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15.7.42 to 9.7.18
It was on Ian’s Warrill View farm that I felt closest to this history. Ian walked me back to 1944 and introduced me to his playmates: Francesco Pintabona, Salvatore Mensile, Vincenzo Nocca, Domenico Masciulli.
Through Ian, I could see Ian as a toddler sitting on Frankie’s shoulder, I could hear the Italians singing to the strumming of a mandolin, I caught a glimpse of Domenico walking through the paddocks from Cyril Rackley’s farm and I could feel the emotion and nostalgia of those days.
I met Ian in July 2017 after many phone calls and discussions about this history. We continued our conversations, as Ian honestly understood my passion for this history and the importance of recording it. With his dry sense of humour and gravely voice, Ian taught me much about life and family.
Ian was taken too soon from his family.
My sincere condolences to Carmel and family.
*** I have reposted this story, in memory of Ian Harsant***
The emotionally moving story of Frank and Ian is a special story of a friendship between an Italian POW and an Aussie toddler that spans over seven decades.
Ian Harsant’s life-long friendship with Francesco Pintabona, an Italian POW stationed at Boonah is a beautiful story of a little boy’s memory of his Italian friend and his search to find him in the post war chaos. Letters were exchanged but rarely received and contact was lost. By the time Harsant found any news of Pintabona, he had passed away 20 years previous.
Francesco Pintabona of Taviano, Lecce was captured in Bardia. He came to the Harsant farm, Warrill View Boonah 4th August 1944. Records indicate that he was evacuated to 67 ACH 8th December 1945 and then moved to Gaythorne 27 December 1945, which is probably the reason why Harsant has no memory of saying ‘goodbye’ to his friend.
Ian Harsant as a toddler called him Hank, short for Frank and many childhood photos are of Frank and Ian. Photos taken by Ian’s mother capture memories of a day’s work on a farm and a lifelong bond. Frank and Ian’s friendship was special as Di Morris wrote: “Little careful acts were noticed, like putting his (Frank) own handkerchief over the boy’s face when the flies were bad. Once he even rushed him back to the farmhouse for a nappy change when it became obvious he had soiled his pants…There was another language they shared; the language of lollies, cordial and biscuits which Frank obtained with his little friend in mind when he patronised the visiting truck from Boonah with his small POW wage”. (Morris, 2015)
Ian reflects that the Italians were non-Fascist, fit and healthy. Not one to wax lyrically, Ian recalls an incident between his dad and Santo Murano, who had been transferred from Frank Sweeney’s farm to Warrill View. Roderick Harsant was a firmer boss than Sweeney. The incident involved a lot of shouting and a threatening lifting of a shovel toward the farmer. Mr Collins, the officer in charge of the Boonah centre was called. On Santo’s record in June 1945, is the awarding of 28 days detention: conduct prejudicial to good order, no doubt for this incident. There were other Italians who worked on the farm but they were a good mob. Domenico Masciulli was billeted with Ian’s uncle Cecil Rackley but then went to Warril View when Rackley died toward the end of 1945. Salvatore Mensile and Vincenzo Nocca worked for Wallace Roderick another relative who lived a couple of mile away and either visited Frank or also worked on the Harsant farm.
Memories of music are paired with this time in Ian’s life. The Italians were musical. Domenico had a mandolin and Sundays, their day of rest, was the time you would hear them singing and the mandolin being played. Sunday was the day the Italians from the farms around would get together.
Ian Harsant’s journey to find Frank, culminated in being in contact with Fausto Pintabona, a relative of Frank. Fausto summed up Ian and Frank’s friendship as ‘a beautiful lesson in life’.
Watch the video to hear more about Ian and Frank.
