs Keith. ‘I never thought anyone would do something like this for me. It was the biggest surprise and I feel honoured that my community thought I was worthy.’

Keith has been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the veteran community and for his work with disadvantaged young people. One of the messages he tries to get across to these kids is: ‘Find a way to love yourself’.

‘I don’t consider myself a special person,’ he says. ‘I’m an ordinary bloke and I’ve had a wonderful life. I wake up in the morning and I say, “Are you breathing? Yes. Another good day”.’

Watch a video interview with Keith on the Anzac Portal. 

A hundred or so Australian soldiers working on track next to cutting

Photo caption: Allied prisoners of war laying track on the Burma–Thailand Railway, at Ronsi, Burma