Conflicting Times

Australian Soldier or Italian Internee

Interned June 1942

(Ipswich Times Thursday 13 June 1940)

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.

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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

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.

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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.

Joe Devietti

6th July 2017

Captured at Bardia

Melino family 3 - Copy

Costanzo Melino: Italian Soldier: 20 years old

(from Anzaro: The Home of my Ancestors)

Costanzo Melino’s memoirs are part of ANZANO – The Home of my Ancestors, written by his daughter Rosa Melino.  From Anzano he was conscripted and sent to Libya to fight Mussolini’s war. His recollections are invaluable in providing the personal experiences of a shepherd who was captured at the Battle of Bardia and shipped to Australia as a prisoner of war.

Special thanks to Rosa Melino for allowing for her work and the words of Costanzo  to be reproduced here as part of this project. Her assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia 4th January 1941

I didn’t want to fight.  I always wondered ‘Why me?’ We were rounded up and taken to army barracks where we were given our uniforms…. I was appointed to the 21st Artillery Regiment of the Army Corps and then we were sent to the front.  You can imagine the effect upon a young man who had never seen or learnt much.  I was taken out of school aged seven and sent to look after the sheep with my grandfather.  My grandfather died in March 1935, but in 1921 Mussolini had made a law that all children had to go to school until the age of 15, (that’s one good thing the dictator did), but it was too late for me. 

 We were sent along with other boys from my class in Anzano on the Julius Caesar to Bengazi in Libya. This took us two days at sea.  Bengazi was an Italian colony in those days.  We had to drink sterilized sea water which was salty and hot.  I was very sick. I was called up on 2nd February 1940 and sent to fight in Benghazi in Libya.  Our Commander was Annibalo Bergonsoli.  He used to have a long beard and we nicknamed him ‘Barba Elettrica’. We certainly met war and we did not recover from the shock.

 We ate bread and water and were covered in fleas and sand from the Sahara Desert.   I had to learn to wash my own clothes once a week.  We were woken and were marched and exercised and then we were lined up and given coffee at 7 a.m. in the morning.  We were instructed until lunch time and then we were line up for lunch at 1 p.m. Then we were instructed again until 4 p.m. and again we were lined up and given our meal of ‘pasta asciutta’ or ‘minestrone’ or ‘risotto’.  We were also given some meat, half a litre of wine and two rolls of bread per day.  We had to be respectful to our superiors, and if we weren’t we were placed in confinement by our Colonel Commander.  Water was rationed.  From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. we were free and we could go to the city of Bengazi.  We would go and look at the shops and if any soldier had some money he would buy what he needed. We were always watched by other soldiers doing the rounds – usually in groups of three.  We could not speak with the Arabs and we had to return at the right time.  We had to salute our officials.  Italo Balbi was the Italian Governor at the time.

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North Africa: Western Desert.  Developed from a film taken from captured Italian prisoners at Bardia. c. 1940

(Australian War Memorial, Robert Otto Boese, Image P05182.051)

When the war broke we were commanded by Colonel Mario Bombagli to go to the Egyptian border between Bardia and Tobruk. One hundred thousand Italian soldiers of the various Infantry, Bersaglieri, Engineering and Artillery were killed there.  It was called the ‘Front Cerinaico’. There were so many men and so little equipment.  It was a desert with no water. It was hot during the day and freezing at night.  Bombs fell frequently upon us from overhead planes.  We were given orders to attack only when the enemy fired first.

In August 1940, we were given the order to advance into Egyptian territory. The Italian forces won ‘Siti Barrani’ in Egypt, but that too was a desert.  The desert winds would blow the sand and we could not even see.  We had to stay until the tempest passed.  At night we slept in the ‘trincee’ or tunnels that we built ourselves to protect us from the enemy bombardments.  We were given two litres of water and little food.

In October 1940, we were surrounded by the English and we lost ground and had to return to Bardia where after many battles we were defeated.

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Two captured Italian carro veloce CV22 tankettes on the road overlooking Bardia Harbour. Bardia can be seen on the far hill. (Negative by B.M.I.)

(Australia War Memorial, Image 0084113)

Target Practice

We lived about three mile out of town and my dad operated the Monto Aerodrome on our property.  During the war, the VDC (Volunteer Defence Corps) gave dad a 303 and told him that if the Japanese landed on the airfield, he had to shoot them.  I think we kids, used up the box of bullets that came with the 303.  Lucky the invasion never happened because dad wouldn’t have had the bullets to defend the airfield.

