I was born in 1939 and remember the POWS from Italy coming to my parents’ orchard in 1944 or 45. Our family citrus orchard is at Humphrey outside of Gayndah and was a big concern. The only suitable accommodation available was the storage shed that was used for fertiliser and farm tools. To make it habitable, the contents were moved to another shed further down the orchard. The shed was made of corrugated iron and on stumps with a large timber door at the front enabling a truck to unload into the shed. There was a door at the back and steps with a water tank attached to the shed. The shed would have been hot in summer and cold in winter.
My Mother cooked the meals for the POWS and they ate in our kitchen but not with us. As I grew older I became more aware and understood why they were working on our orchard. This came about when I asked why the men wore those dark red clothes. I understood that we were at war with Hitler. But who were these quiet men who listened carefully while my dad patiently tried to explain the day’s work using an Italian phrase book.
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.
We lived 10 miles out of Gayndah along a dirt road so contact with outsiders was limited. A canteen truck would come once a fortnight to the men and once a month a truck would come out on a Sunday to take the men to the Catholic Church Service. After the canteen truck left the men [there were three] would bring gifts to Mum of items rationed for us but not for the prisoners. For example, tinned peaches, Sal Vital and there were always mints for my brother and me.
Dad had little trouble with the men, but one day Domenico came to Dad and said the new prisoner [one had left, I think he was sick] was a bad man and he had a knife and he was not one of them. I’m thinking that he must have been Sicilian. Dad had that man removed by the Sargent.
Dominico became a trusted friend who looked after my brother and I while my parents went to Fruit Growers meetings. He took no nonsense from us while he embroidered on cloth by lamplight and making sure we did our homework. A neighbour asked Dad once how he locked the Italians up at night. Dad just shrugged and told him that he didn’t, after all where were they going to run to? I think the Italians were a bit scared of the night time noises and vastness of the bush.
Sadly the day came when we had to say goodbye to Dominico. A photo was taken of my parents and self before the transport came to take the men away to be sent overseas. My brother Frank is not in the photo so I presume he was busy elsewhere or he took the photo. Dominico wanted to stay with us but he had to go.
Dad tried to find him to sponsor him back to Australia and us. The authorities could not find Dominico, they had lost all trace of him. We did receive one letter from Dominico and it was a sad letter: I just remember that it said he needed new shoes and didn’t have a winter jacket. Much later we heard that Italy was in chaos after peace was declared.
We never forgot our friend Dominico Petruzzi and can only hope he had a good life.
Thea Beswick [nee Robinson]