The Ossario, located in a quiet corner of the Murchison Cemetery was completed in 1961 and is a beautifully crafted Mediterranean style building. It contains the remains of Italian Prisoners of War and Internees who died on Australian soil during World War 2.
Every year, on the second Sunday in November, hundreds of people gather to remember the 129 men and one woman for whom the Ossario is their last resting place.
On Sunday 11th November this year, a warm sunny day with a lovely clear blue sky, the occasion was again well attended by over 300 people. Mostly of Italian descent, they travel from Melbourne, interstate, overseas and across Victoria and are joined by locals who appreciate this special occasion. The ceremony is moving, suitably reverent and also colourful with many Italian Military Service uniforms, banners, flags, floral wreaths and bouquets in abundance.
Cemetery for Italian Prisoners of War in India: Sewri Mumbai
Fabrizio Turchi is looking for information on two family members who died as prisoners of war in India:
1) Soldier Gallegati Enrico: born 30/06/1909, died 29/09/1941. Camp n°6.
2) Sergeant Turchi Guerrino: born 25/12/1916, died 21/09/1943. Camp n°3.
And so began the search to find the final resting place for Enrico and Guerrino and some 800 other Italian prisoners of war who died in the camps of India.
At the time of their deaths, they were buried in camp cemeteries. In 1953, their bodies were exhumed and buried in a central place: the Catholic Cemetery of Bombay: Sewri Cemetery Mumbai. The memorial was opened in 1954.
“Su un’altura del camposanto, a destra rispetto all’ingresso, sorge il Sacrario militare italiano eretto nel 1954 dal governo di Roma per onorare i circa 500 prigionieri di guerra italiani deceduti tra il 1941 e il 1947 in India. E’ una costruzione in mattoni rossi con decine di loculi con il nome dei soldati, la data e il luogo del decesso.”
Inside the Sacrario Militare Italiano is an altar and on either side are plaques and niches for each Italian:
From Tunisia, Salvatore Magaddino at 28 years old was an experienced world traveller: born Castellamore del Golfo Sicily, home address Tindja Tunisia, capture Amba Alagi Ethiopia, internment in India POW camps 1941-1945, travel to Melbourne Australia 1945, transfer to Western Australia and farm work in the Moora district 1945-1946, escape from Northam POW Camp Western Australia 17th June 1946.
His feisty mother wrote to the commanding Officer of Marrinup POW Camp expressing grave concerns for her son:
November 28 1946
“Gentlemen, – Once more I return to beg of you a favour. It is six months since I have had news of my son Salvatore Magaddino. I would like to know if he is still in Australia or if he has returned to Italy. Please give me some news about him because I am in a state of mortal anxiety. Dear sirs, for the love of heaven let me know what has happened to my adored son as soon as possible. Here is the latest address for my son: Magaddino, Salvatore: No 67655 Camp 16 P.O.W. Camp Marrinup, W.A.
I beg you to excuse me for for disturbing you and I thank you in anticipation of your kindness. In hopes of an answer from you, receive by deepest regret. Mrs Margharita Magaddino c/o Pietro Magaddino, Maison Moltisanti, Tindja, Tunis.
Identifying himself with a photograph published in “The West Australian” last Friday, Salvatore Magaddino, one of 13 Italian prisoners of war at large from internment camps in Western Australia, walked into Western Command headquarters yesterday and surrendered himself. he said he had read the published letter written by his mother in Tunis, Italy, to the army authorities and he had decided to return to her although he was anxious to remain in Australia. Magaddino reported to Lieut. David Compton shortly after 11 o’clock. He carried a copy of the newspaper in which his description was given and in halting English said: “This is me.” …
Robert Perna from Detroit Michigan writes, “Many years ago my grandfather told me about his time as a POW from Italy. He surrendered in North Africa and was first shipped to Iraq. Then he was shipped to Australia and worked on a cattle farm. He told me it would take weeks to walk the fence and repair it. He said the owner owned a territory.
