Tag Archives: Italian POWs Australia

Friendships Forged by War

With few men available for farm work, Bernard Mason signed up to employ Italian prisoners of war mid 1944. On the 8th June 1944, Mario Mercuri and Guido Vaccarini were escorted to his property at Lagoon Pocket by military staff.

By the time Mario and Guido arrived at the Mason’s property, they had left their footprints across four countries.  As POWs, they had spent time in temporary caged compounds in the deserts of North Africa, POW camps on the Suez Canal; in India and Cowra Australia.  The war had gone badly for Italy in North Africa and Guido and Mario were but two of the 350,000 Italians captured in the North African campaigns. For 19 brief months, they lived and worked at Lagoon Pocket, settling in quickly to the daily routine of farm life.

Farming life was never easy in those times.  Petrol rationing meant that farmers became charcoal burners, making charcoal as a fuel to power trucks. Tractors were non-existent and the ploughs were pulled by horses. Farm work was hard, manual work.  Gympie farms did very well during the war, provided that they had workers.  Troop trains came through Gympie on a regular basis with fresh produce sold directly to the army.  Gympie being well situated supplied fruit and vegetables directly to the southern markets of Brisbane and Sydney.

Bernard Mason grew a diverse range of crops and also branched out into a macadamia plantation.  Pineapples, papaws, carrots, beetroots and cabbages were some of the fruit and vegetable crops produced on the farm. Bernie also had another 40 acre property from which he pioneered the macadamia industry.  At the time, there was no interest for ‘bush nuts’ and the Department of Primary Industry had little information about its commercial viability.  But Bernie with the assistance of the ‘Ityes’ planted 800 macadamia seedlings which in time was known to be the largest macadamia seedling plantation in existence. Nowadays, macadamia plantations use grafted trees.  Bernie would go up into the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast around Eumundi and Mapleton to collect the nuts for seeds.

G and M planting pineapples Lagoon Pkt

 

Guido Vaccarini and Mario Mercuri planting pineapples at Lagoon Pocket 1944-1945

(from the collection of Barry Mason)

It was in this bucolic setting that the POWs became part of the Mason family.  Barry Mason, born November 1939,  was only a child at the time, but he remembers the men well: “They treated us kids well.  I remember how they would put my sisters in a fruit basket and carry them around. And they played games with us.  Dad bought them each a watch and push bike.  There were rules about when and where they could go on their days off, so I suppose this is why he bought those items for them.  They made no attempt to attend church, and I remember a story about Guido and church.  Apparently, he told dad, ‘No church. Madonna no think of me. Me no think of Madonna’.  And there was the story about the POWs at the Butler vineyard.  Jack Butler had the Italians prune back the vines and had a fit when he saw what they had done.  They had cut them right back and Jack believed that they had ruined his vines.  As it turned out, these POWs knew more than a little bit about vineyards and the next crop was the best crop every grown on the farm.”

Another anecdote about the ‘Ityes’ at the Mason farm centres on ‘the still’.  Barry reminisces, “They set up a still to distil alcohol.  I am not sure where all the bits and pieces came from, but they used a milk separator bowl to boil the fruit in.  They used pineapple skins and no doubt other fruit.  They had a coiled pipe and the vapours would go up into the coil and came out a crystal clear toxic liquid. They could turn their hand to most things, although I am not sure that this was ‘allowed’.”  Lots of memories surface about those times and Barry relates a common joke of the day, “I don’t think there was any malice in the words but it went like this: ‘How would one describe ‘tall inebriated Italians?  Hi(gh) tiddly I-tyes’!”

