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Shearim, Keith Stanley (1922–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

One morning in August, 1945, Keith Shearim got up from the disturbed sleep of a prisoner-of-war to have ''pap'', a watery rice dish provided by his captors as breakfast, and to draw his daytime rations. Then it was a case of going off dressed in his loincloth for another day's work under the Japanese.

Having worked on the Thai-Burma railway, seeing others die, he did not know how long he would survive. Like all POWs, he took it one day at a time. But this day, when he got to work, something was different.

''Instead of getting our working tools, we were told, 'All men rest','' he said later. ''A short while later, we were told, 'All men get cup of tea'. Half-way through the morning, we were told, 'All men get on trucks'.''

As they drove back into the camp, the men noticed there were no guards there. Then it all became clear. Flying above the camp were the Australian, British and Dutch flags. The Allies had taken over, Japan had capitulated and the war was over.

But even then, the POWs were in for a rude shock. They had dug a trench around the camp on the instructions of the Japanese, who had told them it was to ''keep out the Thais''. In fact, the Japanese had been preparing for a mass execution and the trench was for a burial. The shooting, it was discovered from an examination of Japanese documents, would have been carried out in two days' time.

Keith Stanley Shearim was born in Randwick on July 22, 1922, the second son of a professional soldier, Warrant Officer 1st Class James Duguid Shearim, and Eleanor (nee Ford). He grew up in Lakemba, attended Wiley Park Public School and Belmore Technical College.

Aspiring to become a farmer, on leaving school, he went to work on a property at Wyong. After that, he worked on a dairy farm at Bellingen, where he met a farmer's daughter, Aileen Brown.

When war broke out, Shearim was anxious to follow his elder brother, Laurie, into the Australian Imperial Force. He enlisted in September 1941 and went to Singapore with the 2/19 Battalion, Eighth Division. His division was the first to face the Japanese. He was captured during the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and at the age of 19, began what was to be more than three years in prison.

He was assigned to the Thai-Burma railway and then sent to work on an aerodrome at Ubon on the Indochina and Thai border. ''I survived on rice sludge: always the same – breakfast, dinner and tea,'' he said later. ''It was always full of weevils and rat dung. The Japs certainly didn't know how to cook rice.''

At home, Shearim's parents had no news of what had happened to him. Dugan was still a serving soldier at Victoria Barracks and died of a heart attack in 1944 without ever knowing whether Keith had survived. One day, a card from Keith arrived at the family home, delivered via the Red Cross. Eleanor cried out: ''He's alive!''

Shearim returned to Sydney on November 1, 1945, his fellow soldiers holding a banner over the side of the ship saying: ''We want Gordon Bennett'', referring to the Australian general who had taken the opportunity to escape after the fall of Singapore. ''We wanted him to know that we supported him,'' Shearim said later. ''He did what he had to do.''

The troops were transported to Ingleburn by bus, which had a sign that read ''Returning POWs from Singapore''. ''People clapped and cheered as we passed,'' he said. ''Then when I got to my home, my whole house was strung with flags.''

Shearim and his three brothers, who all served with the AIF, celebrated their survival. Shearim did not talk much about his POW experiences. When asked years later, he said his survival was ''good luck, good officers, good non-commissioned officers and good luck''.

After demobilisation, Shearim worked for a time with the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board, then for the gas company AGL.

He reunited with Aileen Brown, married her and went to work on the Brown family's property. Later, to supplement his income, Shearim worked as a miner and as a school caretaker. The couple then retired to Urunga.

Keith Shearim is survived by children Peter, Anne, Susan and Christine and 13 grandchildren. Aileen died in 2000.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 2011

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Shearim, Keith Stanley (1922–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/shearim-keith-stanley-16726/text28622, accessed 24 August 2019.

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