It was almost 73 years to the day, when Nino Cippola stepped back in time to retrace his father’s journey in Queensland. Nino’s father, Francesco (Ciccio) Cippola was an Italian prisoner of war captured in Libya on 4th January 1941. While in Melbourne on holiday from Taormina in Sicily, Nino thought he would try to find details about the “Q6 Home Hill” written into his father’s POW Service and Casualty Form.
Francesco Cippola: Roma 10.4.1939
(photographic collection of Nino Cippola)
A flurry of messagess via Messenger and emails, a flight to Townsville and Nino found himself on the railway platform of Home Hill. Francesco Cippola would have stepped onto the same platform. Not much changes in small country towns in Queensland.
Home Hill Railway Station: 1944 and 2017
Nino Cippola tracing his father’s footsteps
(NAA: M1415, 434, photographic collection of Joanne Tapiolas)
With only 1 three ton truck available the 115 Italian prisoners of war would have walked a short distance to the Home Hill Showgrounds. Many of the buildings there had been leased by the Army and it would have taken more than one trip to transport the Italians over a muddy dirt track 22 miles up river Home Hill.
It was the 30th April 1944 and the Q6 PWC Hostel, to accommodate 255 Italian POWs and A.M.F. staff, had not been completed. Wet weather, a tropical cyclone and delays with the septic tank, meant that the Italians ‘roughed it’ in temporary tents, without floor boards. The POWs were there to grow vegetables to supply to the Allied forces in North Queensland.
Little remains of the hostel buildings and the farming sheds. The concrete foundations were dug up years ago and the buildings sold off to Main Roads. What does remain are the traces of ‘settlement’ found on the banks of the Burdekin: a lone banana tree, a cluster of custard apple and lemon trees. Using a hand drawn plan of the hostel complex, Nino could envisage the extent of what was Ciccio’s home for 15 months.
Layout Plan POW Camp Homehill
(NAA: J153, T1542B, 1944)
As he stood at the Q6 Hostel site, Nino could also make sense of the many stories his father had told him. He could also make sense of Francesco’s (Ciccio’s) obsession with growing vegetables. Ciccio was not a farmer. He did not come from a farming background. Ciccio was a ‘carabinieri’. But time spent on the Home Hill farms had made an impression on Ciccio. His family said, he was fanatical about seeds and tomatoes. Nino explains that:
“my father’s interest in growing crops was substantial and almost at an industrial scale – he would return home from the farm with 150 kg of tomatoes in the back of the car, or grow wheat and have it ground for flour, bags and bags of it, he would have 100s of kilos of eggplants, capsicums or pumpkins. He was always asking his family about which fruit or vegetables tasted best and he would dry and save seeds of the best tasting. He often had seeds in his pockets. He would give away his excessive volumes of fruit and vegetables to neighbours, family and friends. I never fully understood my father’s passion in this area until I visited the POW site on the Burdekin River and learnt about the work my father and other POW were doing. My father did not come from a farming background. Most people have a small vegetable plot, but my father grew crops on a grand scale. I believe his time on the Commonwealth Farm at Q6, gave him this lifelong interest”.
The backdrop to this story is the purpose and operations of the Commonwealth Vegetable Project Farms: to grow vegetables for service requirements, to develop means and ways to select and grow crops suited to good yields and the tropical climate, to run seed trials and soil testing to improve productivity. Regarding tomatoes, barrels on the Commonwealth farms were filled with tomatoes, to decompose and then be treated to extract the seeds and so began a lifelong passion of Ciccio’s centring around tomato growing and seed selection.
Ciccio’s dislike for bananas also seems to have stemmed from his time at Q6. His children heard the recurring comment ‘I don’t eat bananas’ from their father. If bananas were in the fruit bowl, he would reiterate his disdain for bananas. The Home Hill Italian POWs were responsible for the cultivation of nine acres of bananas and used ground safes to ripen the hands. Likely, the best bananas went to the armed forces and the overripe bananas, in abundance, became part of the POW daily menu.
The landscape of the Burdekin is in contrast to that of Taormina. A mountain range rises high in the background at the end of Kirknie Road as opposed to an active Mount Etna viewed through the archways of the Ancient Greek Amphitheatre.
Contrasting Landscapes of Taormina Sicily and up river Home Hill Queensland
(Trip Advisor: Taormina, photographic collection of Joanne Tapiolas)
Up river Home Hill is a long way from Taormina and the contrasts are striking. But Nino’s step back in time, to the time his father Ciccio grew vegetables on a Commonwealth Vegetable Farm up river Home Hill, offered up an understanding of his father’s years as a prisoner of war in Australia.