Doug Wilson was a child when his father, Vernon Wilson at Lagoon Pocket took on two Italian prisoners of war. The farm grew beans, tomatoes, bananas and beetroot and as well, had a dairy which was leased to another farmer. It was war time, and labourers had gone off to fight in the war, so the Department of Manpower promoted the employment of the Italians.
Doug’s memories of that time centre mainly on food and children. Doug recalls, “Living on a farm, the Italians were well fed. Mum would have a leg of ham hung up and the POWs took a liking to having a thick piece of ham with their eggs. Eggs was another luxury, but because we had chooks, we had lots of eggs. There was also fresh milk. Two buckets of milk would be collected from the dairy each morning as part of the lease arrangement dad had. These items were in short supply in town and there were also ration cards.” But Doug’s most memorable food story is about pasta. His mum would cook up the pasta as that is what they were used to. Doug says, “I was so sick of pasta, that after the war I refused to eat pasta. To this day, I still won’t eat pasta.”
The two Italian prisoners of war were family men. Francesco Nicoli had a son and a daughter and Bernardino Patriarca had three sons. “I remember the men treated us very well. They treated us like their own. They were always around us and played with us. One of the funny memories is how they were worried that mum bathed the baby every day. ‘Why wash bambini day?’ I suppose things were different in Italy,” Doug muses.
Treasured letters from the Italians explain the bond they formed with children. It has been suggested that Italian POWs were more settled when there were little children on the farm and the words of these men tell of the special memories they would carry with them to Italy.
Bernardino wrote on 4th May 1946, “…Glad to hear that your children have not forgotten us yet. You can’t imagine how hard it is for us to leave this country without seeing your lovely children once again. Last night in my dream I was with your children to play to, but it was a dream only.”
Vernon Wilson Farm Lagoon Pocket Gympie
Men: Bernardino Patriarca, Vernon Wilson, Francesco Nicoli
Children: Wayne Choy Show, Leonie Choy Show, Douglas Wilson, Myra Wilson, Frances Wilson
(from the photographic collection of Doug Wilson)
Francesco wrote from Hay on 29th May 1946, “…thank you so much to your children for their remembering to us. Please, will you send me some photos of your children and family as I want to see you and keep them as a remembrance of my Australian friends. When I get back to Italy I will send you some of mine too.”
Written by camp interpreters, Francesco and Bernardino wrote letters of their time at Gaythorne Camp, the delay in departing for Italy, the weather at the Hay Camp and the special connection between themselves and the Wilsons. The letters also tell of wanting to be free men once more. Unfortunately, these men were taken off the farms on 4th January 1946 but it was almost a year before they boarded Alcantara on 23rd December 1946 to return to Italy. They were prisoners of war for over five years.