Written and produced by Billy Jack Harsant
Luigi Pinna from Cagliari Sardinia is on a mission. Luigi wrote “Buongiorno, scrivo dalla Sardegna. Mio padre nato il 19 aprile 1915 San Giovanni Suergiu prov. Cagliari. io non ho molte notizie, so che era prigioniero in India poi trasferito in Australia, mi piacerebbe sapere della sua vita di prigionierro militare.” With a handful of photos, Luigi wanted to trace his father’s journey as a prisoner of war in Australia.*
Luigi explains a little about his father’s military service: “In 1935 he was a soldier until his discharge in 1937. In 1939, he was recalled to arms, embarked and left for East Africa and assigned to the Autonomous Detachment Autocentro in Gondar. This picture [below] is dated October 23, 1940, my father is the first on the left.”
Antioco’s Australian Service and Casualty Form, fills in some of the missing details. He was captured at Uolchefit 22nd September 1941 which is to the north east of Gondar. Before his arrival in Australia, Antioco was a prisoner of war in India from 1941 – 1944.
Luigi now knows his father better, with thanks to the army officials who kept these records.
Antioco was allocated on paper to S13 Mt Gambier-Penola-Mt Burr. His assignment was to the Mt Burr forestry sub-camp and hostel. He had been part of the first group to set up this hostel and Vincent Healy, a forestry worker at Mt Burr said, “… and anyhow the army had a whole heap of Italian Prisoners of War from the Middle East who had been in India and they’d, when the Japs looked like taking over India, they stuck them all on a boat and sent them out to Australian and landed… landed them, so we got landed with a camp full of those. But er … they didn’t cut any wood at all, oh they’d cut a few hundredweight that’s all they’d cut a few hundredweight a day and then knock off, it was too hot. It was run by the army, I had no authority over that, that was an army camp. It was our camp and we were to get the wood but er… we got very little wood out of them. See the first week they were there, they put them in this camp and I went out to see the bloke in charge of the camp and I said, “When are we going to get some wood?” he said, “When we get the camp ready,” He had these blokes all painting white stones to make nice pathways round the camp and all this sort of business.” from Vincent M. (Vin) Healy J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection State Library of South Australia
But this memory does not apply to Antioco. Basil Buttery, Captain of S13 Hostel wrote: “An excellent worker and a steadying influence and leader of other P.W… This P.W. is needed again in this hostel on completion of [dental] treatment. His return is requested… Excellent type. Desirous of remaining in Australia.”
Luigi says, “I never heard my father say he wanted to go back to Australia. He was too many years away from his family and had great nostalgia for his land and his friends.” But Antioco’s photos of local residents indicates that the hospitality of locals and the respect he gained from Aussie workers left an impression on him. While Luigi understands more about his father’s time in Australia, he would like to know something more about the people in these photos.
Another record in the National Archives highlights that Antioco had an exceptionally good character, was an excellent worker who was industrious and ‘by far the best type in S13 hostel’. Possibly AE Warren from Millicent worked with Antioco in forestry or Antioco worked on the Warren’s farm. With every question answered, there is another question left unanswered.
“My father returned to Italy and he has always been a farmer. He worked the vineyard and made wine and also produced tomatoes, aubergines, watermelons and melons. On 25th April 1950 he married my mother GiacominaTrincas,” reflects Luigi. Antioco died of a heart attack in 1976. He was 61 years of age.
Click on the link to read more: Journey of Antioco Pinna
*All prisoners of war have two files available for viewing online at the National Archives of Australia. The documents contain valuable information about movement, places and basic personal details.
Some states of Australia eg Western Australia and South Australia have additional archived documents. The stumbling block for Italians doing research is the process of obtaining copies. It is easy if you read English, but extremely difficult and confusing if Italian is your only language. Following the guides linked in Finding Nonno: Finding Nonno and How to Order NAA Luigi has unlocked a file containing information about his father.
Fletcher Italian Prisoners of War
The orchards on the east side of the New England Highway at Fletcher are a distant memory. During the 1940’s the Horan’s Gorge Road was bordered by prosperous orchards owned by William Laird, Sydney Dent, John Barker and Henry Stanton. It was also a time when due to labour shortages, orchardists employed Italian prisoners of war.
Long gone, Shirley Stanton remembers clearly the crops grown by her father Henry Stanton. Her dad had almond trees growing as the bees were attracted to the blooms. These flowered first, attracting the bees which were needed to pollinate the fruit crops: quinces, nectarines, apples, apricots, plums and pears.
