Maize Crop Tolga
The Atherton Maize harvest 1944 was predicted to be a record crop and Department of Manpower was approached in 1944 for Italian POWs to work the harvest. A letter from Vincent Quilter, a Tolga farmer asks for information about the process of applying for POW labour. The idea of using 200 Italian POWs was suggested March 1944: to increase vegetable production, work on tobacco, peanut and maize farms. By May 1944, the proposal was rejected. The 1944 harvest was worked by southern pickers whose return fares were paid and who earned between 6 to 7 pounds per week. The harvest figures were 17,000 tons from 17,000 acres.
The 1945 harvest was predicted to be down due to an excessively wet season and only 5,000 ton was harvested from 18,000 acres. But 120 pickers were urgently required to work the harvest.
The closest POW workforce was stationed at Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill. Q6 Home Hill was a purpose built hostel for 250 Italian POWs who worked on the Commonwealth Vegetable Project in the Burdekin. It operated from April 1944 to November 1945.
Up until beginning of June 1945, the director of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture, Mr Bulcock would not sanction Italian POWs from Home Hill to go to Atherton as he believed he could not afford for his program to be jeopardised by the reduced workforce. Out of 230 POWs at Home Hill, he said that only 100 was of any value. A rethink and negotiations by the involved government parties, saw approval given by 12 June 1945, to set up a temporary arrangement for approximately 8 weeks and loan 60 POWs from Home Hill Hostel.
The ‘Temporary PWCC Atherton’ (prisoner of war control centre without guard) would have been an office set up in a building in Atherton to oversee the POWs and manned by army personnel from Home Hill. Or possibly, it was set up at an army facility such as the State Farm at Kairi. The army personnel would have been put up in boarding houses or hotels and the Italian POWs would have been billeted in groups of 2 – 3 to farmers within a radius of 25 miles of Atherton. The POWs wore magenta dyed army issues, so as to be highly visible, although when working on farms, could wear their own clothing. The farmers paid 1 pound per week to the Department of Commerce and Agriculture as it was the employing authority of the Home Hill POWs.
Fifty three Italian POWs arrived from Home Hill in Atherton on 3 July 1945 and were allocated to farmers on 4 July 1945. By 26 September 1945, the temporary PWCC was closed and the POWs returned to Home Hill. The majority were captured in Libya and one was captured in Greece. These POWs came from all walks of life and had been prisoners of war for over 4 years having spent time at Prisoner of War Camps in Hay, Yanco and Cowra.
There was much military activity on the Atherton Tablelands during World War 2 and so the presence of 53 Italian POWs working on maize farms for 8 weeks would be easy to forget. However, one local Jack Duffy remembers well seeing the men in red coats walking the road from the State Farm to the maize farms. His father jokingly told him they were “Rugby Union Players”. Dick Daley from Tolga still has one of the tools used in those days to harvest the maize. A leather strap around closed fingers, with an embedded three inch nail, was used to slice open the husk and the cob would then be removed.
The Rocky Creek War Memorial Park records the history of military activity on the Atherton Tablelands during World War 2. Nine Italian POWs spent time at the 47 ACH (Australian Camp Hospital) and seven spent time at Staging Camp (Kairi) most probably the State Farm precinct which had been taken over by the 5th Australian Farm Camp.