Alex Miles from Mooloo via Gympie visited me in Townsville in September 2018. He brought with him two special items associated with the Mooloo Italian prisoners of war. His childhood neighbour Noela White (nee Wyllie) had a cellophane belt made by one of the POWs and Alex had a coin which Francesco Ciaramita had started to shape into a ring. Both Noela and Alex felt that the items needed a ‘home’ where they could be appreciated as part of the history of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland. A decision was made to dontate them to the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and I had the honour of beginning the process.
While the AWM had similar items in their collection, these items were made by Australian soldiers. An application was made to the AWM to see if members of the acquistion team were interested in the items, this is stage one of the donation process.
Stage 2 was the sending of the items with historical details to the acquistion team for further investigation and evaluation.
Stage 3 followed with the items being formally accepted into the AWM collection.
22nd November 2018
Thank you kindly for returning the Deed of Gift. I am glad to let you know that the items you have donated are now officially part of the National Collection.
Thank you for your generous support of the Australian War Memorial.
At the beginning of this project, I had a wish list. It was a simple list: to find one Queenslander who remembered the Italian prisoners of war and to double the number of photos of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland. The only three photos in the public domain which feature our Queensland POWs are housed in the John Oxley Library.
My wish list for one story and three photos has been exceeded many times over.
BUT I had never expected to find the testimonies of Italians about their time as prisoners of war. This project is honoured to have these testimonies as part of its collection.
HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR HAVING A MEAL IN THEIR MESS AT NO. 7 COMPOUND, 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. PICTURED ARE: 46007 ANTONIO LUMIA (1); 45824 BRUNO GALLIZZI (2); 46734 ALMO STAGNARO (3); 48355 GIUSEPPE ARRIGONI; (4); 45087 ANTONIO BACCIGALUPO (5); 46620 MICHELE RIZZO (6); 46626 EMILIO RUOCCO (7); 46635 FRANCO RONDELLI (8); 45900 ALESSANDRO IANNOTTA (9).
(AWM, Image 063371 McInnes, Geoffrey)
Costanzo Melino’sstory is part of a book written and published by his daughter Rosa Melino “Anzaro: The Home of My Ancestors”. Captured… On the Move and Captured at Bardia share the everyday details of life as a young Italian soldier. Costanzo returned to Australia after the war with his family following later. Life as a soldier was difficult but life as a ‘new’ Australian presented many challenges for the Melino family.
Costanzo Melino c 1940
(photo courtesy of Rosa Melino)
Ferdinando Pancisi is 100 years old and living and working in a tiny village Civorio in Alta Romagna. Tim Dwyer (ex Boonah) arranged for Tammy Morris and Nicola Cianti to visit Ferdinando (Ferdy) in October 2017. His memories were recorded on 21st October 2017. They offer a stoic perspective on life, war, death and imprisonment. Ferdy had worked on the farm of Pat Dwyer Fassifern via Boonah and for over 70 years the Dwyer family have corresponded with Ferdy. At first it was Pat Dwyer, then his wife Joie and recently son Tim. This is a special family connection and legacy. Against all odds, Tim arranged for Ferdy to be interviewed so that his ‘voice’ will never be silenced.
Anna Pancisi, Tim Dwyer and Ferdinando Pancisi
(photo courtesy of Cathy Dwyer)
Angelo Valianteis a well known and much respected resident of the Stanthorpe district. His story is recorded in a book, newspapers and a mural painting. Seizing an opportunity and an offer to have an interview filmed, I travelled with Ann Megalla to Stanthorpe in October 2017 to talk with Angelo about his time as a prisoner of war.
Angelo Valiante – Mural by Guido van Helten : Stanthorpe
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.
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”.
(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.
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.
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.
Dall’ Australia a Bagnatica per riabbracciare l’ex prigioniero
Il giovane australiano non ha dimenticato il bergamasco che lavoro alle dipendenze della sua familiglia – Cordiale incontro con un altro ex prigioniero di Vigano S. Martino
Below is a translated copy of a 6th September 1960 newspaper article from “Eco di Bergamo”.
Graydon Bolte (left) shares a meal with Angelo Airoldi and family
(from the collection of Graydon Bolte)
It tells the story of a Bergamose POW, Angelo Airoldi, from the time he was captured in 1940 in Buk Buk, North Africa to the time a young Australian visited him on his farm in the commune of Bagnatica.
