Category Archives: Q10 PWCC Boonah

Longevity and Letter Writing

life and lifelong connections

Dedicated to Ferdinando Pancisi

I would like to introduce you to 101 year old Ferdinando Pancisi. Ferdinando (Ferdy) has lived a full life; in more ways than one. Life events saw him journey from his home in Italy to Libya to Egypt to India to Australia and then home to Italy. Like the majority of Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia, they were absent from Italy for seven years.

Ferdy settled in the village of Civitella di Romagna with his wife Anna; both work in their small convenience shop. With age comes wisdom, and his sage insights were shared in 2017, when he was interviewed .

Longevity also relates to the duration of a special friendship between Ferdy and his Boonah family: The Dwyers. A bachelor, Pat Dwyer applied for prisoner of war workers and Ferdy was sent to his Fassifern farm. Ferdy left the farm on 2nd February 1946 and Pat Dwyer wrote to him soon after. And so began a correspondence that has continued through the decades. Ferdy’s response to Pat’s first letter is typed below…

(Letter courtesy of Tim Dwyer)

Ferdy’s first letter to Pat Dwyer was written on 11th February 1946. From the records it is known that Pauly and Peter were on the farm of Pat’s brother Jack and Nicola and Cosmo were on the farm of Mr TM McGrath.

Ferdy and Pat shared their family news throughout the decades. Pat’s wife Joie took on the role of letter writing after Pat died and then son Tim has taken on this role in recent years.

For over 73 years Ferdy and the Dwyer family have sent letters, cards and photos back and forth across the decades and across the miles. I would think that their situation might be unique.

Seventy three years is a long time: a special connection between farmer and Italian POW; a tangible link between two men from different walks of life; a personal history of war and friendship; a heartwarming story of Ferdy and the Dwyer family; a connection that goes beyond the backdrop of war.

a unique friendship in many ways

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It started with George

This story started with George aka Giovanni Ragusa, Italian Prisoner of War on Eric Behrendorff’s farm outside of Boonah.  At 94 years old Eric had clear memories of George that he shared with me for this project.  In 1944, Eric was  a young farmer of 22 years while George, slightly older at 32 years was also a farmer from Calascibetta on the island of Sicily.

Giovanni Ragusa

Giovanna Ragusa aka “George”

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Fast forward 72 years and the story entitled His Name was George has connected Australians and Italians once again.  Antonio Ragusa, son of Giovanni has shared this father’s memories as a thank you to the Behrendorff family.  Antonio writes, “Dad never spoke of his imprisonment.  We knew he had been captured in North Africa and then sent to India and finally to Australia.  He worked in what he called ‘British labour camps’.  He learnt a little English and also to  strum the guitar.  He never played the guitar at home, but every so often he would say an English word.  We understood that he had a great nostalgia for Australia and the children.  Dad returned to Calascibetta and to his life as a farmer.  He married my mum in 1953 and then my brother and I were born.  In the mid 1960’s we moved to northern Italy where dad worked as a labourer until retirement.  He died in 1999, a month and a half after my mum died.  He had just turned 87 years.  In his personal papers, he have a small number of photos taken at the time he was working on a farm.  We did not know who the people were in the photo but we knew that that dad had a special connection to this family”.

Giovanni Ragusa Italy

Giovanni Ragusa

(photo courtesy of Antonio Ragusa)

After 72 years, Antonio Ragusa now knows the names of the people in the photos, thanks to Eric Behrendorff’s son David.  Antonio also now has details about his father’s movements between North Africa and Italy.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

The Behrendorff Extended Family

George, John and Mary Schultz, Winifred, Bruce Abbot (boy in shorts) Nell Behrendorff (lady in hat), Phyllis, Eric Behrendorff (man in hat with tie) Rose and David Wieland (Eric’s parents in law)  Taken in John Street Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Antonio says, “Grazie a te, mi hai fatto conoscere ancora meglio mio padre… thanks to you, I know my father better”.  Once upon a time language was an insurmountable barrier, but translation programs has aided the Ragusa and Behrendorff families  to communicate and exchange stories and memories of a time when an Italian POW nicknamed George worked on the farm of Eric Behrendorff.