It was however to be a near tragedy that cemented a lifelong friendship between the Mason family and the Vaccarini family. Guido saved the lives of Bernie’s two daughters, Valda and Rae. The girls had been playing in the cabin of the Ford V8 truck when they were rendered unconscious by carbon monoxide.  Bernie, Guido and Mario were in the packing shed when Guido realised he could not hear the girls.  He told Bernie, “Boss, bambini quiet… Mister, no hear bambini” adding “Mister, mister, I go see why no hear bambini”. Giudo had found the girls slumped and unconscious in the truck’s cabin. The girls were removed from the truck and laid on the floor of the packing shed and the Gran who looked after the children, felt all was lost and pushed Mason to the ground and said, “Pray, pray. Pray for the girls”.   Guido was loaded with one of the girls on the back of the truck and Mrs Mason in the cabin with the other lifeless girl.  Bernie had said, “It was the longest 8 mile I have ever driven.  But God must have heard my prayers”. The rush of fresh air across the face of the little girl on the back of the truck stirred her but it wasn’t until they arrived at Dr Warrener’s in Gympie, when a nurse revived the other child, that the family knew both girls were safe.  The doctor said that without the action of Guido, the girls would have died as had the girls inhaled the carbon monoxide for another few minutes, they would certainly have been dead.

After his repatriation to Italy in 1947, Guido wrote to Bernie in 1949 to ask for sponsorship to return to Australia. Bernie Mason said, “This, I felt was the least I could do because he was the means of saving our two little mites.” Guido arrived back in Gympie in 1951 and his wife Rina emigrated a year later.  Barry said, “When my dad died, the family wished for the graveside service to be private.  Guido asked to pay his respects to my dad and we decided that he deserved a place there.”

The Mason and Vaccarini families still reside in Gympie. Barry and Margaret live in Gympie and have become the custodians of the photos and stories of that time.  Valda married Duncan Polley of Polley’s Coaches and Rae married Gordon Saxelby and they now live in Bundaberg. Guido has now passed on some years ago.  In a fitting tribute to the close family ties, Barry had the honour of conducting the service at Guido’s funeral.  Guido’s wife Rina is still with us though she is very frail. Son Marco and Rina live in Lawrence Street Gympie.

While time progresses quickly these days and memories fade, the stories of the Italian POWs on Gympie farms are clearly remembered.  The special bonds forged between a prisoner of war and a Gympie farmer continue to be part of Gympie’s Italian prisoner of war history.

Bern, Guido, Joe

1950’s Bernie Mason, Guido Vaccarini and Joe Brooks in front of 4 x 4 Chev Blitz Truck

(from the collection of Barry Mason)

 

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.

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (1)

Warren Dowling, Vincenzo Pace and Syd Dunne 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

 

Grubbing Lantana

 

 

Joyce.OverflowThe Overflow Homestead

(from the Collection of Michael Joyce)

My dad Edgar de Burgh Joyce had a property “The Overflow” between Boonah and Beaudesert.  I would have been about nine years old at the time the Italian POWs came to work on the property.  We were mainly grazing with dairying, potatoes, melons, pumpkins and lettuce, but the Italians had nothing to do with the breeding and fattening of the cattle.

From memory, we would have had several gangs of men who came to do hard manual work.  Grubbing lantana with mattocks, ring barking and pulling burrs was the work they did.  We didn’t have a tractor, only horse and plough.  They would have to walk 1 – 2 miles to get to the paddock they were working in.  I got the feeling that if they had had enough, they would leave and walk back to Boonah, about 16 miles.

They lived in a self-contained cottage (the old stockmen’s quarters) down the hill from our house.  They looked after their own meals as they had a kitchen but we did go down to them for a feed of spaghetti.  I still remember a few words of Italian eg gallina for hen,  uovo (warwar) for egg,  bambini mocca for milk calf.

The Italians also helped in the vegetable garden.  It was about 1 acre so we always had lots of fresh salads and vegetables for them.  Another of their jobs was to take the five house cows down to the oats paddock in the morning.  They could only be left there for 10 minutes so Mum lent Tony (Antonio Macchitella)  her watch to keep time.  Tony told us he lost the watch but we never believed him.  He was a cheeky fellow, always answering with a YES YES YES and came across as being overly eager to please.

 

Boonah Macchitella, Antonio

Prisoner of War/Internee,  Macchitella, Antonio

(National Archives of Australia NAA: MP 1103/2, 64632)

 

But the Italians weren’t seen as our enemy.  They just got involved in a war that had nothing to do with them.