Monto Airport

View of Monto Aerodrome October 1951

(John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Negative number: 204178)

There were ten children in my family, so dad had us to help him on the farm, so he didn’t apply for Italian POWs.  But our neighbour Rupert Dowling had Italian POWs.  I thought about them the other day, and their names came to me straight away: Pace and Morelli.  Farming was hard work in those days as you had to use horses and a three furrow plough to get the land tilled.

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Warren Dowling, Vincenzo Pace and Doug Groundwater Monto 1944

(from the Collection of Judith Minto (nee Dowling))

I was about ten years old at the time but I remember the reddish orange uniforms that Pace and Morelli had to wear.  We kids called them ‘Itydykes’. You would see them being taken to Mass in town on a Sunday, four of them in the back of Dowling’s ute.  He must have picked up two others from another farm.

My brothers and I would go out shooting ducks, dad was a World War 1 Veteran and made sure that we all knew how to handle a rifle.  Pace and Morelli came out shooting with us once.  We were shooting tin cans.  All a bit of fun.  Dad was none too pleased when he found out that we had given the rifles to the POWs.  I supposed we didn’t see any problems with it.  It was just something to do.

Neighbours, the Anderson’s also had POWs. A young fellow from their farm would sneak over to our house at night.  My brother Bill played the banjo and mandolin and so did this fellow so that had many jam sessions together.  Probably, we younger kids were supposed to be asleep. Wouldn’t have been right to have us go to school the next day and talk about the POWs over at our place.

I remember Mrs Dowling going crook about having to cook for the POWs.  I think it was more that she had to cook up meals of spaghetti for them, and it wasn’t something that she was used to doing.  They didn’t eat in the house, but there was a table set up outside under loquat tree where they would eat their meals.  If two Italians went to a farm, then the farmer fed them.  If there were three at a farm, the third one was the cook.

The van used to come to the farms with items for the Italians.  It upset a lot of people that they could buy items that we couldn’t get in the shops.  I remember sardines, cigarettes, tomato sauce and spaghetti.

I think there was mention of Rupert Dowling sponsoring Morelli after the war.  But I think by then, Rupert had retired or had leased out his farm to share-croppers.

One day, going home from school, I saw what seemed like hundreds of the ‘Itydykes’ in the showgrounds.  It was the end of the war and the POWs were there waiting to board the train to Brisbane.  Pace and Morelli must have seen us and came over to the fence to ask us something or tell us something.  I remember all this spaghetti that was being cooked up there.

 

Pratola Peligna home of Vincenzo Pace and Cansano home of Nicola Morelli

Doug Groundwater

Monto

12 June 2017

 

Tinned Peaches

Montville Pineapples

Pineapple farm at Montville

(Picture Queensland, State Library of Queensland)

Much of the history of the Montville district has been lost as the farms have disappeared to make way for progress.

I was a young teenager during the war and remember well the Italian Prisoners of War on Cliff Dart and Artie Glover’s farms.  I am not sure if the Italians were billeted with Cliff Dart and then loaned to Artie Glover, but there were a number of them during that time.

Pineapples were farmed there and the Italians were good workers.  I suppose they did all the jobs around the farm including picking and packing.

I remember the Italians as being decent fellows.  They were docile and peaceful and never any trouble. Cliff Dart had a spare house on his farm so the Italians lived independently.  They had their beds and everything set up for cooking.  So they had it pretty good.  One fellow, I remember as being short and fat, probably the cook.  Sometimes, at night, they would come down to our farm. They seemed to be able to move around freely.

They liked to tell stories. I remember there were many conversations and the Italians made it clear that they did not like the war.  They were interested in learning about the history of the district and they would tell us stories about life in Italy. There was never a feeling that they were dangerous.  When the war ended and peace declared, they were very excited to tell us that the war had finished. They were good singers too.  It was like they were trained opera singers with their tenor voices.  You could hear their singing and music  from our farm.

Cliff Dart would take them to the Catholic Church in Nambour as there wasn’t a church in Montville.  I remember the orange coloured uniforms they had to wear and the Army Supply Truck that would come around to the farms about once a month.  The Italians could get lots of items that we couldn’t buy what with food rationing.  They would always say after canteen day, “we give you some” as they offered and shared chocolate with us kids.  The idea that Italian POWs could buy items like tinned peaches, did not sit well with the locals.  They had more than they could eat, so we would swap tinned peaches for bananas we grew on our farm.