Today, the country men of “Portico” farm in commune of Bagnatica have suspended their work almost completely to stop in the large courtyard and keep company with an exceptional guest, from Australia. It is a question of a strong young mean bieng 23 years old, Mr. Graydon Bolte, from West Wyalong, New South Wales.
He arrived here three days ago and will stay here for some weeks, as a guest of Mr Angelo Airoldi who is the sole person not only at “Portico” but at Bagnatica able to understand and chat with young Graydon, who speaks in English language only.
Mr Airoldi went to the Bolte family in 1944 in Australia, where he was moved after being taken prisoner by the English soldiers in May 1940 in Africa.
Before reaching the fifth continent he had had a long ordeal from one concentration camp to another – from Africa to Bombay and Bangalore.
It was about the Easter day in 1944 when the American ship Mariposa discharged him in the Australian port of Melbourne, from where he was sent to Cowra camp. Almost soon after his arrival the time of imprisonment had practically ended. he was in fact … along with another Bergamose prisoner, Mr Ernesto Armati of Vigano San Martino, as agricultural workers by a rich Australian farmer, Mr Bolte senior.
The untiring work and the honesty of the two Italian men gained the Bolte’s sympathy, who began to treat them as members of the same family. So as to entrust them with the direct custody of the farm, the breedings, the house, with an unlimited confidence, when the family who gave hospitality to them moved to town for the weekend.
Naturally the prisoners of war Airoldi and Armati took a seat at the same table as Mr Bolte and family.
They were very much friends with the children, amongst whom was Graydon, who was then 7 years old only and became attached deeply to Airoldi and Armati.
The ties of the friendship with the Bolte family did not discontinue when the two Italian men returned to their country after the war. The frequent correspondence through which the respective families communicated one another, merry or sorrowful news was never interrupted.
The father before giving consent for the long trip, made Graydon promise he would visit the Airoldi family. But it was not necessary for him to promise, because in place of stopping in Rome in order to see the Olympic Games, Graydon came direct to “Portico” farm of Bagnatica, where Angelo Airoldi the prisoner of war took him on his knees.
In these days he is happy to be able to make the same friendship with the little daughter of his friend. it appears to him to give back a piece of affection and fondness which he received when he was still a little boy, and of which he conserved a deeply very congenial remembrance.
Adolfo D’Addario was a resourceful man. Life decisions were always made in the interest of his family and his work ethic ensured his children and family learnt the importance of respect and seizing opportunities. Upon his death, Roy Theodore from Saturday News Mail wrote that Adolfo D’Addario was “a distinguished, courteous and industrious man.”
Born in Salle Pescara, Adolfo worked as a barber and married Assunta Lattanzio. With a family of three children in an economically unstable pre-war Italy, Adolfo took the opportunity to go to Abyssinia. Italy needed a presence there after Abyssinia’s occupation by fascist Italy in 1935 and employment in this colonial outpost offered a good wage and a promise of adventure.
Escalation of war saw Adolfo fighting in Eritrea and being captured in Asmara, its capital, on 29 April 1941. Adolfo’s memory of that time is that the Italian soldiers were afraid of the unrelenting fighting and they thought it was a wise move to surrender to the ‘obliging’ British.
As a prisoner of war, Adolfo spent time in Sudan, contracted malaria and was imprisoned in India for almost four years. He was one of 2076 Italian prisoners of war who made their way to Melbourne on the General William Mitchell. Arriving in February 1945 this was to be the last transport of POWs to Australia. From Melbourne, Adolfo was transferred to Cowra for processing and onward movement. Within a month of his arrival in Australia, Adolfo was sent to Gaythorne in Queensland, spent time in hospital and volunteered for farm work. He had to wait five months before he was sent to Q9 Monto in August 1945 for allocation to Tecoma, the property of Geoffrey Pownall.
Ring barking on the cattle property was hard but friendships were formed with farm workers, Les and Pat. Together they worked at an outpost camp. As well, a special connection was made with Peter Pownall the only child in this isolated part of Queensland. Most likely, Peter reminded Adolfo of his own children back home in Italy. Peter Pownall’s memories of that time are clear, “I was called ‘Pietro’ and received birthday cards and Christmas cards once they (the POWs) 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. Adolfo cut my hair. 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. The Italians became my ‘playmates’ especially as they were such great family men and had had to leave their children when war started.”
Adolfo had learnt English in India, so communication with the Pownalls was easier than other farmers would have experienced. A story about language is remembered well by Peter Pownall,”There was 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 from Adolfo, “Pig is death. Possible eat snake.”