Michael Joyce

 

Boonah.The Overflow (3)The Overflow Homestead

(from the collection of Michael and Jan Joyce)

 

Memories from Mahoon

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Pownall Family 1942

Back: Jan, Tom and Barbara Pownall; Heather McGuigan; Geoffrey and Peter Pownall

Front: John, Dick and Bruce McGuigan

(from the collection of Jan Joyce (nee Pownall))

My father, Thomas Norman Pownall of “Mahoon”, Monto certainly had a group of POWs and from the little that I remember they were a great success.

Ring barking was the main work that the Italians did.  They would work out on the property at a camp site as the work was a distance away from the house.  After the men moved on, Dad went out to the spot where their camp kitchen had been and found a tablespoon with QG engraved on it. I still have it and it is used every day in my kitchen! Isn’t that lovely?

At that time my parents had bought our big English Oak dining table. One of the Italians was a French Polisher and Dad agreed for him to restore the table. My Mother’s heart was in her mouth as he took to her table with a plane. She thought, “What if he takes his situation out on my table?”  But of course he didn’t, and he did a beautiful job with what Dad had at hand. What a joy it would have been to him to work in his trade – far better than ring barking.

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (8)

Oak Table Restored by Italian Prisoner of War at Mahoon

(from the collection of Jan Joyce (nee Pownall))

The rules of employment encouraged farmers not to get too close to the Italian POWs.  I think that this is how things went on our farm especially as the Italians were away from the house during the week ring barking.  The war was a challenging time for everyone.

Also, one of the Italians fashioned a ring for me out of a spoon. I was about 6 or 7 and loved it. However my sister and I were playing in the hay shed which at the time was full of corn cobs. I carefully placed my precious ring on one of the husks while we climbed all over the stack. You can imagine the fate of the ring!

My uncle Geoffrey Pownall had POWs as well on his property Tecoma and after the war he sponsored Adolfo D’Addario. My sister Barbara remembers that Adolfo had a spaghetti maker. Adolfo would teach us how to pick up spaghetti to eat it the Italian way.  The spaghetti and sauce was in a dessert or porridge plate and using a fork and a soup spoon he would roll the spaghetti on the fork, using the soup spoon to hold it safely and then we could get it to our mouths without losing everything!

I clearly remember my younger cousin Suzanne, Peter Pownall’s sister, helping Adolfo with English pronunciation.  She would say, “spoon Dolfo, similar moon” obviously copying the way her parents helped him. She would have been 4 or 5.

Janice Joyce (nee Pownall)

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (9)

Pownall Family Home Mahoon

(from the collection of Janice Joyce (nee Pownall))

 

 

 

His Name was George

Back in those days, we grew potatoes, vegetables and we had a dairy out at Moogerah about seven miles from town.  Besides the ploughing, seeding and harvesting of the crops we had the twice daily task of milking our herd of 60 Friesian dairy cows.  It would have been the beginning of milking machines back then, but they weren’t that good.  The Cream Cart would collect the milk and take it to the Butter Factory in Boonah.  The cream would be skimmed to make the butter and the by product, butter milk would then be turned into a powder.  The buttermilk powder was used to feed the calves and for cattle.

George was a good match for our farm because of the work he did back in Italy.  We were lucky because he had knowledge of animals.  In Italy, he had about 100 ewes which were milked every morning.  Then they would make cheese with the milk. He could ride a horse and was good with all jobs around the farm. George was a hard worker.

Giovanni Ragusa

‘George’ Giovanni Ragusa Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

I was about 25 years old and my wife was 20 years old when we welcomed George.  Mr Collins used to be our school teacher and he was in charge of the Prisoner of War Centre in Boonah.  It was located on Railway Street where Dover and Sons are now.  It used to be the aerated water and cordial factory.

George came to us after he had been at the Moffat’s farm and probably was with us about 6 months.  He was never any trouble.  He ate with us and slept in the house.  He missed spaghetti and he told my wife how to cook it up using his family recipe, the proper way.  It was a good cheap meal.  The spaghetti would come out on the canteen truck.