I’m looking for any way to find out who he lived with. He passed many years ago, but his memory of his time there was always very clear. He did end up going back to Italy because that’s where his family was.”
And so the journey begins for a grandson to meld a grandfather’s stories with historical fact.
Using the guide Finding Nonno, Robert found with ease his grandfather’s Australian records which confirmed a few details: his nonno Arcangelo was captured in North Africa: Amba Alagi on 5.5.1941; he was sent to India (not Iraq); he was shipped to Australia: onboard the SS Uruguay in 1943 which docked at Sydney; and he was assigned to farm work: in the N11 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glen Innes.
Robert recounts the details of Arcangelo’s conscription and war service, “My grandfather went to Rome to go pay the taxes on his property. While there, they recruited him off the streets* and sent him to Africa. He could not say goodbye to his family.
From there he was sent to Northern Africa where he was in charge of a platoon. They found out they were being attacked at dawn. So they hunkered into a hill waiting for the African army to attack. Once they ran out of bullets, everyone surrendered, so no one would get killed.”
The piecing of history continues giving credence to Arcangelo’s memories of the day he was captured 5th May 1941:
1 May 1941 Viceroy of Italian East Africa Duke of Aosta and 7,000 troops were trapped at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia by Indian 5th Indivision to the north and South African 1st Brigade in the south.
3 May 1941 Allied and Italian troops engaged in heavy fighting at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia.
4 May 1941 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division launched another attack at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, capturing 3 hills between 0415 and 0730 hours.
5 May 1941 3/2nd Punjab Battalion advanced toward the Italian stronghold at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia at 0415 hours. They were pinned down by 12 Italian machine guns for the most of the day. The attack was called off at dusk.
British Pathe footage captured the Italians after the surrender of Amba Alagi. Another detail from this battle comes from Craig Douglas at Regio Esercito History Group in Brisbane: “When the Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi, the British commander allowed them to surrender with the full honours of war. In tribute to their tenacious defence right to the end.”
The battle for Amba Alagi, the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Italians who surrendered Fort Toselli seen marching down the road from the fort. c. June 1941
(AWM Image 007945, Photographer: Unknown British Official Photographer)
From Amba Alagi, Arcangelo would have been sent to POW camps in Egypt to be processed and assigned a M/E number: 289564 [Middle East]. From Suez he would have been transported to India.
Critical Past footage gives a window into the past; the arrival of Italian prisoners of war in Bombay India.
The next stage of Arcangelo’s journey is his arrival in Australia which was reported in the newspapers. Two ships from India arrived together in Sydney 4th October 1943 with 507 Italian POWs on each ship (one medical officer, 5 medical other ranks and 501 other ranks: MV Brazil and SS Uruguay.
Arcangelo Perna’s arrival is documented on the Nominal Rolls Cowra 12 (c) POW Camp arrival from overseas 5th October 1943. He is assigned his Australian POW number : PWI 55833. Notice that his rank is Corporal though his other documents have his rank as Italian and Private; somethings are lost in translation.
Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War to Cowra
(NAA: SP196/1, 12 PART 2, 1943-1944 Sydney)
Within two months of his arrival in Australia, Arcangelo is assigned to farm work N11 C.C. Glen Innes.
Robert has a clear memory of his nonno’s recollections of Australia, “ He told me he worked on a cattle farm there. First thing he had to do was mend the fence with the owner. So they packed up the cart and took off. It took over 3 weeks to walk the fence. After that he worked there for a few years. Once it was time to go, the owner begged him to come back and live there. My grandfather said no, he had a farm in Italy. He never said anything bad about being there in Australia. He said they were a nice family who treated him wonderfully.”
Arcangelo’s Service and Casualty Form provides the details of his time between leaving the Glen Innes farm and his repatriation. A documented four day stay in the Glen Innes hospital and his transfer from the farm to Murchison suggests ongoing medical concerns. Those Italian who were medically unfit were sent to Murchison. And it is while Arcangelo was at Murchison, official group photos of the Italians were taken.