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Eric Behrendorff and Joanne Tapiolas October 2017

In October 2017, I had the pleasure of spending time with Eric. Eric spoke with melancholy of those war time years.  A time when you were scorned because you had a German surname, a time when you had charcoal burners fitted to your trucks to ‘power’ them and a time when ‘George’ was brought to a farm out Boonah way.

Eric said that sometime after George left the farm, he planted an avenue of olive trees.  Maybe George had  told him they would grow well or maybe they were a gentle reminder of a time when Italian prisoners of war worked on Queensland farms.

Why?

Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Book Launch Joanne - Copy

Joanne Tapiolas – Accidental Historian

(photo courtesy of Michele Sinclair)

My research started with the Italian prisoners of war growing vegetables up river Home Hill.  As a Burdekin local, I had heard stories about these Italians who had come from North Africa after being captured.  Memories of the locals of the time are sketchy, ‘we knew about them’ ‘ we knew they were there but not much else’ ‘one didn’t talk about those things back then’.  In my mind, there must have been a barbed wire enclosure housing 20 – 30 Italian POWs to grow vegetables.

A puzzle for my young 10 year old self was the image of the map in my school Atlas.  North Africa was a long long way from Home Hill in northern Queensland. Questions beginning with WHY and HOW and WHAT stayed in my memory bank.  Not too much of this made sense.

Map of World

When I found the time to do some research, I consulted an excellent publication on the Burdekin history : Black Snow and Liquid Gold by John Kerr.  A section covering the years of the war provided me with the background and details.  I found the names of two Italian POWs who twice escaped the hostel BUT I became frustrated because in an editing error, the names of these men were printed incorrectly.  They are named as Pietro Di Vincenzo and Landolfi Pasquale.  Their names are Vincenzo DI PIETRO and Pasquale LANDOLFI.  The other Italians mentioned have their names correctly ordered.

My dad was as amazed as myself at the records I began to uncover. The research told a story of 250 Italian POWs who lived in barracks and grew vegetables for the armed forces in North Queensland. Now Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill not only had a history but also a context.  It was one of 10 prisoner of war control centres in Queensland and it operated as part of the Commonwealth Department of Commerce and Agriculture’s Vegetable Project : Home Hill and Ayr.

I became quite attached to MY Home Hill POWs especially when I could put a face to a name.  I left a copy of my research with the local historical society hoping that one day, the children or grandchildren of a Home Hill POW would pass through Home Hill looking for some information.  At least the list of POW names attached would verify that their father or grandfather had been at the hostel up river Home Hill.

I put aside other documents I found about the other nine centres in Queensland, just in case.  I felt that if the Burdekin locals had little knowledge about the Home Hill POW hostel, then did people in the other nine districts know about their POW history.

Curiosity got the better of me and so I began digging for information.  I found little bits of information BUT I was frustrated because the information in the public domain was scarce and incomplete.  The only photographic evidence of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland is three photos taken at Calico Creek.  They are housed in the John Oxley Library. Other records mention only six centres and there is no reference to the differences between a control centre: without guard and a hostel. Once such reference is: Prisoner-of-war control depots were established at Stanthorpe, Home Hill, Gympie, Nambour, Gayndah and Texas.(Fortress Queensland 1942-1945)

I believed that the history of Italian prisoner of war in Queensland needed to be more comprehensive,  contain various perspectives,  and include those who had a memory of the Italians an understanding of the context surrounding the placement of these men on the family farm.

It became obvious that this history was not found in the books of the libraries.  This history is found in the memories of Queensland locals and Italian families. Letters to editors, newspaper articles, letters to historical societies, Facebook posts, cold call letters, website development, oral history interviews, face to face interviews and radio interviews.