I can’t remember exactly when they arrived, but it was almost like one day they were there and then they were gone.  It was a bit like that when the army set up camp with new recruits on the sports ground.  There was a lot of military activity during the war in the district.  An army camp would be set up, the soldiers would undergo their training and then overnight, they would disappear.  All tents and equipment just gone.

Montville had four guest houses at the time and army and air force personnel would come up to Montville for R & R.  They would come up with their girlfriends and then after they left, the pilots would fly over or buzz over Montville to say goodbye to their girlfriends.  I have the Yankees to thank for not becoming a smoker.  A couple of my mates and I obtained a packet of Camel or Lucky Stripes from the Yankees.  Between us, we smoked the whole packet.  I was crook.  I never had a cigarette again.  My parents didn’t say anything, but I am sure they knew what I had been up too.

The war had an impact on schools as well.  Slit trenches were built in the school yard and air raid drills were held.  There were about 70 pupils at the school and the younger kids would go in the morning and the older kids would go to school in the afternoon.  It might have had something to do with us going from two teachers to one teacher during that time.

Les Farmer

Montville Guest House

Manjalda Guest House outdoor pool and tennis court – Montville, 1930 – 1959

(Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 23235)

Benair’s POWs

 

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Taabinga Village

(from the collection of Joanne Tapiolas)

Two of my uncles lived at Benair on the farm that my Grandfather selected in about 1907. My grandfather James McErlean was born in County Derry and sailed on the “Dorunda” in March 1887 to Australia, arriving in Brisbane on the 5th May 1887. He settled in the Benair district after land was opened up after the Taabinga Resumption.

My uncles, Peter and William, were asked by Government people of the day, as were other farmers, if they would plant a crop of cotton for the war effort as cotton was in short supply, they agreed to give it a try and I think they planted about five acres.

When it was ready to harvest the government or whoever were in charge brought some of these prisoners to their farm to hand pick the cotton. One of the uncles  didn’t think much of the idea as he had trouble trying to understand the Italians.

The farm was about 13 – 15 mile out of town and my uncle Peter Francis McErlean had two POWs billeted on his farm and I think they stayed on the farm because roads and cars weren’t the best in those days.  The records show that Leonardo Miresse from Montefalcone Valfortore and Rocco Poliseno from Castell Uccio Valmaggioce  were placed with PF McErlean on 7.8.44.

Apparently the cotton crop was not very successful, maybe dry weather or some other problem, I don’t think cotton had been planted as a crop in the Kingaroy district before that time.

Tom McErlean.

 

Local History, the Lock Up and Musical Soirees

Q7 Staff

Q7 PW Control Centre Kenilworth and Staff

(from the collection of Kenilworth Museum, donated by Tony White)

The Q7 PW Control Centre in Kenilworth is a well-known landmark. Situated on Elizabeth Street, Margaret and Tony White called the property home from 1993 – 2015 and operated it as a Bed and Breakfast. Margaret White’s interest in local history extends to her researching the history of the building. “The house was prefabricated in Brisbane and erected after the establishment of the Kenilworth town.  The area was ‘Kenilworth Station’ and after the owner Hugh Moore died, the area was gazetted as a town. It was one of the first houses built on land purchased at auction by Patrick Sharry in 1921. The Sharry’s operated it as a boarding house which was disproved of by Mrs Duggan, mother-in-law and financer for the Sharrys.  She took possession of the house and converted it into 3 – 4 flats. Mrs Duggan’s daughters Mrs ER Fritz and Mrs MA O’Connell were bequeathed the house which was then leased as Q7 PW Control Centre during the war. The Purdon family were the next owners, followed by Kevin and Gloria McGinn then us. Now it has a new life as a family home. The L shaped area under the house was known to be the ‘lock up’ for POWs, most likely caught for fraternizing with the local girls. The house is across the road from the local Catholic Church and the prisoners used to come to church and stand at the back and at the sides in their red ‘pajamas’.  Some of them biked in from Cambroon to attend church”, Margaret reminisces.

