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Thomas, Robert Reginald (1903–1989)

by Gordon Dickens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Robert Reginald Thomas (1903-1989), soldier, was born on 22 November 1903 at Charters Towers, Queensland, fourth of six surviving children of William Edwin Thomas, miner, and his wife Florence, née Wellington, both born in Cornwall, England. Educated at Queenton State School and Charters Towers Technical College, Reg moved to Townsville, where he worked as a storeman and packer. He also trained racehorses. His eldest brother William, known as ‘Skinny’ Thomas, was a notable jockey. On 9 July 1927 Reg married Alice Josephine Moran (d.1944) at the Anglican Cathedral Church of St James, Townsville. Revealing an alert and active mind, in 1934 he invented and patented an improved nut lock.

On 27 March 1941 Thomas enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He embarked for the Middle East in June and joined the 2/9th Battalion in September. The unit carried out garrison duty in Syria before returning to Australia in March 1942 and moving to Papua in August. Thomas fought at Milne Bay next month in the battle that saw the Japanese suffer their first land defeat in World War II.

As an acting corporal and a section leader in No.17 Platoon, Thomas then took part in the campaign to clear the Japanese from the northern beaches of Papua. On 18 December 1942 at Cape Endaiadere, his section ‘was hotly engaged from a post’, the defenders of which were firing a captured Bren gun. Without regard for his own safety, Thomas rushed the enemy. An exploding grenade wounded him but, ‘blood pouring from his face, he plunged on’ and killed two enemy soldiers with his Thompson submachine-gun. Grasping the Bren by its muzzle, which was protruding from the post’s firing slit, he wrenched it from its operator and then killed the remaining Japanese. In spite of his wound, he fought on for two days before being ordered from the field by his platoon commander. He was promoted to acting sergeant on 4 January 1943 and at Sanananda, six days later, was again wounded in action. For his conspicuous gallantry and leadership he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Thomas was required for training duties in Port Moresby while his battalion campaigned in New Guinea in 1944. Back in Queensland, he was discharged from the AIF on 3 May 1945 as a substantive sergeant. He purchased and drove a taxi in Townsville and later worked as a foreman, laying concrete for runways at the Royal Australian Air Force Base, Garbutt. Although considered something of a loner by his family, he enjoyed spending time with friends at the Royal Oak and Lowth’s hotels. His elder brother Walter was one of thirteen civilian employees of the RAAF who died in 1948 after a truck plummeted into the Burdekin River near Charters Towers. On 28 November 1949 at Townsville Reg married, with Presbyterian forms, Gladys Alma May Kellner, née Barnes. The couple moved to Brisbane in the mid-1980s. Predeceased by his wife, Thomas died, childless, on 15 June 1989 at Logan and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (1959)
  • G. Dickens, Never Late: The 2/9th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939-1945 (2005)
  • A627, item 20125/1934, and B833, item QX11632 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Gordon Dickens, 'Thomas, Robert Reginald (1903–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-robert-reginald-15667/text26863, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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