Benedetto Ierna or better known as Uncle Berto, was 23 years old when he was captured at Alan Tumar on 9th December 1940. A barber from Floridia, Siracusa he was a soldier in the Engineers Corps when captured and was sent to India until April 1944.
Within 10 weeks of his arrival in Melbourne on board the Mariposa, he was being taken by army truck to the farm of Kelly Bros. at Silverdale, Harrisville together with Giuseppe Venturelli. The policy of the day was for the placement of Italian prisoners of war in groups of two or three.
Berto had journeyed from Melbourne through Cowra then Gaythorne and then to the Q10 PWCC at Boonah. More than likely, the barber mentioned in this article below from the Queensland Times, 13th July 1944, was Berto. While a barber by trade, he had learnt a number of skills as a soldier in the Engineers Corps. Berto arrived at Bill Kelly’s farm on the 10th July 1944.
P.O.W. Worker “A Barber Too!”
Italian prisoners-of-war now are arriving in the Fassifern district and are being placed on the farms. The Lieutenant-in-Charge reports some amusing incidents. Two Ps.O.W. were placed on the farm, one of whom could speak fairly good English. He was a carpenter, had some knowledge of machinery &c., and appeared to be a good man, although only a handful (English words). When handing the men over, the Lieutenant said, “Mr -! You should have a good man here. He is very handy with the tools.” The P.O.W. heard him and coming to attention saluting said, “I am a barber, too, Sir.” The farmer in question had been busy for the past fortnight and had not taken time off for a shave.
Berto was a strong short man who was a hard worker. He was known for being able to run a distance with a sack of potatoes on his back and continue to do this until the truck was loaded. He was grateful for the hospitality of Bill Kelly and his sister Kate and never saw any reason to escape. Working on the farm returned to Berto a sense of dignity and self-worth.
There are stories of Bill Kelly loaning a bike to Berto so he could go to the movies in Kalbar and most probably also civvies as these types of activities was against the regulations . The Kelly’s treated Berto like a son and arranged to sponsor Berto to return to Australia. In a show of good faith in Berto, the Kelly’s offered sponsorship also for Berto’s brother Antonino.
Such was Berto’s personality, locals like Laurie Dwyer remembered Berto as ‘the young fellow who returned after the war and would say, I not work as a POW, I work as a free man now’.
The Boonah district continued to hold a special place in Berto’s life. While he owned a barber shop on St Paul’s Terrace, he also was reported to own, in partnership with Dudley Surawski, a house in Clumber, Kalbar when it burnt down in December 1953. It might have been here that Berto grew a crop of tobacco which was destroyed by floods.
Uncle Berto continued to touch base with the Kellys and the Boonah district. Joe Indomenico, nephew of Berto remembers the visits to Silverdale. The family would take a day trip out to Kelly’s, with Uncle Berto shooting for quails and the children riding ponies. And Bill Kelly would come and visit Berto in the Valley. He would come in for the Ekka, park his car at the house and walk to the Ekka grounds.
Those early days as a migrant was a time when sacrifices had to be made. Berto rented his barber shop, but would sleep on a layer of newspapers in the back room. Finances did not stretch to the rent of a shop and rent for a residence. In time, he bought the shop and then the row of shops and today, his son Carmelo is planning to develop the site.
With an ability to turn his hand to different ventures , Berto would buy up houses in the Valley which were part of land resumption for the building of the freeway. He would buy the houses, have them cut in half and then remove them to blocks of land out Kilcoy, Helidon and Esk way.
While Berto might have been far away from Italy and ‘home’, he made his Brisbane residence a family hub. The house on the corner of St Paul’s Terrace and Julia Street was home to Berto, his wife and son, but it also became a home to others. At one stage for about 18 months, 12 – 14 members of the Ierna extended family lived there. Berto lined up a job for brother-in-law Salvatore at the Nanda pasta factory at Norgate. A job was found at the Jubilee Hotel on St Paul’s Terrace for brother Antonino. St. Paul’s Terrace was an Italian community hub as well. Mama Luigi’s was a Valley institution serving up generous servings of pasta. There was a saying in those days, that if the men didn’t like the meal which had been prepared, then the wife would say, “if you don’t like it, then go to Mama Luigi’s.”
As an Italian prisoner of war and migrant, Berto’s life is linked to the Boonah district. It was as a prisoner of war in the district that Berto realised the opportunities that Australia could offer. As a migrant, he turned his dreams into reality. He started a barber shop, he bought commercial property, he had a house painting business and he turned his hand to a house removal and relocation business. He was industrious and entrepreneurial. On a visit to Kalbar in 1976, Berto suffered a stroke. Rushed to Brisbane, he died aged 59 years.
A man with a big personality who was not afraid of taking risks and making sacrifices, Berto Ierna left a legacy centring on the importance of family and seizing opportunities.
Benedetto Ierna’s extended family blame their Uncle Berto… for being captured… for being sent to Australia as a POW…. But most importantly, for their own life in Australia.
Ogni cosa ha cagione