(AWM Image 030229/13, Photographer: Stewart, Ronald Leslie)
Arcangelo was repatriated on Chitral from Sydney on 24th September 1946. These early repatriations were for special consideration, medical or compassionate reasons. This was one of the early repatriation ships which boarded 300 POWs in Sydney and another 2900 in Fremantle Western Australia. The majority of Italian POWs held at Northam Camp WA were repatriated on Chitral.
Robert continues, “When he came home, my grandmother wasn’t even home when he got there! One of my aunts were born while he was away. Plus, my dad was born about 9 months after he came home.”
“These memories [of my nonno] have been a part of my life since he’s told me the story. It has been told hundreds of times. Now I have proof, pictures and info to back up my story,” Robert reflects.
The Ormonde departed from Sydney on 31st December 1946. The official army records record that 2231 Italian prisoners of war were on the boat: 52 officers and 2179 ordinary ranks. A group of 1992 Italian POWs came from the Liverpool Prisoner of War & Internment Camp in Sydney, as the above form highlights.
If your father or grandfather was repatriated to Italy on the Ormonde then you will find this file very interesting as it contains a list of the Italians on this ship:
[Repatriation of Italian Prisoners of War per Ormonde 24.12.1946] [0.5cm; box 9] Series numberSP196/1 Control Symbol 10 PART 16
The file can be found at the National Archives of Australia Find : Search the Collection and click on Go to Record Search. Enter the words repatriation Ormonde and you will be taken to the file.
I will explain a little about these National Archives files. The two personal files for every Italian prisoner of war in Australia, are available, free of charge. Other files like the file for the Ormonde is free to view because someone has paid for a copy. When this happens, the file is then available free to everyone. There are files for other repatriation ships eg Alcantara, Otranto, Chitral. You can view them if you visit the National Archives of Australia in Sydney. Or you can pay for a copy of the file and help other Italian families.
The newspaper photo below holds a clue to the journey of the Italian prisoners of war. The men boarded at Pyrmont Wharf in Sydney. Captain Morgan mentions Di Biasi, a former Fiat mechanic in the article below. The man mentioned is Benvenuto De Biasi, born in Belluno and resident of Genoa. Is the man’s surname Di Biasi or De Biasi? The newspaper article states Di Biasi and his record has De Biasi.
The Ormonde docked at Fremantle in Western Australia and boarded 20 more Italians. Worthy of note was that there were Italian Lieutenants onboard.
These newspaper articles are available from Australia’s archived newspaper website: Trove . This is another excellent resource. There are ways to ‘refine’ your search eg decade, years. If you search Italian prisoners of war, this title is too general. It would be difficult to navigate if you do not know English. I know I would have difficulty searching databases in Italian.
My research has been about finding the pieces of the puzzle and putting them all together. Documents, photos, newspaper articles, stories and memories are very important in recording this history in a context: footprints of Italian prisoner of war from the battlefields of Africa to Palestine to Egypt to India to Australia and return to Italy.
And another clue emerges: what pier did the Italians leave Melbourne from: Station Pier. Quite possibly it was also the place where the Italians arrived into Melbourne Australia in 1943 – 1945.
One of the questions often asked, is ‘why were the Italian POWs taken off farms to then sit idle in Prisoner of War and Internment Camps for over 12 months?’
Another often asked question is ‘how valuable was the contribution of the Italian POWs to agricultural production?’
The following ‘Letter to the Editor’ addresses both of these questions…
To the Editor
Sir- some of us can raise a lot of sympathy for those of the Indonesians who have co-operated with the Japanese but what of that poor underdog, the Italian POW? Six months ago two POW (Sicilians) assisted by an old man harvested, without tractor, 140 tons of hay, besides routine jobs of milking, tending sheep &c. One of these men was so outstanding that I left him in charge of my farm and took an extended rest in Melbourne. On my return everything was in order – house painted, winter’s wood supply split and stacked, &c. On March 13 most POW were again barbed in, a precaution recognised as necessary before repatriation: but the call-up was because of AWU pressure. Many are married and my two have families not seen for over six years. Their greatest worry is the dreariness of the dragging days of enforced idleness after the free busy life on a farm. War against Italy ceased 18 months ago, so maintenance of torture to men’s souls at this stage is a travesty of British justice. In spite of the AWU attitude, farm labor in the Naracoorte district is unavailable, through either the RSL and stock firms, and I am being forced off the land. My neighbor has been without help since his POW was taken away, and was so run down that his doctor insisted on his going to the seaside with his wife and three children, leaving over 1,000 ewes uncared for in the midst of lambing.
