Big Brothers: Reminisces of our Italian POWs
Tony Della Polla 27 and Jimmy Cutelle 33
(Antonio Della Polla and Michelangelo Cutelle)
(from the Collection of Althea Kleidon (nee Rackemann))
I remember very clearly our Italian prisoners of war because they became part of our family. I was ten years old when they came to our farm and it was a sad day when they left.
My father Edward Rackemann had a mixed farm at Wheatlands situated on the Barambah Creek. It is about 10 miles from Wondai our closest town and 25 miles from Kingaroy which is where the prisoner of war centre was. At the time, Dad grew vegetables for the army camps, there were four around Murgon and also for the Brisbane markets.
Farming was labour intensive and all the family had to get involved with the jobs. I milked my first cow when I was five years old and at night the family spent time washing the vegetables after they had been dug up during the day. Mum and Dad worked a hard seven day a week because we also had 25 milking cows at that time. One older brother was up in the islands on a supply ship, one brother was killed in action and two younger brothers were sick: one with polio and another with a kidney disease. So Dad would have made application to have the Italian POWs work for us. Their records state that they came to Q8 Kingaroy 1.5.45 and then they would have been brought out to us.
Tony Della Polla and Jimmy Cutelle would have been in their twenties when they where captured in North Africa. They both fitted in very easily with our family. Some farmers kept their Italians at arm’s length as this was what was encouraged by the captain that brought them out to home and I think then that these families would have different memories of the POWs.
Dad however saw things differently. My grandparents were German and had come out to Australia before 1900. My grandfather was a Baron and my grandmother was Jewish, so even then the tide was changing against the aristocracy and Jews. I think that my grandparents would have taught their children tolerance, understanding and a wisely perspective about politics and prejudice. I don’t think Dad ever saw them as ‘the enemy’ and he would have treated them with respect as they were good workers and never really complained.
Tony Della Polla (Antonio) came from Naples and from a big family and Jimmy Cutelle (Michelangelo) was from Florence and had a sister. Jimmy was much quieter and I think that a difference in rank maybe had something to do with that. Tony would tell me that when he returned to Australia, he was going to bring his brother Faust(o) back with him, to marry me. Tony’s nickname for me was Mary, I don’t remember why, maybe they just found Althea a hard name to pronounce.
The crops we grew were wheat and cotton, peanuts and then carrots, potatoes, parsnips, silverbeet, peas, beans and lettuce. Jimmy and Tony did the digging and harvesting, the tractor work and the running of the irrigation pumps which operated off the tractor. Tony was very good with mechanics and this was a benefit because in those days, parts were hard to come by and you just had to make do and repair parts.
The original house on the property was an old slab hut and this became home for them. Mum was a very good cook and Jimmy and Tony had their meals with us. Once I remember they got hold of some spaghetti and cooked up a meal for our family. They often talked about how they missed eating spaghetti.
There was always conversation over the dinner table what with Dad taking about the work to be done the next day or Tony teaching us kids some Italian words. Dad got by with the dictionary and they learnt English so we got by. I can still count to twenty in Italian and know a few other words like sugar, why, thank you in Italian.
I remember well the red clothing that they had to wear, but they only had to wear them when they were away from the farm. Otherwise they had ample clothing which they had with them. I remember their clothes being green and grey. And they had these wonderfully made heavy woollen coats which were probably their Italian army coats.
About once a month the army canteen truck would come to the farm. I think that might have been also when they received mail but I would have been at school. But they always bought lollies for us kids and treats which you couldn’t buy in town and they always gave Mum and Dad some of the cigarettes that they were issued with.
They were like ‘big brothers’ and they really did fit into the family well. My sister had a baby and they would often walk the baby in the pram. It was just all those normal everyday things. Dad set up a ping pong table and set up some teams from the neighbours and their POWs, just to give them some activity on their day off. Sometimes Dad would take them to a neighbour’s home at night, but only one at a time, to listen to the radio as we didn’t have one. They would listen to the Tenor Hour. Dad was a trained singer: baritone with a tenor range and loved his music. Jimmy was the one who I would hear singing sometimes. Dad would also take them fishing, we lived on the river and he would take them to visit other POWs on nearby farms. And Dad would sometimes take them to town on the Cream Carrier or the train. Maybe he had business in town and would take them in, for something to do. We didn’t go anywhere much in those days as the petrol was rationed and we needed the petrol for the tractors.
There was the incident when Tony got bitten by a black snake. He had gone down to check on the fuel in the tractor which ran the irrigation pumps. Dad did what he could by sucking out the venom and called the ambulance which took a long time to get to us. He was very sick and I think that after that he became a bit sad. Maybe being sick made him a bit melancholy and made him think more about his mum and home.
When the time came for Tony and Jimmy to leave we felt like we were saying goodbye to our family. It was a sad time. They both would have preferred to stay in Australia, but at the same time wanted to get home to their family. So it was bitter sweet. My brother was given a Geometry Set as a goodbye present and they inscribed some words and the date on the back of it. They also made a ring for mum. They somehow managed to keep quiet the work they did on another gift as they had been busy etching and carving a pattern and design over a metal milkshake cup. Mum must have got hold of one for them and they had set to and engraved a pattern around it. They didn’t have much, but these gifts were very special and meant a lot to us.
They got taken away back to Kingaroy and then when Dad found out when they were leaving the district, Dad and Mum walked in to Murgon so that they could say a final goodbye as they were leaving on the train. Dad and Mum kept in touch with them and we had a number of letters that my sister had kept. There was talk of Dad sponsoring them, but I think once they got back home, circumstances were different and so they didn’t return.
Althea Kleidon (nee Rackemann)
Wheatlands via Wondai