The Pownalls treated him as one of the family and included him at the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Repatriation to Italy on board Alcantara, returned Adolfo to an Italy devastated by the war. There were no jobs, little food and little hope for the future for him or his family.
Hard work earned Adolfo not only the respect of the Pownall family, but also an offer of sponsorship to return to Australia in 1951. Jan Joyce (nee Pownall) remembers when Adolfo returned to Uncle Geoffrey’s property: “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.”
Within two years, Adolfo had saved enough money to pay for his sons, Mario and Attilio, to join him in the Monto district. Work opportunities at the Fairymead Sugar Cane Mill took the D’Addarios to Bundaberg.
By 1956, his wife Assunta and daughter Aminta had arrived in Australia and the family was finally reunited. Home became a well known property at Targo Street Bundaberg, with a street front adorned by a breath-taking Poinciana.
Adolfo’s road to success was rocky and unpredictable due to economic hardship, war, imprisonment, separation from his family and malaria. He had negotiated many obstacles on the road to own his home and a 130 ha cane farm at Hollands Road Meadowvale, opportunities and a future he could only have dreamed of. But dreams do come true. Adolfo believed in his dream that Australia would provide wonderful opportunities.
Assunta Austin, granddaughter of Adolfo, explains that her nonno spoke of Geoffrey Pownall as a very respected person in their lives and remembers with great fondness the family trips to Monto to visit the Pownalls. Reflecting on her family’s story, Assunta relates, “It is thanks to the hand of friendship that he (Geoffrey Pownall) extended to my grandfather, Adolfo, that changed the course of my father’s life and gave his future family the opportunities he could never have dreamed possible back in post-war Italy.”
We lived on a farm 35 mile outside of West Wyalong, New South Wales. I would have been eight years old when Ernesto Armati and Angelo Airoldi came to stay with us. They became part of our family and to this day, I am in contact with their families.
Ernesto and Rosa Armati (married 1 January 1948)
Dad had sheep, wheat, pigs and milkers on the farm and the Italians did a lot of work around the farm. They built chook yards, dams and horse yards and I suppose general farm work.
They lived in a hut built for them which was basic. They ate with the family and became like brothers. We had a big dining room table and they would jostle and joke with us kids and try to push us off the bench seats we sat on. They cooked pasta meals for us. Watching them ride horses was funny and they would sometimes have a bit of a race. The closest church was 12 miles away and Dad bought a green and blue bike for them so that they could go to church. My sister was very upset because Dad never bought her a bike. Both Ernesto and Angelo had fiances in Italy and upon return were married: Ernesto to Rosa 1 January 1948 and Angelo to Angelina October 1947.
I clearly remember the canteen truck visiting the farm. They would get their cigarettes : three threes, brylcream, shaving cream stick and razors.
They had come to Australia on board “Mariposa” and arrived at Melbourne. They were then transported in open cattle trucks to Cowra.
Dad was a staunch Methodist: no smoking, no drinking but Dad made exceptions for Angelo and Ernesto. Dad brought in a big barrel for them and they used the table grapes to make grappa. They did it by stomping the grapes with their feet which became purple.
We cried when they left. I don’t know why they didn’t leave the POWs on the farms until they were taken back home, but they had to wait a long time in the POWs camps and it would have been better for them to stay with us.
Dad kept in contact with them over the years and when I was in my twenties I went to Italy for the Olympics: 1960. Dad encouraged me to go visit Ernesto and Angelo which felt awkward because 15 years had passed since I last saw them. They welcomed me into their homes with open arms. Lavish meals were prepared and eaten and I was taken around and shown the sites. I travelled a little of Europe and then returned to spend Christmas with them.
Angelo and Angelina Airoldi and family Bagnatica 1960
Years later, Ernesto’s granddaughter came to Sydney for her honeymoon. I felt very privileged to take her and her husband around for 5 weeks showing them the sights.
World War 2 affected Australians directly in many ways. We had rationing of essentials such as petrol, food items and clothing. There were numerous attacks on our shores: Darwin, Townsville and Mossman. Children of the time remember air raids, air raid shelters and drills, reduced school hours or doing lessons by correspondence.
For Italians living in invaded and bombed areas of Italy, life was one of deprivation. Food shortages, roads and railways destroyed, rumble littered streets, disappearance of residential areas and displacement of people.