I am, Sir, &c.
from Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), Thursday 27 June 1946, page 8
For Queensland farmers, withdrawing Italian POWs from farms resulted in an acute shortage of workers for the summer harvest….
Darren Arnott grew up in Rowville in the 1970’s and 1980’s and had heard stories from some of the older residents about the Rowville Hostel which had always intrigued him. When he purchased a house in the 1990’s near a bush reserve with remanants of the Rowville camp he researched and documented the site and the local council used his research to place signage about the history of the site.
Darren also came across the details of ‘the shooting’ and the infamous Camp Commandant. And with most history research, one document led to another then another…
Below is an edited extract from the forthcoming book No Regard for the Truth by Darren Arnott.
My most sincere appreciation to Darren for sharing his work. I look forward to purchasing a copy of his book in 2019. For further details, Darren’s contact information can be found below.
NO REGARD FOR THE TRUTH
At 6:48PM on Saturday the 30th of March 1946 the Victoria Police Communications Centre, D24 received a phone call from Rowville Prisoner of War Hostel Camp Commandant, Captain Waterston requesting assistance at the camp. The call was broadcast to police cars in the area.
“Camp reports trouble among P.O.W.S. Requests that patrol be sent to assist. Contact Sergeant and Police on duty in street and instruct them to attend.”
Radio broadcast from Lt Maloney. “I will go to Rowville, please detail Sergeant Carroll in car 116 to attend and take any action necessary pending my arrival.”
Around 6:30 that evening as most prisoners were finishing their evening meal, Rodolfo Bartoli suffered a serious gunshot wound. Nearby prisoners who heard the gunshot and Rodolfo’s cries in Italian of “He has killed me”, ran to his aid. Rodolfo was carried to the camp hospital on a stretcher where he was treated by the Italian Camp Doctor, Joseph Galli. Rodolfo was losing a great deal of blood and Doctor Galli, realising that Bartoli’s condition was quickly deteriorating called for a camp car to rush Rodolfo to the Heidelberg military hospital.
Constable McAvoy, Constable Banks and Constable Hodge were the first police officers to arrive at the camp at shortly after receiving the call over the radio. They met Captain Waterston. Constable McAvoy documented in his notebook their brief discussion with Captain Waterston.
He asked Captain Waterston, “What is the trouble sir?”
“There has been some trouble here tonight. I threw a picket around the camp. I was walking through the camp myself when I saw a man moving through the wire. I called on him to stop and he did not stop. I then fired a shot. Later I found that a man had been injured in the groin, or shot in the groin, and he had been sent to the Heidelberg Military Hospital.”
“Do you want us to do anything now?”
“I would like you to come down with me around the camp. I am short staffed here.”
Constables McAvoy, Banks and Hodge walked with the Captain and the Italian interpreter through the camp. The Captain ordered a number of prisoners who were walking around to return back to their huts. The camp was quietened down, and all lights were turned out.
Armed Search photograph from The Herald Monday 1st April 1946
The Rowville Italian Prisoner of War Control Hostel
Rowville is located in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne and was once a small farming community. The nearest major township at the time was Dandenong. The Rowville Italian Prisoner of War Control Hostel was an unguarded camp and was bounded by a simple wire and stump farm style fence. In 1946 there were approximately 250 prisoners interned at Rowville. The camp was overseen by Camp Commandant, Captain John Waterston.