The canteen truck also brought out other things for the men to buy.  Things like chocolate, shaving sticks, cigarettes.  George was clean shaven and would shave every day.  I know not sure whether that was the regulation or not.

We used to call them the “Red Army”, because of the coloured uniforms they had to wear.  George taught me some Italian but he would say in stilted English, “no possible, Eric learn Italian.”  He had pretty good everyday English.

George told us that he was in the Horse Brigade and during a battle he was knocked from his horse and he made out he was dead.  He said that they did what they could to survive. He had no respect for Mussolini and it was like he would spit and stamp it into the ground and curse and huff if Mussolini was talked about.

We didn’t go out much in those days because of the petrol rationing, but on a Sunday we would go and visit my wife’s parents in John Street Boonah.  I don’t remember taking him to church, but if he asked, I would have taken him.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

‘George’ Giovanni Ragusa with Eric Behendorff and family Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

My brother Amos had two Italians.  Frank was a beautiful man.  Tony was a bit ‘funny’, I think a bit irrational at times, or easy to get upset. Their names were Francesco Di Lucca and Antonio Di Renna.

George didn’t want to leave our place when they had to return to Gaythorne.  He said that he would sooner stay working on the farm rather than wait around at Gaythorne until he could go home.  He had one regret, and that was that he would have liked to have been with us, when our first baby was born.  I think he wanted to meet our baby and have that connection with us.  After they were sent to Gaythorne at Enoggera we made the trip to Brisbane to say goodbye to him.  He told us that he wanted me to go visit him in Italy and he would welcome me and give me a good time and show me around.  We corresponded with him and him with us.

I have never forgotten his name: Giovanni Ragusa. But we called him George.

Eric Behrendorff

boonah-ragusa

Prisoner of War/Internee: Ragusa, Giovanni

(National Archives of Australia MP1103/2, 64947)

Ring Barking in the Outback

 

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (6)

Ring Barking on Tecoma

Adolfo D’Addario right of photo

(from the Collection of Assunta Austin)

My parents had a cattle property at Tecoma about 50 km due west of Monto when the Italian POWs came to stay with us in 1945.  That period has a special place in my memory because I was a four year old boy and only child on the farm. As well, one of the Italians returned to Australia, sponsored by my father and so re-entered our lives in 1951.

They were all in their late 30s.  Giuseppe Ferranti was a motor driver and a very good diesel mechanic.  Salvatore Bernardo was a musician and Adolfo D’Addario was a barber.

The Italians became my ‘playmates’ especially as they were such great family men and had had to leave their children when war started. I was called ‘Pietro’ and received birthday cards and Christmas cards once they left the district.  Letters from Adolfo D’Addario to my parents were always signed off with “a great kiss to my little friend Peter” or “a big hug to Peter”.  From Hay, 12.8.1946 Adolfo wrote, “Dear Peter, I express you my best wishes for your birthday. Sincerely Yours Adolfo.” I was looked after and carried around by the Italians.  They made trinkets and little toys for me and I have a memory of sweets they gave me, like a boiled lolly in the shape of fruit.

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (3)

Tecoma: Italian POWs, Mr Pownall driving, family friend standing, Aussie worker with hat, ‘Pietro’ at back 1945

(from the Collection of Assunta Austin)

Adolfo was a barber and one day when he was cutting my hair in the shed, a neighbour rode over home for a visit.  Adolfo asked Mr Mick if he would like a hair cut to which he replied, “You’ll have to charge me ½ price”. Language was a bit of a problem because Mick was bald and had no hair, so he took off his hat, yelled at Adolfo and repeated his “joke”. While the Italians managed to get by with limited English, they were slow to comprehend conversations especially if someone talked loudly and quickly.  Of course there are lot of my generation who can count to ten in Italian, compliments of the POWs.  The words ‘understand’, ‘no understand’ and ‘possible’ were much used.

Another story about language is the time that we left the property to go on holidays for a week.  The Italians and our Aussie workers were left to care take.  There were pigs to attend to, cows to be milked and they would ride the horses to check on the windmills.  Dad and Mum returned to a note, “Pig is death. Possible eat snake.”

