A Very Special Thank You

Gayndah. Robinson. POW photo

“Glen Olive” Gayndah: Robinsons and Italian POWs

 Ruby Robinson (at back)  and  Olive Munro (Robinson) (in front)

Who is Who? Antonio Colomba, Antonio Alfarano or Giuseppe Vergine

(from the Collection of Avis Hildreth)

“Glen Olive” and “Glen Ellen” in Gayndah were farmed by father and son Francis Charles Robinson and Francis William Robinson who employed Italian prisoners of War to help work their citrus orchards.  Five young Italians, all in their early 20s and from farming backgrounds, arrived at the Robinson’s property on 8 July 1944: Domenico Petruzzi, Nicola Micali, Antonio Colomba, Antonio Alfarano and Giuseppe Vergine.

Avis Hildreth granddaughter of Frank Senior relates with fondness family memories of Domenico Petruzzi: “My late mother, Ruby Robinson, remembered him as being very young.  He was well regarded by the Robinson family and according to family accounts, he did not want to return to Italy when the war ended… Domenico gave some needlework to my late mother.  It is an arrangement of Australian wildflowers. My mother gave it to my sister”.

Gayndah Tapestry (2)

Domenico Petruzzi’s Gift to Robinson Family

(from the Collection of Colleen Lindley)

Colleen Lindley, granddaughter of Frank Robinson Senior, is now the custodian of this special gift and her mother also entrusted her with its story. She says, “I only tell you the history of this piece as I was told by my Mother. My Mother had this needle work sent out to her by mail order. She intended to do the needle work herself.  Domenico asked her if she had any needle work that he could do to fill in the time of a night.  My Mother decided to give it to Domenico as a gift, never thinking that in time, it would become his thank you and farewell gift to her.   It was to be a cushion cover, but I was not willing to use it this way as I felt that it should be preserved. Mum had kept it wrapped up in a cloth with her linen until the day that she gave it to me.  The lettering at the bottom was Domenico’s doing.  He had put the lettering on the bottom and told her what the letters stood for: Remember Domenico Petruzzi Prisoner of War”.

 Before Domenico left the Gayndah orchard, Mr Robinson had discussed with him the possibility of sponsorship so that he could return to Australia.  The Robinson family could not locate or contact Domenico in Italy and letters sent to him possibly did not find him.

Over the years, family members thought often about Domenico.  An ABC documentary in the early 2000s reignited Ruby Robinson’s interest in finding Domenico and so daughter Colleen took up the challenge.  She contacted local historical societies and the Australian War Memorial but there were no answers nor leads.

There were many complications in the search: AWM requested a Prisoner of War Number; Ruby Robinson had never seen Domenico’s name written down so spelt it as she remembered it: Dominico Pertruse; and even if the family found his record, his home town was written as Nizzanello Lecce rather than Lizzanello Lecce.  Such are the many brick walls that Queenslanders have hit when trying to locate information on their Italian POWs.

Domenico Petruzzi’s gift is an enduring memory of his time working on a citrus orchard outside of Gayndah.  It is beautifully crafted and a treasured memento from the time Italian prisoners of war worked on Queensland farms.

More importantly, Domenico has had his wish come true.  His story had been embroidered into his gift and the sentiments of the words have ensured that he has not been forgotten.  Domenico Petruzzi’s Australia family will continue to remember him as this gift is passed down through the generations.

 

It started with George

This story started with George aka Giovanni Ragusa, Italian Prisoner of War on Eric Behrendorff’s farm outside of Boonah.  At 94 years old Eric had clear memories of George that he shared with me for this project.  In 1944, Eric was  a young farmer of 22 years while George, slightly older at 32 years was also a farmer from Calascibetta on the island of Sicily.

Giovanni Ragusa

Giovanna Ragusa aka “George”

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Fast forward 72 years and the story entitled His Name was George has connected Australians and Italians once again.  Antonio Ragusa, son of Giovanni has shared this father’s memories as a thank you to the Behrendorff family.  Antonio writes, “Dad never spoke of his imprisonment.  We knew he had been captured in North Africa and then sent to India and finally to Australia.  He worked in what he called ‘British labour camps’.  He learnt a little English and also to  strum the guitar.  He never played the guitar at home, but every so often he would say an English word.  We understood that he had a great nostalgia for Australia and the children.  Dad returned to Calascibetta and to his life as a farmer.  He married my mum in 1953 and then my brother and I were born.  In the mid 1960’s we moved to northern Italy where dad worked as a labourer until retirement.  He died in 1999, a month and a half after my mum died.  He had just turned 87 years.  In his personal papers, he have a small number of photos taken at the time he was working on a farm.  We did not know who the people were in the photo but we knew that that dad had a special connection to this family”.