A young boy, dressed in tattered clothes and bearing a poignant smile, in war-torn Naples Italy July 1944. Photo by Lt Wayne Miller
A Western Australian farmer who had employed Italian POWs wrote to the Western Mail, encouraging other Australians to send parcels to their Italian POW families and explaining their circumstances.
Helping former P.O.W. farm workers
… I have been sending frequent parcels to an Italian P.O.W. who worked for us…
Many farmers in this State were appreciative of the help given by prisoners of war during a period when labour was scare and I am sure that if they knew the tragedy of these men’s lives on their return to Italy many farmers would gladly send assistance to them now.
Most of the parcels take as long as six months to reach Italy and the quickest delivery of all those that I have sent was just over three months. Two parcels I posted in April reached Naples at the end of October. Our G.P.O. informed me that there are three groups of parcels, namely food, toilet articles and clothing and these goods must not be mixed. Clothing must we secondhand or if new duty must be paid by the receiver in Italy. Toilet articles can include soap, shaving gear, toothbrushes etc and food which seems to be the most appreciated is spaghetti in tins, vermicelli, baked beans, milk and jam, dipping, dried fruits, tinned cheese and tinned meat. Clothing is very badly needed as the winter is commencing in Italy and clothing of all kinds is very scarce.
Girl holding a toddler, Naples, Italy 1944. Photo by Lt Wayne Miller
My P.O.W.s family had not seen toilet soap for five years until they received my parcel and they had not had an egg for three years. Incidentally they consider themselves among the more fortunate Italians despite the fact that they often receive only one meal a day.
The weights of parcels can be 3, 7 or 11 lb. each including the wrappings. I pack mine in light cartons and sew them up in unbleached calico and so far they have arrived in good condition. The 7lb. parcel seems to be the best size.
(Western Mail (Perth, WA: 1885-1954), Thursday 27 November 1947, page 67)
In 1946, in Italy, children carry rocks from a war destroyed building to help rebuild their town. UNICEF/Romagnoli
Robert Perna from Detroit Michigan writes, “Many years ago my grandfather told me about his time as a POW from Italy. He surrendered in North Africa and was first shipped to Iraq. Then he was shipped to Australia and worked on a cattle farm. He told me it would take weeks to walk the fence and repair it. He said the owner owned a territory.
I’m looking for any way to find out who he lived with. He passed many years ago, but his memory of his time there was always very clear. He did end up going back to Italy because that’s where his family was.”
And so the journey begins for a grandson to meld a grandfather’s stories with historical fact.
Using the guide Finding Nonno, Robert found with ease his grandfather’s Australian records which confirmed a few details: his nonno Arcangelo was captured in North Africa: Amba Alagi on 5.5.1941; he was sent to India (not Iraq); he was shipped to Australia: onboard the SS Uruguay in 1943 which docked at Sydney; and he was assigned to farm work: in the N11 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glen Innes.
Robert recounts the details of Arcangelo’s conscription and war service, “My grandfather went to Rome to go pay the taxes on his property. While there, they recruited him off the streets* and sent him to Africa. He could not say goodbye to his family.
From there he was sent to Northern Africa where he was in charge of a platoon. They found out they were being attacked at dawn. So they hunkered into a hill waiting for the African army to attack. Once they ran out of bullets, everyone surrendered, so no one would get killed.”
The piecing of history continues giving credence to Arcangelo’s memories of the day he was captured 5th May 1941:
1 May 1941 Viceroy of Italian East Africa Duke of Aosta and 7,000 troops were trapped at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia by Indian 5th Indivision to the north and South African 1st Brigade in the south.
3 May 1941 Allied and Italian troops engaged in heavy fighting at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia.
4 May 1941 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division launched another attack at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, capturing 3 hills between 0415 and 0730 hours.
5 May 1941 3/2nd Punjab Battalion advanced toward the Italian stronghold at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia at 0415 hours. They were pinned down by 12 Italian machine guns for the most of the day. The attack was called off at dusk.
British Pathe footage captured the Italians after the surrender of Amba Alagi. Another detail from this battle comes from Craig Douglas at Regio Esercito History Group in Brisbane: “When the Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi, the British commander allowed them to surrender with the full honours of war. In tribute to their tenacious defence right to the end.”
The battle for Amba Alagi, the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Italians who surrendered Fort Toselli seen marching down the road from the fort. c. June 1941
(AWM Image 007945, Photographer: Unknown British Official Photographer)
From Amba Alagi, Arcangelo would have been sent to POW camps in Egypt to be processed and assigned a M/E number: 289564 [Middle East]. From Suez he would have been transported to India.