Rodolfo died later that night from a gunshot wound. Rodolfo Bartoli was twenty-six years old when he died. His military record shows that he was from Florence and prior to the war had been employed as a Civil Servant. He was a Private in the Italian Infantry and was captured in Libya on the 10th of December 1940. Rodolfo arrived in Sydney aboard the Queen Elizabeth on the 15th of October 1941 and was interned at the POW camp in Cowra, New South Wales. In August 1944 he was relocated to Murchison in Victoria and then to Rowville in December 1944. Apart from one week at the Kooweerup Camp, Rodolfo spent the rest of his time at Rowville. Rodolfo was 5 feet 10 inches tall (178 centimetres) and was well liked by prisoners and staff in the camp. Rodolfo had been employed in the Camp Quartermaster Store at Rowville where prisoners could request uniforms or supplies when required. Rodolfo had met a young woman on a nearby farm who he was hoping to one day marry. A small number of the prisoners were aware that he had a bicycle hidden in some scrub by the bank of the Dandenong Creek just south of the camp and, on occasion, he used to leave to camp on his bike.
Rodolfo Bartoli: back row, third from the right.
Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49115 C. Trentino; 49354 G. Ippolito; 49592 A. Poggi; 49107 G. Zunino; 48833 R. Bartoli; 49212 R. Papini; 48863 S. De Micco. Front row: 48939 A. Leto; 49172 A. Mandrini; 57531 B. Protano; 49923 F. Carlone; 45196 A. Ciofani. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030173/11 Photographer: Geoffrey McInnes)
Three days before the shooting, at the request of the Minister for Army Minister Forde, the Army commenced an investigation into the alleged mistreatment of Italian Prisoners at the Rowville Camp. This was in response to a written complaint about the treatment of prisoners at the Rowville Camp from a member of the public which had been forwarded to Minister Forde. With this inquiry already underway, the shooting of Rodolfo triggered a chain of inquiries and inquests which lasted until December 1946. There was a Military Court of Inquiry, a Police Homicide Squad investigation, a Coroner’s Inquest, an Independent Government inquiry into the shooting and the administration of the Rowville Camp and finally, two Court Martial trials. Some disturbing stories about the mistreatment of prisoners, abuse of prisoner’s rights, suppression of written complaints from prisoners, discrepancies in evidence in the number of shots fired at Rodolfo, disputes about where Rodolfo was standing when he was shot and a lack of clear understanding of the camp boundaries began to emerge.
These events took place after the end of World War Two as the Italian prisoners were awaiting to return home. Most of the prisoners from the Rowville Camp returned home to Italy in January 1947. Rodolfo is one of the 129 Italian’s who died in Australia during World War Two resting at the Ossario at Murchison.
The Ossario Murchison 11th November 2018
Rodolfo Bartoli’s Final Resting Place: The Ossario Murchison
Photographs by the author at the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Ossario, Murchison Cemetery November 2018.
I received an email from Giulia Musini recently. Giulia wrote,
“Today I found this fabric napkin embroidered from a soldier prisoner in India. This little historical treasure was in an op shop in Western Australia. I was hoping to find the family of Antonio Fracasso, the soldier that embroidered this. Maybe through your page I can reach some experts or people related to Bangalore prisoners.”
Embroidery by Antonio Fracasso
(Photo courtesy of Giulia Musini)
Giulia had visited a second-hand charity shop in Witchcliffe Western Australia. “I was digging in the op shop and I saw the Savoia flag and the Italian writing … it was so touching I couldn’t leave it there forgotten in a pile of other stuff,” Giulia wrote.
After a little digging and emails to and fro, Antonio’s story emerges.
There were two Italian prisoners of war named Antonio Fracasso. Both were from Lecce region in Italy and both had spent time in prisoner of war camps in India. One Antonio worked on farms in New South Wales while Giulia’s Antonio worked on farms in Western Australia. The first piece of the puzzle emerged.
The next part of the puzzle was how did Antonio’s embroidery end up in an op shop at Witchcliffe!
Captured at Bardia on 6th January 1941, 24 year old Antonio Fracasso was sent to India until his arrival in Melbourne onboard Mount Vernon 27th April 1944. The date on the embroidery, June 1941, indicates that his time in prisoner of war camps in Egypt was brief.