Shirley’s memories of those times are through the eyes of a four-year-old. To her, the Italians didn’t appear to belong to any one farm as there was movement between farms. Possibly during hectic harvests, the Fletcher workforce was fluid with Italians working on neighbours’ farms. The Stanton farm was the place for the POWs to congregate on a summer’s Saturday night to socialise and play cards. There was no harm done breaking the army’s rule that POWs from one farm were not to congregate with POWs from other farms as this isolated corner of the Granite Belt was away from prying eyes.
“Barney and Sav are the two men I remember with fondness. But I don’t know what their proper names were. Their accommodation was made with VJ walls. To keep the cold out, they lined the room with newspapers. At eye level, there was a border of comic strips like Ginger Megs. This was memorable, as was the washing area they made down at the creek. They dammed the creek with concrete to form a washing/swimming area. They also grew vegetables on a plot down near the creek and they carted water from this pool to their garden. I don’t remember any trouble. They came to our farm to play cards and would walk home before midnight. Mum must have told me this as I am sure I was fast asleep,” Shirley reminisces.
The Italians made an impact. Children learn new languages easily and Shirley, her twin brother Alan and older brother Peter, took to the Italian language. “My mother was horrified when Alan and I were reported for swearing. Once we were overheard saying ‘Basto, basto’. Basto means enough in Italian but a neighbour thought we were saying bastard, bastard. The misunderstanding was soon sorted out. Peter went to school speaking Italian, and the teacher made it clear to mum that he had to stop Italian and only use English. Off the top of my head I can remember ‘cavalli’ for horses,” Shirley recalls.
Other memories of those days are of the three pence chocolate the Italians would buy for the children, the army captain who would come out, very serious looking with a black and red hat and a stick under his arm and the rollies. Shirley says that the rollies were the best: pasta that were rolled into spirals filled with mince, fried and then served with a tomato sauce.
But the most poignant memory for Shirley is having to say goodbye to the Italians. “I was four years old and we took them to Applethorpe. Mum told me to say goodbye because they weren’t coming back home. They were like family. Mum was crying, I was crying,” remembers Shirley.
Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 45603 V. Esposito; 45011 S. Amato; 57534 G. Quintiliano; 45953 G. Lo Russo; 45930 V. Landriscina; 57254 C. Giannini; 49877 L. Miele. Front row: 57521 A. Vezzola; 46282 A. Merante; 45155 M. Coppola; 46863 V. Termine; 49732 S. Piccolo. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (Australian War Memorial, Image 030173/14, Photographer: Geoffrey McInnes)
Fletcher Italian Prisoners of War
Pietro Sorvillo from Striano Napoli (R Dent)
Luigi Gesualdi from Panne Foggia (SH Dent)
Giovanni Di Pasquale from Vietri di Potenza (SH Dent)
Riccardo Zingaro from San Ferdinando di Puglia (WHC Laird)
Cosimo Giannini from San Ferdinando di Puglia (WHC Laird)
Angelo De Rosa from Fagnano Castello Cosenza (JC Barker)
Cosimo La Rosa from Palme Reggio Calabria (JC Barker)
Salvatore Miceli from San Marco Argentano Cosenzo (JC Barker)
Mario Salerno from Torrano Castello Cosenza (JC Barker)
Domenico Venditti Frosinone (H Stanton)
NB This list is not necessarily complete
A common memory that Queenslanders have about their Italian prisoners of war focuses on food: a dislike for pumpkin, considered in Italy to be livestock food; a love of watermelon; dislike for bread and butter pudding; relishing bacon and eggs; a yearning for spaghetti; learning how to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon; the copper full of spaghetti; hand made spaghetti; rabbit stew. Doug Wilson, once the Italians left his parents’ farm at Lagoon Pocket, refused to eat spaghetti and to this day does not eat pasta. He ate ‘far too much spaghetti’ during those war years.