Giovanni Ragusa Italy

Giovanni Ragusa

(photo courtesy of Antonio Ragusa)

After 72 years, Antonio Ragusa now knows the names of the people in the photos, thanks to Eric Behrendorff’s son David.  Antonio also now has details about his father’s movements between North Africa and Italy.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

The Behrendorff Extended Family

George, John and Mary Schultz, Winifred, Bruce Abbot (boy in shorts) Nell Behrendorff (lady in hat), Phyllis, Eric Behrendorff (man in hat with tie) Rose and David Wieland (Eric’s parents in law)  Taken in John Street Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Antonio says, “Grazie a te, mi hai fatto conoscere ancora meglio mio padre… thanks to you, I know my father better”.  Once upon a time language was an insurmountable barrier, but translation programs has aided the Ragusa and Behrendorff families  to communicate and exchange stories and memories of a time when an Italian POW nicknamed George worked on the farm of Eric Behrendorff.

Eric and Joanne.jpeg

Eric Behrendorff and Joanne Tapiolas October 2017

In October 2017, I had the pleasure of spending time with Eric. Eric spoke with melancholy of those war time years.  A time when you were scorned because you had a German surname, a time when you had charcoal burners fitted to your trucks to ‘power’ them and a time when ‘George’ was brought to a farm out Boonah way.

Eric said that sometime after George left the farm, he planted an avenue of olive trees.  Maybe George had  told him they would grow well or maybe they were a gentle reminder of a time when Italian prisoners of war worked on Queensland farms.

Serendipity – Photos of Nonno

Expect the unexpected

The Australian War Memorial has an extensive collection of photos featuring Italian prisoners of war. They show the men at work in camp workshops, in the fields and at sport.  There are also group photos which the Italians were allowed to purchase to send home to families.  But there are some complications with searches which I include below.

3915943 Murchison Sport

Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in C Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Shown here are: 65915 F. Pieri; 65987 C. Rossi; 65209 G. Baffa; 65710 V. La Rocca; 65370 F. Carone; 65230 E. Baruzzi; 65197 A. Armeni; 65237 F. Battisti; 65300 L. Bruno; 65602 G. Furioli; 65398 S. Cavillin; 65864 A. Pacini. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030231/14 Photographer: Ronald Leslie Stewart)

Sometimes you get Lucky

I was searching the Murchison group photos for random photos of silver rings. Silver rings are another story but as I was looking through the photos I found a face I knew.  What are the chances!  This photo did not list the names of the men.  But I was sure I knew him. I had been introduced to Liborio Bonadonna in 2017 by his grandson Liborio Mauro. And I was pretty sure the man seated at the far right was Nonno Liborio.

Bonadonna maybe

Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. (AWM Image 030229/10 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)

I have been introduced to a number of Italian prisoners of war over the last three years and I know that sometimes, one man will appear in two or three photos, taken on the same day. And I know several of the men below.  Another story.

Buonadonna

Description Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 64837 A. Porcaro; 49904 S. Russo; 57220 G. Fino; Unidentified; 45531 V. Di Pietro; 61074 G. De Luca. Front row: 45685 B. Fiorentino; Unidentified; 46171 G. Massaro (holding a piano accordion); 46603 V. Massaro; 55168 L. Buonadonne. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. Photo documentation suggests that names are listed, back row, front row, left to right. (AWM 020229/02 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)

Taken seven photos apart, Liboria Bonadonna is seated far right in both photos.  In 549 he is wearing casual clothes but in 557 he is wearing his uniform.  As his name was spelt incorrectly in 549, the photo was found with a search of his number 55168.
Alessandra’s Diligence Paid Off
Alessandra Nicoletti is researching her grandfather’s journey as a prisoner of war: Ermanno Nicoletti.  A search revealed this photo from Hay PW Camp.  Note the words: In this photo are known to be…
Nonno Ermanno is standing first left. And Alessandra also found the face of Agostino Marazzi a family friend.