From Melbourne, Antonio was sent to Murchison Victoria for processing before being sent to Marrinup Western Australia on 14th June 1944.
Antonio Fracasso’s Service and Casualty Form highlights that he worked on farms in the district of W11 Prisoner of War Control Centre (PWCC) Kellerberrin (29th July 1944 to 8th December 1944) and W8 Margaret River (21st January 1945 to 14th November 1945).
And here is another piece of the puzzle, the proximity of Witchcliffe to Margaret River: 7 – 8 kms. We know from other farming families, that the Italians gifted hand-crafted objects to members of the farming families as a gesture of gratitude. Probably, 73 years ago, Antonio gave this napkin/handkerchief to his W8 Margaret River farming family. Subsequent generations of the family did not realise the historical importance of the embroidery and its connection to the family and along with other linen, donated it to charity.
The significance of Giulia’s chance find is more poignant as Antonio Fracasso was never to return home to Italy. Antonio died on 20th December 1945 while swimming in a dam on a farm at Corrigin.
Giulia is now trying to locate a family member of Antonio. A stumbling block is the places recorded as his residence in Italy: Canaleuco Lecce and Casalano Lecce. Unable to find either places on a map, Casarano Lecce might be the town. Giulia has already made contact with the shire office of Casarano and surprisingly her email reached a gentleman named… Antonio Fracasso.
Giulia is hopeful she will find her Antonio’s family as she says, “I wish to bring this piece of Antonio home. We are moving there soon in Puglia, so close to where he was born. I feel he can finally, some how, go back home.”
Antonio’s embroidery was meant to be ‘rescued’ by Giulia. Her passion for history, Antonio’s story and Giulia’s return to Italy and the region of Antonio’s birth means that this chance find couldn’t be in safer hands.
A missing piece in the puzzle is what was Antonio doing on a farm at Corrigin, when his record has his last known whereabouts as Marrinup POW Camp. While there was no prisoner of war control centre at Corrigin, there were centres at W17 Kondinin and W15 Yearlering. It is likely that the farm of Mr WJ Keays was in one of these centres, where Antonio was transferred to work but he died before his record card could be updated.
The newspaper article has Antonio’s surname as Saldato. Soldato = soldier. Someone only had half the story or was misinformed.
Antonio Fracasso rests in The Ossario at Murchison Victoria.
Givgno 1941 A XIX EF = Anno 29 Era Fascista. The Fascist Calendar began on 29 October 1922 and is written with Roman numerals.
eta piu bella; giorni piu tristi = most beautiful age; most sad days
Maria Pepe from Oppido Lucano (Basilicata) hoped for the impossible and that one day, she might discover information about her father’s time on a farm in Australia.
Michele Pepe’s journey as an Italian solider and prisoner of war is like thousands of others: captured at Bardia Libya, sent to British POW Camps in India, arrived in Australia, sent to work on a farm, repatriated and arrived in Italy in 1947. But every Italian prisoner of war took home with them unique memories and sometimes photos.
Maria hoped that two photos her father kept, might help her locate the farming family. It is remarkable that not only has the Bruce family been found, but that both families have kept safe the same two photos. Mr KW Bruce from Riverton South Australia employed Michele to assist him on his mixed farm . “The broadacre crops grown on the farm were wheat, barley and peas. Mick helped to milk 25 cows every morning and evening. The farm also had 100 pigs, 500 sheep and about 100 chickens.” Heather Jackson (nee Bruce) recalls.
Michele’s Service and Casualty Form records that he was sent to farm work on 13.5.44 and left 7.3.46.
Michele Pepe with the Bruce family Riverton SA c. June 1945
(photos courtesy of Maria Pepe and the Bruce family*)
The two photos captured Michele with his farming family. In one photo he is happy, nursing a baby and standing with the farmer and his children. The other photo has Michele with Mr and Mrs Bruce and their four children. Maria Pepe writes, “My father always spoke about those three children so close to him. He often spoke about the suffering of leaving them to return to Italy. He told me, … [the young girl] cried when he left for Italy.”