And there were many other stories about the house and the time when Italian Prisoners of War worked on farms in the Kenilworth district. “We often received visits from people who had a connection to the house: ex Army staff, families of ex Army staff.  I did also hear that at least one Italian ex-prisoner came back for a visit. The driver was Mr Thomas Dwyer, a Caloundra local and the Army staff were referred to as ‘officers and gentlemen’. We also had a visitor who happened to have attended the autopsy in Gympie of a Kenilworth POW who had drowned in the Mary River.  The locals and prisoners were having a picnic on the Mary River at the end of the war when the Italian drowned.  He was buried in Gympie and his remains were transferred to Melbourne” relates Margaret.

Local historian Lenore Meldrum recalls that living next door to the centre were her aunt and uncle.  They often talked of the Italians attending mass with the locals  but also about welcoming the Italians into their home: “Aunt was a skilled pianist and my cousin tells me that it was not unusual for the men (both soldiers and Italians) to come to their home on a Sunday evening with their musical instruments and join in a sing along around the piano”, Lenore relates.

Other Kenilworth memories collected by Kenilworth & District Historical Assn. Inc. for publication in The Mary Voice include that of Ivy Loweke as retold by her daughter Margaret Pickering: “Arthur Hughes* accommodated two of the Italian detainees, who worked on his farm (near Moy Pocket) on the Gheerulla to Brooloo Road. Normally, detainees were kept in pairs and monitored. They were fed and accommodated.  Dave Ower also accommodated two detainees. Dave’s farm was between the farms of Cope Loweke and Arthur Hughes. Cope Loweke declined having detainees on his farm, because he had two daughters (Thelma and Ivy); and didn’t feel it would be appropriate.”

*NB Guido Crocetti and Giuseppe D’Ambrosio were assigned to Arthur Hughes at Moy Pocket. 

George Pearce also remembered the Italian POWs in the Kenilworth district and recounts this memory in Ducks on the Noosa River.   The Leo mentioned is most likely Pantaleo De Carlo (farmer from Vernolle Lecce) who went to work at DE Pearce’s farm Oakey Creek, Eumundi 25th May 1944 together with Salvatore Maci  (farmer from Squinzano Lecce).

 

 

Memories of Italian POWs at Eumundi

 The Ower Farm, Kinnoull

My parents, David and Eva Ower developed a dairy farm, a little smaller than others locally (320 acres) with a dairy herd of about 25 to 35 milkers, with usual pigs, calves, and horses: 2 riding and 2 draft for operating the farm utensils.

 

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Hector and Pom Mustering a Pig Litter

I had an older sister Beverley, and we rode our horses 3 ½ miles to a small one teacher school at Brooloo, terminus of the Mary Valley Rail Line from Gympie.  We were about 8 & 7 y.o.

As much of the land was hilly, there was only a small area for tilling and growing crops and, this was done without a tractor by hand using draft horses.  Crops grown included corn, potatoes, pumpkins, and oats for feeding the animals.

Dates are uncertain but Dad was allocated 2 Italian P O W’s who we knew as Hector (probably Ettore Pizzirani) from Bologna district in Northern Italy, and Pom (probably Pompeo Cervellati) from Southern Italy.

 

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POWs Residential Humpy Kinnoull

Near to our home, there was an old humpy on stumps, which was weatherproof, tiled timber roof, timber floor, and covered side verandah as this had served as an early residence.  This then was the residence of the 2 P O W’s who had table, chairs and single beds with corn husk mattresses.   Meals were served to them in the humpy, frequently spaghetti.  They used the downstairs shower in our house and a common separate single earth closet.

The main tasks allocated were to assist in the milking, building new and repairing timber post wire fences, cutting down regrowth small trees to create more grass areas, digging out unwanted weeds and foreign growth (lantana), drafting and dipping the cattle, and clearing old trees from paddocks.

Both were taught to handle the draft horses and the hand implements, and to ride horses.  Hector did this well but there were some problems for Pom.

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Hector and Pom on Horseback

As they derived from different backgrounds and areas in Italy, there were a few personal problems and so Pom was returned to Kenilworth for further allocation.  Hector integrated well into our life activities and with our visiting friends, and we were sorry to lose him eventually.  We used to sing songs with him, teach him some Australian customs, and learn some from him.

Because of Hector’s departure about 1946, Dad bought a milking machine system to assist with the milking and cream separation process.

John Ower

14 December 2016