Slowly but surely, Queenslanders and Italians have helped write this history.

And just as I had hoped, the son of a Home Hill POW did come looking for the footsteps of this father.  Francesco (Ciccio) Cipolla was at the Q6 PWCH Home Hill from April 1944 to November 1945.  His son, Nino, on previous trips to Australia had visited the PW & I Camps at Hay and Cowra but the notation Q6 Home Hill had remained a mystery.  On a holiday to Melbourne in 2017, Nino searched yet again for some reference to this Q6 Home Hill. Nino found my research and Stepping Back in Time, Ciccio’s son was able to understand better his father’s time growing vegetables for supply to the armed forces in the north.

2017 Q6 36

Nino Cipolla Home Hill Railway Station April 2017

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

And back to the answer to the question: Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Because it hadn’t been done… because if it wasn’t done now, the stories would be lost to time…because it needed to be done…Because it is a valuable part of Queensland history and this history should have a voice.

The rest they say is “HISTORY” and on these pages is this history.

Walking in their boots JPEG

Memories in Concrete

Memories in Concrete

When I started this project, I had a firm belief that there was concrete evidence of the presence of Italian POWs in Queensland. John Oxley Library holds three photos of Italian POWs at Bill Beattie’s farm at Calico Creek via Gympie.  I hoped to be able to add to this collection and my aim was to find the POWs ‘footprints’ and photos seemed the obvious records to survive seven decades.

So Pam Phillip’s photos of the concrete footings for a windmill on her father, Ron Niebling’s farm at Moorgoorah were ‘footprints’ I didn’t expect to see.  But there they are, footprints captured in concrete.

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Footprints of Giuseppe Miraglia Enna Sicilia 25.10.1945 Moogarah

In  the good times, plentiful rain keeps the Moogoorah Lake full but in drought, as was the case in 1995, the lake offers up its secrets and treasures.

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Footprints of Ron Niebling 24.10.45 Moogarah

In India

Tripepi 10 - Copy

Clothing Inventory for Italian POWs in India

(NAA: A7919 C98988 Tripepi, Domenico)

Information about the prisoner of war camps in India is difficult to find.  The British oversaw the operations of these camp sites, many of which had been used during the Boer War.

Italian Prisoners of War in India is a guide for ordering a copy of the record relating to Italians who spent time in POW camps in India.

It is thanks to a number of Italian families that we can see and read about some of the experiences of Italian prisoners of war who were then transferred to Australia.

 

Adriano Zagonara, Andriano Zagonara and a group of Italian POWs in India

(photos courtesy of Paola Zagonara)

Paola Zagonara remembers the stories her father Adriano Zagonara told her about working and living in India:

Paola Zagonara wrote,  “Mio padre raccontava che erano nel campo di Bangalore,e che dovevano costruire I binari della ferrovia, che pativano la fame perche’il rancio era solo una scodella di riso integrale al giorno, e che era una festa quando riuscivano a catturare un serpente:lo arrostivano e se lo mangiavano sul posto, cosi’assumevano proteine della carne,e si mantenevano in salute.Me lo raccontava quando eravamo a tavola ed io non volevo mangiare, ma allora ero piccola e non capivo molto….un caro saluto!”

 

Ferdinando Pancisi and Reference from POW Doctor in India

(photos courtesy of  Tammy Morris and Nicola Cianti)

Ferdinando Pancisi remembers:

[I was in India for ] 2 years. I was working in the camp hospital. The doctor there wrote a letter of reference for me, here is the paper…He (the doctor) said that when you go back to Italy and you want to work in a hospital, give this letter to the doctors and they’ll surely give you a job.

He (the doctor) said that when you go back to Italy and you want to work in a hospital, give this letter to the doctors and they’ll surely give you a job. I was fine, I didn’t want for anything. I was doing a lot, male nurse, pharmacist, I did most things, because the doctor would just visit and leave!