Heather Jackson (nee Bruce) is the little girl in the photo and has provided invaluable information to Maria Pepe. “Michele (or Mick as the family called him) lived in a 4 room cottage in which he had the use of 2 rooms and a bathroom. This cottage was about 30 metres from the family home. Mick joined the family to eat all his meals,” Heather remembers. Maria remembers her father talking about, ‘the great humanity of Mr and Mrs Bruce who took Michele as one of the family.’
The Bruce siblings remember and reflect upon Sundays and Mick’s journey into town to attend church as Heather recounts: “Mick borrowed a horse and sulky to travel 5 kilometres into Riverton alone to attend the Roman Catholic Church service at 8 am on Sunday mornings. He would park the sulky and horse in the Methodist Church yard and walk to his Church. The Bruce family were Methodists, so he felt it only correct to park the horse and sulky in the Methodist Church yard. The Bruce family’s Methodist church service was much later in the morning, well after Mick returned from his church.”
A gesture of respect from a prisoner of war to a farmer.
The documenting of this history can be sometimes, one sided: an Australian farming family memories OR an Italian family memories. It is special when this history can connect both families. Maria has shared with the Bruce siblings, a little about Michele’s life after his return to Italy, and Heather has shared with Maria and her brothers details about farming life in the 1940s and special memories of Mick.
Wedding Photo: Elena and Michele Pepe 1948
(photo courtesy of Maria Pepe)
And Michele’s reflections of his time in Australia and being a prisoner of war will resonate with many Italian families: “Australia was beautiful and rich, but here in Italy, I feel like a king in my home.” (Maria Pepe)
* Heather Jackson (nee Bruce) believes that the photos were taken around the time of Michele Pepe’s birthday. The baby girl was born in April 1945 and Michele Pepe’s birthday was in June. This would have been Michele’s 28th birthday.
My father Giovanni Devietti was from Corio in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is about 26 km from Turin and about the same distance to the French border. Born in 1906, he was a young man of 21 when he migrated to Australia in 1928 onboard the S.S. Orvieto.
He was educated and had undertaken a university course as an industrial chemist. The National Fascist Party had been in power under Mussolini since 1921 so it is against this background of political unrest that my father came to Australia. He told us how his parents worked in a leather factory and would walk to and from work. One was expected to take off your hat if you passed a Fascist in the street as a symbol of respect. My nonno was a social democrat. He would change his direction, go into a shop or cross the street and keep his hat on, rather than acknowledge fascist rule.
When he first arrived in Ingham, dad worked on farms, but by the time he was naturalised in 1934, he was a business proprietor. He had what today we would call a Deli, but I think that in those days it was called an Emporium. He supplied Italian made goods to the people in the Ingham district. He would go around to the farms and take orders from the Italians. He was also a Commission Agent (Real Estate Agent). Part of his work was also interpreting and translating. Italians who wanted to make application to sponsor relatives to come to Australia, those who wanted to make application for naturalisation and those who wanted to buy property often required someone to assist them with the paper work.
Letter Head for G.Devietti 1934
With Italy declaring war on the 10th June 1940, many Italian residents in Ingham came under suspicion as Fascist supporters. From the school yard, I would see Italians in the back of utes after they had been arrested to be taken to the police station. And then you would see them in rail carriages with bars as they were sent south for internment.
Suspicion fell on dad. He was told to be careful: he was an educated man, was well known and had the potential to lead an uprising. I travelled to Brisbane and read my father’s file in the National Archives of Australia. There were pages and pages of information about his suspected involvement with the Fascist Party. A letter was sent to Sydney CIB accusing my father of being the secretary of the Fascist Party in Babinda. Letters went back and forward between CID in Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, Ingham, Townsville, Cairns, Babinda. Babinda police confirmed that they had no knowledge of a Giovanni Devietti working in Babinda and besides all fascist records had been burnt. There was another letter written to CIB from a man in Ingham, known to my father. He said that he saw Devietti crossing the street to talk with a friend. The friend asked him “How is the war going” to which my father allegedly replied “The Greek and British are going to be ### by the Germans”. My dad when talking to friends would have spoken his dialect, which this man wouldn’t understand, so there was no substance to the story. The letters went back and forth with a call for ‘Devietti to be interned’.