The Italians worked out at a camp during the week and came in on weekends.  The work they undertook was ring barking.  It was a hard job and in the beginning their hands were covered in blisters.  No doubt they had never held an axe before.  They camped in tents which had rudimentary bedding and I remember the pillows were nothing more than a round log.  The countryside is treed with iron bark and grew thick which wouldn’t allow the grass to grow.  Saplings were ringbarked with a small frill, but the mature trees required a 4 inch band of frilling.

When they were back home on a Sunday, mum would cook up a Sunday dinner of roast chicken or beef.  They complained about the spaghetti that came out on the canteen truck because it was ‘not long enough’.  I suppose mum would have made spaghetti for them.

They were never any trouble. Of course they would have arguments amongst themselves and sometimes run at each other with a knife, but no one was hurt and it was more a way of sorting out their disagreements.

Reading letters they sent from Gaythorne after they finished up with us, tells a story of unhappiness and longing to be back on the farm. They always asked after our health, mum ‘lady’ and me and wrote about the good treatment that they had at home. Questions about the cattle, the cucumbers, the melons and tomatoes were asked and regards and goodbye to Pat and Lesley (workers) sent.  Appreciation was expressed for letters received, apologies made for their English and concerns for the family if they hadn’t received letters. Hopes of being home within 2 – 3 months were mentioned despite, them not getting home to Italy until early 1947.

After the war, Dad and Adolfo corresponded as Dad had offered to sponsor Adolfo to return to Australia.  Dad only had work for one and so Adolfo’s dream of bringing out his sons was put on hold.  Adolfo worked hard and saved his money.  After missing so much of his children’s lives, he wanted to keep his family together and so when he was able, he brought out his two sons: Mario and Attilio.  The two sons worked on a forestry project in the Coominglah range.  At some stage, his sons wanted to leave the district and go cut sugar cane.  Adolfo told dad that where his sons went, he went.  They would stay together.  They moved to Bundaberg and Adolfo then brought out his wife Assunta and daughter Aminta in 1956.

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (4)

Mrs and Mr Pownall, Attilio D’Addario and Adolfo D’Addario (photo taken by Mario D’Addario

(from the Collection of Assunta Austin)

Our family would visit Adolfo and his family in Targo Street Bundaberg and I have memories of being served black coffee and a liqueur named cent herbes. Adolfo had a cane farm and I remember that he also helped out another family. His pride and joy in later life was a Poinciana tree in the front garden which was a local landmark.

Only just recently, I have been in touch with a granddaughter of Adolfo: Assunta.  She has sent me a copy of the letter my dad sent to Adolfo 8.2.51 explaining the arrangements regarding sponsorship and the process Adolfo needed to follow so that he could be on the Toscana in June 1951.

Peter Pownall

15.2.17

Lagoon Pocket’s Macadamia Trees

gympie-mercuri-mario-1

Italian Prisoner of War Identity Card, Mercuri, Mario PWI 57376

(National Archives of Australia J3118, 119)

Allan Blackman from Gympie recalls a macadamia farm at Lagoon Pocket where he worked during the 1970s  and how he had been told about a few hundred seedling trees that had been planted by the Italian POWs during WW2.  Combining local knowledge with archival research, a more complete picture emerges.

Mario Mercuri and Guido Vaccarini worked on Bernard Mason’s farm at Lagoon Pocket and “they would all search in the scrub above Calico Creek for wild macadamias with thin shells which were used to establish Bernie’s orchard.” This species of macadamia ‘integrifolia’ is also known as ‘papershell’ macadamia because of its thinner shell.  As a native species, it is now listed as vulnerable.

While initially, the relationship between farmer and POWs would have been of one boss and worker, a friendship of mutual respect would have been emerged as Guido and Mario were credited with saving the lives of Bernie Mason’s daughters.  The connection between Bernie Mason and Guido Vaccarini continued with Guido visiting Gympie to visit Bernie, after he had migrated to Australian in 1951.

gympie Vaccarini guido Bernard Mason.jpg

Italian Prisoner of War Identity Card Vaccarini, Guido PWI 57514

(National Archives of Australia J3118, 119)