[The doctor was a prisoner] Yes, the whole camp was run by prisoners. We made a hospital there just for the prisoners…

The 2nd World War was over in Italy but Japan was still going. In fact, our ship which transferred us to Australia was escorted by British destroyer ships.

(Interview with Ferdinando Pancisi 21 October 2107: Interviewers: Tammy Morris and Nicola Cianti)

 

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Salvatore Morello : Memories of India

(photos courtesy of Luigi Tommasi)

Salvatore Morello and Pietro Pepe were in India together and than transferred to work on a Boonah district farm.

They came to Australia on the Mariposa. Three ships came to Melbourne from India at that time. There were a total of 4056 Italians on the ships. Mariposa, SS Mount Vernon and Vernon Castle arrived in Melbourne 26.4.44. On board were 8 officers and 4048 ORs From Melbourne, the Italian POWs were put on trains and taken to Cowra for processing.

Sacred Heart of Maria was embroidered by Salvatore while in India.  The words 1942 and India are sewn into the banner held by the angels.

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Luigi Iacopini with a group of Italian prisoners of war in a camp in India

(photo courtesy of Raffaele Iacopini)

life was monotonous and over time many of the men felt they were forgotten and became more desperate.  Health was the most serious worry.  At the camp, at Ramgarh many succumbed to beriberi and typhoid fever, ‘at an alarming rate’. The camp turned into a sea of mud and was filled with mosquitoes when the rains started.  Several hundred Italians died while interned during the war in India, some from natural causes but the majority from illnesses caught while in confinement.  For prisoners of war of all different nationalities, the war was characterised by a long, testing time of waiting in camps, longing for letters and hoping that their own news was getting through.  (Khan, Yasmin, The Rah at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War)

Vincenzo Piciaccia from Pescara del Tronto (Ascoli Piceno) was captured 4th January a914 at Bardia.  From Egypt he was transported to India. The photo below is of a young 23 year old Vincenzo at Bangalore 1943.  He was transported to Australia and arrived in Melbourne 26th April 1944 onboard Mariposa.

Piciacchia Bangalore 1943

Vincenzo Piciaccia Bangalore India 1943

(photo courtesy of Leo Piciaccia)

Filippo Granatelli from Sant’ Elpidio (Ascoli Piceno) was captured at Asmara 6th May 1941.  He did not arrive in Australia until 13th February 1945. The group of Italians  onboard the General William Mitchell departed from India and were the last group of Italian POWs to arrive in Australia. Despite searches, Filippo managed to keep hidden a relic from his time in India, a One Anna note from Prisoner of War Camp Bhopal.

Granatelli India

One Anna from Bhopal

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)

Italian Soldiers at War

Researching Italian prisoners of war on farms in Queensland was my primary research focus.  With over 1500 Italians living and working in Queensland, it was difficult not to get kidnapped by peripheral topics.

But I soon realised I couldn’t research the Queensland Italians without knowing where they had been fighting and captured.  And with thanks to the families of Angelo Amante, Francesco Cipolla, Stefano Lucantoni, Ermanno Nicoletti, Adofo D’Addario, Luigi Iacopini, Antioco Pinna and Nicola Micala we have the  images below of the Italians as soldiers.

I was overwhelmed by the statistics for Italians captured  at Battle of Bardia so I spent some time reading newspaper articles for the Australian soldiers’ perspective, books in the James Cook University for detailed military and strategy information and personal memories of Italian prisoners of war.

 

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Delving into the battles of Beda Fomm,  Sidi el Barrani, Wolkefit,  Buq Buq,  Keren,  Tobruk,  Gialo Oasis and Giarabub Oasis happened as I  assisted Italian families with their research on their fathers and grandfathers. Appendix 2 in  Walking in their Boots   is a comprehensive list of places of capture for Queensland Italian prisoners of war.

Additionally, Libya.Egypt.Eritrea.Ethiopia is a photo story of a number of battles together with personal photos of Australia’s Italian prisoners of war.