 

AWM 3880406 Ermanno Nicoletti first left standing (1)

Hay, NSW. 9 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 6 POW Group. In this group are known to be: 45513 Francesco Del Viscio; 46331 Ermanno Nicoletti; 45852 Italo Gramiccia; 46320 Natale Nunziati; 46207 Valerio Mezzani 45498 Giovanni Di Pinto; 45496 Giuseppe Di Pilla; 46199 Agostino Marazzi; 46511 Alfonso Patrizi and 48922 Sergio Galazzi. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030143/26 Photographer Lewecki)

I am not sure  how many photos Alessandra looked at, but she then found Nonno Ermanno is this photo.  He is seated to the left of the man with the piano accordian.  He is holding a guitar. And at that stage in her search, she did not know he performed in operas and plays in the camp.

7278801

Hay, NSW. 9 September 1943. A large group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 6 POW Group. Some of the men are holding musical instruments. (AWM Image 030145/33 Photographer Lewecki)

 

Serendipity… Chance… Fluke…Fate

Many times in this research, things happen randomly. I often tell people “your nonno tapped you on the shoulder and helped you with your search” or ” your nonno made you find this research” as so many outcomes have been totally random. Unfortunately for some families, their questions are still left unanswered.

There is also a randomness in which army documents are archived. Why do WA Italian prisoners of war have a comprehensive and additional folio of documents while Queensland Italian POWs do not?  Often, we have to be satisfied that one knows more now than they did when a particular search began.

Some of the Hurdles

You can search by name or by prisoner of war number but sometimes the names are mispelt or numbers incorrect by a digit.

As well, while the Hay PW Camp photos give the names for the men in the group photos, the position of men is not known.

Additionally, many of the group photos are without names.  So if you are looking for someone, and their name does not come up with a search, you might have to check every photo.  To reduce the number of photos to search, do a check of the dates on the Service Card with the dates of the group photos.

Unfortunately,  Italian prisoners of war coming to Australia in 1944 and 1945 missed the group photo sessions in Hay and Cowra, so unless they spent time in Murchison in 1945, there might not be a photographic record for them.

Cowra Group Photos 16th September 1943 and 6th February 1944

Hay Group Photos 9th September 1943.

Murchison Group Photos 2nd May 1944 and 2nd and 4th March 1945.

Marrinup Group Photos 29th July 1944.

 

 

Gentilissima Signorina Irma

A trainee nurse, Irma Vettovalli was working at the Ayr General Hospital during 1944 and 1945 when Italian prisoners of war from Q6 Home Hill Hostel were admitted to the hospital. While the military rule was that Italian prisoners of war were not to fraternise with women, Irma was not about to let military regulations get in the way of her nursing duties.

Pane Irma.jpeg

Trainee Nurse: Irma Vettovalli

(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)

Agostino Leto was admitted to the hospital for chronic appendicitis 29th May 1944.  The story goes that the senior doctor at the hospital refused to operate on a prisoner of war, but the junior doctor, Dr Kelly had no hesitation in acting according to the ethical obligations of his profession.

Once he was admitted to the ward, Irma Vettovalli, realising Agostino had little English, went out of her way to speak with this patient. The Matron ordered Irma to cease her contact with this prisoner and under no circumstance was she to talk to or nurse Agostino again.  A plucky 18-year-old, Irma offered her resignation to Dr Kelly, without reason.  Upon questioning Irma, Dr Kelly identified the issue and told Irma to continue as before.

Agostino spent one month at the Ayr Hospital before returning to Q6 Hostel on 29th June 1944  but he did not return home to Prizzi Italy until January 1947. Upon his return to Italy, his recount of his one month hospital stay to his mother, prompted her to write a letter to Irma. Irma’s care and ability to speak Italian, was remembered and retold with great affection and appreciation by Agostino.

Prizzi 20 February 1947

Gentilissima Signorina Irma,

…As a mum it softened by heart and I feel an ache in which I must thank you through this sheet of paper.  I hope you accept my poor letter writing… [my son] says that yours [your visits] as a nurse were special.  He found you and only you will remain in my heart and you will be unforgettable to my dear son.  I wish that I could see you in person so I can tell you all that my poor heart feels, that I cannot put on paper.

And so my most gracious Miss, this is a small token of my esteem and from all my family to pass on to your dear ones.  I wish you good fortune and every kind of good.  Consider me your unknown friend. Rosa Leto.”

Pane, Irma Envelope

 

Mail from Rosa Leto to Irma Vettovalli

(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)

Held in high regard, Dr Kelly, the medical superintendent wrote in December 1945, “she [Irma] gave eminent satisfaction, on account of her obedience, application to duty and intelligence.”