Jim Fullerton from Glasshouse Mountains sent this photo to Paolo Santoro in 1947. It explains a little about the Italians’ views on what was put on the Aussie dinner plate. Paolo replied in his letter of 25th December 1947, “I told them some good story you know, about the pumpkins, you had a good crop, but you know I don’t like to [too] much to eat them.”
The diet of the Italian was very different from the good old Aussie meat and 3 veg. Theirs was a diet of little meat, pulses, pasta, rice and vegetables of the season.
This difference is explained in an extract from We Never Forgot Domenico. Thea Beswick [Robinson] recalls:
“There was one young man, Domenico, who understood a little English so he became the spokesperson for the men. The first hurdle was the food. Copious
amounts of meat, eggs and milk, potatoes and pumpkin were served.
Domenico approached Dad and said the men were sick, ‘Too much meat.
We need pasta.” Of course pasta and rice were not available during war
time so Mum had to come up with a more varied meal plan. I think a
few of the chooks may have ended up in a pot and an effort was made to
catch fish from the river.”
The menu below is from November 1941 for Cowra Prisoner of War Camp. The camp appears to have been provisioned according to those for Australia armed forces as the diet is overloaded with meat and mashed potatoes. The daily ration for 100 men for Tuesday was 150 lbs beef, 95 lbs potatoes, 40 lbs cabbage…
The camp cooks were Italians and I am sure they would have been scratching their heads as to how to use the daily rations. The cooks would have been grateful for such generous supplies and so set to, to utilise all produce provided. With five meals on offer a day, the POWs would have felt that they spent most of their day eating. After meagre rations as soldiers in Libya, the abundance of food must have seemed like ‘food heaven’. No longer were they eating one month old bread scraps and tinned bully beef.
This menu also makes sense of something Nino Cipolla said about his dad Ciccio Cipolla who spent time in both Hay and Cowra Camps. Nino said, “When I saw the photo of my father which was taken at Cowra Camp, this was the heaviest he weighed in his life!” And no wonder, after having to eat 1 lb of potatoes a day.
A newspaper report from November 1942, supports Nino’s observation, “Italian prisoners-of-war in camps in south NSW have gained on an average nearly a stone in weight since they reached Australia.” (Western Mail, 12 November 1942 page 8). Another reason for the weight gain would have been the sedentary life and idleness associated with life in a POW camp.
However by July 1943, weekly provisions for 100 men show a considerable change away from meat, potatoes and cabbage as it now included rice, spaghetti, split peas, prunes, puree tomatoes, vinegar, oil, an increase in bread rations, a decrease in meat rations. By this time, Italian prisoners of war at Cowra Camp had 140 acres under cultivation, growing primarily crops for their own use.
Menu for Cowra Camp 10th November to 16th November 1941
This research opens many doors into the past. For my generation, a record player was powered by electricity and was fitted into a well-made cabinet befitting a place in the family lounge room. I knew of gramophones cranked by a handle for operation. But I had never thought of a gramophone as being portable.
Enter Luigi Pinna from Cagliari Sardinia. Luigi sent me a photo of his father Antioco Pinna* and taking pride of place is a portable gramophone. My eyes were focussed on the men, Italian prisoners of war in South Australia, so I had not noticed the crank handle. And so much of what I have been told about Italian prisoners of war and music now makes sense. Portable gramophones gave easy access to music.
A portable gramophone allowed soldiers to take their music with them, regardless of how many times they were moved or transferred. I read about t Jim, an Aussie soldier, who had taken his with him from the deserts of Tobruk Libya to the rainforest of Milne Bay New Guinea. And similarly, the Italian soldiers would have taken their portable gramophone from Ethiopia to India to Australia.
One 1941 newspaper article mentioned that the Red Cross was looking for donations to send to our soldiers. “If music hath charms to soothe a troubled mind,” then surely this is just what these men want, and a good portable gramophone is always a welcome. To be able to listen to the latest dance tune, or even a symphony orchestra when one is miles from anywhere in the desert must be quite a thrill…”
Some of the newspaper headlines of the time read:
Red Cross Wants Gramophones
Gramophones Wanted for Soldiers
A.I.F. to Learn French (via gramophone)
Gramophone from Tobruk
* Antioco Pinna was from Palma Suergio (Cagliari Sardinia). He was sent to South Australia and allocated to S13 PWC Hostel Mt Gambier-Penola-Mt Burr. The search for information about his stay in South Australia is ongoing. His son Luigi is hoping to find the South Australians in photos brought back to Italy by his father.