 

Left photo: Vincenzo Piciaccia Right photo: Vincenzo Piciaccia on right

(photo courtesy of Leo Piciacci)

Vincenzo Piciaccia was 19 years old when these photos were taken in Libya.  The photo on the right shows the bravado of young men from Ascoli Piceno with Vincenzo holding his dagger in one hand and another man holding out his rifle. Side by side with weapons of war are the everyday items:  a  food container which Vincenzo holds in his left hand and the man on the left also holds a billy can. Vincenzo was 20 years old when he was captured at Bardia 4.1.41 and 26 years old when he returned to Italy: a youth stolen from him by war.

A report written by Major A.E. Reed C.C. No. 3 Reinforcement Group in June 1941, records a little information about the captured Italians soldiers:

“There is a large internment Camp for prisoners of war on the road from Gaza to Jeruselem and another near Ismailia.  I was informed that there was also one near Suez, but I was unable to get any reliable information regarding the capacity or other detials of these camps.  They are brilliantly illuminated at night and can be seen for from many miles away.  On one night, however, an unidentifited plane machine-gunned the camp at Suez, and since my return there has benn a report of the bombing of the camp on the road to Jeruselem. From enquiries I made, I was informed that large numbers of prisoners had been sent to India and some to South Africa.  … prisoners are also being sent to Ceylon, where, I was informed, a large number are alreay located.  The shortage of transport was stated to me to be  a reason for the delay in sending prisoners to Australia, and while I was at Suez two large ships which, it was understood, would be bringing prisoners here, [Australia] were diverted to South Africa, one of them taking women and children who were being evacuated.”  AWM2018.8.411

 

Treasures in Thread

Treasures in Thread

Treasured keepsakes, given as gifts to Queensland farming families taken home to Italy come in many forms.  One does not necessarily pair needlework with Italian soldiers. Possibly a skill taught in the camps to wile away the hours of monotony.  The hands of farmers and soldiers were capable of producing the most delicate needlework.

Salvatore Morello took his embroidered work home to his wife and daughter. The Sacred Heart of Mary (Sacro Cuore di Maria) was worked on canvas.  The angels’ banner reveals that it was created 1942 in India.

Morello Embroidery 1942 India

Sacro Cuore di Maria

(photo courtesy of Luigi Tommasi )

Knight on Horse was embroidered by Francesco Pintabona who stayed with the Harsant family at Warril View via Boonah.  Made into a cushion, the fabric has yellowed with age, but the embroidery shows a calm hand an a good eye.

Francesco Pintabona

Bouquet of Australia Wildflowers was crafted by Domenico Petruzzi who lived with the Robinson family at Glen Ellen via Gayndah.  The lettering at the bottom was Domenico’s addition: Remember Domenico Petruzzi Prisoner of War.

Gayndah Tapestry (2)

Embroidery by Domenico Petruzzi Q4 Gayndah

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

Helen Mullan (nee Rackley) explains this about her embroidered gift: Before he left the farm, Domenico gave me the needlework of “Madonna and Child”.  He had painstakingly worked on a men’s handkerchief, when in a prison camp in India, I believe.  It was kept folded in an envelope for many years.  It is my special treasure, a reminder of Domenico, and I felt I needed to share this treasure with everyone, so I had it framed.  It has pride of place in my China Cabinet. You can see that is a combination of needlework and drawing with a painted background.  I have often wondered if he ran out of cotton as there are sections which have not been embroidered like the feet and the arms of the angel. It looks like he copied the image because you can see his pencilled in grid pattern.  As an adult, I reflect upon what it must have been like in the POW camp in India and the hours he spent embroidering this “Madonna and Child”.

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Embroidery by Domenico Mascuilli

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

Another beautiful embroidery made in Derradoon India in 1942 can be viewed at Embroidery made by an Italian POW

Crocifisso Salvatore Martinicca’s  embroidered  handkerchief was sewn while he was in England: Saint Antonio di Padova