In 1992, Irma Vettovalli (now Mrs Irma Pane) received an award from the Alpini and Friends Group “expressing their profound gratitude for Irma’s ‘Noble gesture of Human Dedication for Italian Prisoners of War recuperating in hospital during the war period’.”

Irma wrote about those times, “Because of my dedication to Nursing in Ayr, I came in contact with people from all walks of life, colour and creed and having had respect and compassion for all during their illness, I too gained their respect.  Re- the war years, on some occasions only the ignorant would make hurtful remarks…”

Those war years were complicated years for Irma’s family.  Enrico Vettovalli, Irma’s father, was interned in February 1942 and sent to Gaythorne for processing and then to Loveday Internment Camp.  He was a naturalised British Subject and had been resident in Australia since March 1922.  Enrico was interned until May 1943 when he was released to work for Manpower SA.  In November 1943, he returned to Queensland.

Adding to the complexity of war, Irma’s brother Donato had in January 1942, been called to duty in the Australian Army. He was released for discharge in May 1945. Born in Italy, he was three years old when he migrated to Australia with his mother 1924.

Agostino Leto is seated first on the left.

 

Leto 3

Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49115 C. Trentino; 49354 G. Ippolito; 49592 A. Poggi; 49107 G. Zunino; 48833 R. Bartoli; 49212 R. Papini; 48863 S. De Micco.

Front row: 48939 A. LETO; 49172 A. Mandrini; 57531 B. Protano; 49923 F. Carlone; 45196 A. Ciofani. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (Australian War Memorial Image 030173/11)

 

 

 

Why?

Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Book Launch Joanne - Copy

Joanne Tapiolas – Accidental Historian

(photo courtesy of Michele Sinclair)

My research started with the Italian prisoners of war growing vegetables up river Home Hill.  As a Burdekin local, I had heard stories about these Italians who had come from North Africa after being captured.  Memories of the locals of the time are sketchy, ‘we knew about them’ ‘ we knew they were there but not much else’ ‘one didn’t talk about those things back then’.  In my mind, there must have been a barbed wire enclosure housing 20 – 30 Italian POWs to grow vegetables.

A puzzle for my young 10 year old self was the image of the map in my school Atlas.  North Africa was a long long way from Home Hill in northern Queensland. Questions beginning with WHY and HOW and WHAT stayed in my memory bank.  Not too much of this made sense.

Map of World

When I found the time to do some research, I consulted an excellent publication on the Burdekin history : Black Snow and Liquid Gold by John Kerr.  A section covering the years of the war provided me with the background and details.  I found the names of two Italian POWs who twice escaped the hostel BUT I became frustrated because in an editing error, the names of these men were printed incorrectly.  They are named as Pietro Di Vincenzo and Landolfi Pasquale.  Their names are Vincenzo DI PIETRO and Pasquale LANDOLFI.  The other Italians mentioned have their names correctly ordered.

My dad was as amazed as myself at the records I began to uncover. The research told a story of 250 Italian POWs who lived in barracks and grew vegetables for the armed forces in North Queensland. Now Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill not only had a history but also a context.  It was one of 10 prisoner of war control centres in Queensland and it operated as part of the Commonwealth Department of Commerce and Agriculture’s Vegetable Project : Home Hill and Ayr.

I became quite attached to MY Home Hill POWs especially when I could put a face to a name.  I left a copy of my research with the local historical society hoping that one day, the children or grandchildren of a Home Hill POW would pass through Home Hill looking for some information.  At least the list of POW names attached would verify that their father or grandfather had been at the hostel up river Home Hill.

I put aside other documents I found about the other nine centres in Queensland, just in case.  I felt that if the Burdekin locals had little knowledge about the Home Hill POW hostel, then did people in the other nine districts know about their POW history.

Curiosity got the better of me and so I began digging for information.  I found little bits of information BUT I was frustrated because the information in the public domain was scarce and incomplete.  The only photographic evidence of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland is three photos taken at Calico Creek.  They are housed in the John Oxley Library. Other records mention only six centres and there is no reference to the differences between a control centre: without guard and a hostel. Once such reference is: Prisoner-of-war control depots were established at Stanthorpe, Home Hill, Gympie, Nambour, Gayndah and Texas.(Fortress Queensland 1942-1945)

I believed that the history of Italian prisoner of war in Queensland needed to be more comprehensive,  contain various perspectives,  and include those who had a memory of the Italians an understanding of the context surrounding the placement of these men on the family farm.

