Australian Soldier or Italian Internee
(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.
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.
6th July 2017