Anthony Brown reminisces about the Nicko and Pasquali who lived on the Brown farm via Kenilworth 1944-1945:
I remember Mum saying, “Boy can they eat!” They ate meals with us and were part of the family. Mum did all the cooking, she was a fantastic cook. Nicko and Pasquali slept on the verandah with my brother Craig and myself. My sister slept in her own room inside the house. The beds were canvas stretchers with a coir mattress (husk of coconuts). They were supplied with their own blankets which I recall were dyed red.
The red coloured clothing was supplied by the army and was plentiful. The red dye came out in the wash tubs. In those days you carted water from the creek and a wood fired copper was used to wash the clothes. The clothes were wool and I remember them only wearing long trousers.
In those days, neighbours helped each other out. There were two creek crossings into our farm which kept getting flooded. The POWs from EV Kirk’s farm helped our two pick up rocks from the farmers’ paddocks to put in the creek crossings to dam the water way in preparation for concreting the crossings. My dad contributed his POW workforce which meant he paid the wages for the job. Another farmer paid for the cement and the council supplied the trucks, overseer and equipment such as a cement mixer. The 1956 floods washed away the top of the causeway they made.
Our two POWs were different in nature. I was 12 years old, and through my eyes, Nicko seemed more like a farmer and Pasquali more a ‘towny’ type. Pasquali seemed more low key and spoke better English than Nicko. My sister Dolores remembers that Pasquali sent a letter to us after they went back to Italy. She was nine years old at the time and thought Pasquali was good looking.
Nicko was short. I was 5 foot six inches when I was 12 years old, and much taller than Nicko. His record states that he was 4 foot 11 inches. Once when a bag of potatoes came down from the Maleny butter factory dad kept them up in the dairy which was a way from the house. Dad measured out about 40 pounds of potatoes and gave them to Nicko to take home; it was about 1 km from the dairy to the house. Nicko took over ½ hour to get home with the potatoes. When Nicko arrived home, he said to my dad as a way of excusing his lateness, “Mr Brown, you up there. Poor Nicko down here.” Dad was 6 foot tall and Nicko was 4 foot 11 inches.
Pasquali and Nicko helped in the dairy; milking morning and night. So the farm routine was early to rise and to bed by 7pm. On the farm, we had 32 volts electricity. They did other jobs as needed. Dad sent them down to brush away the rubbish from near the dairy. He wanted the area cleaned up from the side of the hill leading down to the creek. They cut down mum’s cumquart tree and left the other trees standing. I remember Dad saying “The only tree you chopped down was the cumquart tree!” It had prickles so I think they thought it was a rubbish tree. The tree recovered and is still there on the farm today.
Nicko told Dad about his capture, “I flee! I flee!” He was the more industrious one and made baskets from the lawyer cane. One of the things they were required to do during their captivity was to learn crafts to keep them occupied. I had the feeling that Pasquali was more of an academic as he didn’t seem to do too much of the physical work.
One of the baskets made by Nicko was called “The Egg Basket”. It was used by to collect the eggs laid by the hens. My sister Dolores remembers that Nicko also made a laundry basket; used for collecting the clean clothes. She also remembers how they loved their spaghetti and taught my mother how to cook it. The first time mum made it, the big boiler was chockers with spaghetti. One of them said, “We cook in copper next time.”
The Italians were always referred to as generally as ‘Dagos’ but I never knew why. At the time, I didn’t know if it was a term of endearment or derogatory.
Their names were Pasquale Mastrantonio and Nicola Fantetti and the records indicate that they came to the farm of AA Brown on 3rd August 1944.
My daughter Sharon has two baskets made by Nicko; a fond reminder of those days during the war.