My mother’s father was Antonio Origliasso and he had two sons: Nicola (Nicholas) and Mario. Nicholas arrived in Australian in 1912 with my mother and their mother (their father was already in the Ingham district). Mario was born in Australia. Mario, the younger one, was called up in the army but later those with italian names had their arms taken from them and placed into a labour camp. Nicholas, born in Italy, was called up later in the army and ended up fighting in New Guinea. Luigi Betta of Halifax and two of his sons were also interned. A third son was called up for army service, leaving the family farm abandoned. This son was able to challenge his ‘call up’ and was released so that he could work the farm.
Dad was called up for service with the army. Maybe they thought they could keep an eye on him that way. He was sent to Warwick and was involved in record keeping. He wasn’t a good soldier and eventually was sent to Horn Island. There was an airfield there and he was attached to the military hospital: 1 ACH (Australian Camp Hospital). Dad’s next transfer was to Cowra. Possibly they were looking for people with a number of languages, and dad had English, Italian, Spanish and French.
Cowra was a big complex of 4000 prisoners of war. He first worked with the Formosans: Compound D. I think his Spanish came in use because Formosa was a Spanish and Portuguese colony. According to dad, he didn’t feel secure working in this compound. The armed guards were all old men and he felt that the young prisoners could overcome the guards quickly. This was after the Japanese outbreak on 5th August 1944. He was then transferred to one of the Italian prisoner of war compounds as a translator/interpreter.
Cowra Prisoner of War and Interment Camp after 5th August 1944
Dad not only worked in the Cowra compound, but he also was involved when the Italian POWs arrived on the ships. As an interpreter he had deal with the antics of the Italian POWs. One story was about getting the Italians onto or off a truck. They would play dumb. Instructions would be given: “Get off the truck” or “Get on the truck” and they would just stand there. Or they would climb onto the roof of the truck. Dad had to sort out not just the language and communication side of things but also the behaviour. He would often tell the officers “All is well” as to tried to made sure the POWs complied with the orders.
Italian Prisoners of War waiting to board a train bound for a prisoner-of-war camp
The Italian POWs at Cowra ate well, better than the army soldiers and interpreters. There was the story that the Italians would have to go out to work on the farms and had these buckets or milk pails with them. Dad noticed that when the Italians returned, the pails would seem quite heavy. Dad realised that they were bringing something back to camp: vegetables. Eating with the Italian POWs was preferable to eating in his own mess, which he did often.
Somewhere in there mum and I moved to Brisbane up near St Pauls Terrace. I went to a school on Leichardt Street. Mum worked at Momma Luigi’s on St Pauls Terrace and I would help out there on weekends. It was a Brisbane institution. The American soldiers would be lining up on the street to get a meal of spaghetti and meatballs.
I think by that time dad was in Gayndah at the POW centre there. I remember visiting Gayndah to see dad. It was cold and we had a fire where we stayed. He worked in a longish building like a hall in Gayndah. Dad did all the interpreting and I suppose he censored the POW mail. Dad’s comments were that most Italians were easy going. They enjoyed going rabbit hunting and while the farmers allowed them rifles, this was contra to rules. There were those with fascist ideas, but I think they were dealt with quickly if they caused any trouble.
Ingham has another link to Italian prisoners of war because an escaped POW cut cane in Ingham. His name was Alberto Bandiera and he had escaped in September 1946 and surrendered in Brisbane February 1950. The police questioned dad about this but he denied any knowledge. Bandiera was repatriated on the ship which brought out my cousins to Brisbane Surriento. They arrived 23rd February 1950 and Alberto Bandiera was repatriated onboard on the 24th February 1950. In time, he returned to Australia and worked at Peacock Siding. Bandiera wasn’t the only escaped POW the police were looking for.