It became obvious that this history was not found in the books of the libraries.  This history is found in the memories of Queensland locals and Italian families. Letters to editors, newspaper articles, letters to historical societies, Facebook posts, cold call letters, website development, oral history interviews, face to face interviews and radio interviews.

Slowly but surely, Queenslanders and Italians have helped write this history.

And just as I had hoped, the son of a Home Hill POW did come looking for the footsteps of this father.  Francesco (Ciccio) Cipolla was at the Q6 PWCH Home Hill from April 1944 to November 1945.  His son, Nino, on previous trips to Australia had visited the PW & I Camps at Hay and Cowra but the notation Q6 Home Hill had remained a mystery.  On a holiday to Melbourne in 2017, Nino searched yet again for some reference to this Q6 Home Hill. Nino found my research and Stepping Back in Time, Ciccio’s son was able to understand better his father’s time growing vegetables for supply to the armed forces in the north.

2017 Q6 36

Nino Cipolla Home Hill Railway Station April 2017

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

And back to the answer to the question: Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Because it hadn’t been done… because if it wasn’t done now, the stories would be lost to time…because it needed to be done…Because it is a valuable part of Queensland history and this history should have a voice.

The rest they say is “HISTORY” and on these pages is this history.

Walking in their boots JPEG

A Farm Diary

A voice down the phone line said, “I think you will be surprised with what I have.  I don’t think you will find another like it.”

Many thoughts flashed through my mind but I was not prepared for this treasure:

A Farm Diary

Neil Buchanan managed and ran Redslopes at Goomboorian via Gympie as part of a partnership between himself and three brothers.   Every day he wrote in the Redslopes diary.  He wrote about workers coming and going, about the weather, machinery breakdown, visitors to the farm, important milestones during the war AND he wrote about the four Italian prisoners of war who came to Redslopes to work the farm.

Redslopes Diary 2

Jim Buchanan was the voice at the other end of the phone and I am sure he could hear my excitement at being offered the opportunity to read this unique primary source.

Generalisations about this history were replaced with specifics.  No longer did the Italians undertake farm work, the diary revealed exactly what type of farm work they did.  No longer did the Italians rarely go into town except for church, the Italians at Redslopes took produce into town with their boss and they went to the barber for their monthly haircuts.

Jim and I talked at length about farming during World War 2.  They were different times:  when wooden crates for the produce were made on site and stamped, when spare parts for farm machinery were scarce, when horses were used to plough the fields and when farming was labour intensive.

There are few statements about the importance and value of the POW workforce. But finally, it was there… in the diary:

Dec 31 1945 Last day of old year.  Four men for half a day.  POW then finish up, much to sorrow of Boss.  Had final talk with Ities at night.

Jan 1 1946 New Year’s Day but a sad day at Redslopes.  Took the three POW to town and said goodbye. Farm is now badly understaffed with no prospects of further employees.

The Redslopes diary is rarely personal.  But while these final two entries might be brief, the words reveal how important the POW workforce was to the farmer.

Redslopes Diary 2.jpeg

 

 

War time is a busy time.  War time is a complicated time.  War time is often a time of irony.  Our young Australian workforce had joined the services leaving our agricultural industries severely understaffed.  Feeding a nation was paramount for both domestic and service requirements.

The Italian prisoners of war not only provided a much needed agricultural workforce but these men helped feed a nation and enabled farmers to be economically viable and sustainable.

Made by his Hands

Made by his Hands

Antonio Arici was sent to Mukinbudin WA to work on the farm of  Norman Maddock.

A wooden box made by Antonio was too heavy for him to take home to Italy.  Or maybe he left it behind because the POWs had been issued instructions as to how much luggage they could take with them.  It is still lined with remnants of magazine pictures he decorated the inside of the box with.

Antonio's Wooden Box WA Open

It has been kept in the Maddock family for over seven decades. Bert Maddock who was a teenager at the time assumes that it was made from demolition timber sort from unoccupied houses in the area.  These houses were purchased by his father, dismantled and the timber used to construct a new home for the Maddock family.

Made from Jarrah timber,  the tongue and groove sections used by Antonio would have been walls of the derelict houses and possibly there were sections not used to build the new house.

Read more about the Maddock and Arici families: Antonio’s journey 

Antonio's Wooden Box WA closed