Critical Past footage gives a window into the past; the arrival of Italian prisoners of war in Bombay India.
The next stage of Arcangelo’s journey is his arrival in Australia which was reported in the newspapers. Two ships from India arrived together in Sydney 4th October 1943 with 507 Italian POWs on each ship (one medical officer, 5 medical other ranks and 501 other ranks: MV Brazil and SS Uruguay.
Arcangelo Perna’s arrival is documented on the Nominal Rolls Cowra 12 (c) POW Camp arrival from overseas 5th October 1943. He is assigned his Australian POW number : PWI 55833. Notice that his rank is Corporal though his other documents have his rank as Italian and Private; somethings are lost in translation.
Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War to Cowra
(NAA: SP196/1, 12 PART 2, 1943-1944 Sydney)
Within two months of his arrival in Australia, Arcangelo is assigned to farm work N11 C.C. Glen Innes.
Robert has a clear memory of his nonno’s recollections of Australia, “ He told me he worked on a cattle farm there. First thing he had to do was mend the fence with the owner. So they packed up the cart and took off. It took over 3 weeks to walk the fence. After that he worked there for a few years. Once it was time to go, the owner begged him to come back and live there. My grandfather said no, he had a farm in Italy. He never said anything bad about being there in Australia. He said they were a nice family who treated him wonderfully.”
Arcangelo’s Service and Casualty Form provides the details of his time between leaving the Glen Innes farm and his repatriation. A documented four day stay in the Glen Innes hospital and his transfer from the farm to Murchison suggests ongoing medical concerns. Those Italian who were medically unfit were sent to Murchison. And it is while Arcangelo was at Murchison, official group photos of the Italians were taken.
(AWM Image 030229/13, Photographer: Stewart, Ronald Leslie)
Arcangelo was repatriated on Chitral from Sydney on 24th September 1946. These early repatriations were for special consideration, medical or compassionate reasons. This was one of the early repatriation ships which boarded 300 POWs in Sydney and another 2900 in Fremantle Western Australia. The majority of Italian POWs held at Northam Camp WA were repatriated on Chitral.
Robert continues, “When he came home, my grandmother wasn’t even home when he got there! One of my aunts were born while he was away. Plus, my dad was born about 9 months after he came home.”
“These memories [of my nonno] have been a part of my life since he’s told me the story. It has been told hundreds of times. Now I have proof, pictures and info to back up my story,” Robert reflects.
One of the questions often asked, is ‘why were the Italian POWs taken off farms to then sit idle in Prisoner of War and Internment Camps for over 12 months?’
Another often asked question is ‘how valuable was the contribution of the Italian POWs to agricultural production?’
The following ‘Letter to the Editor’ addresses both of these questions…
To the Editor
Sir- some of us can raise a lot of sympathy for those of the Indonesians who have co-operated with the Japanese but what of that poor underdog, the Italian POW? Six months ago two POW (Sicilians) assisted by an old man harvested, without tractor, 140 tons of hay, besides routine jobs of milking, tending sheep &c. One of these men was so outstanding that I left him in charge of my farm and took an extended rest in Melbourne. On my return everything was in order – house painted, winter’s wood supply split and stacked, &c. On March 13 most POW were again barbed in, a precaution recognised as necessary before repatriation: but the call-up was because of AWU pressure. Many are married and my two have families not seen for over six years. Their greatest worry is the dreariness of the dragging days of enforced idleness after the free busy life on a farm. War against Italy ceased 18 months ago, so maintenance of torture to men’s souls at this stage is a travesty of British justice. In spite of the AWU attitude, farm labor in the Naracoorte district is unavailable, through either the RSL and stock firms, and I am being forced off the land. My neighbor has been without help since his POW was taken away, and was so run down that his doctor insisted on his going to the seaside with his wife and three children, leaving over 1,000 ewes uncared for in the midst of lambing.
I am, Sir, &c.
from Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), Thursday 27 June 1946, page 8
For Queensland farmers, withdrawing Italian POWs from farms resulted in an acute shortage of workers for the summer harvest….
Doug Wilson was a child when his father, Vernon Wilson at Lagoon Pocket took on two Italian prisoners of war. The farm grew beans, tomatoes, bananas and beetroot and as well, had a dairy which was leased to another farmer. It was war time, and labourers had gone off to fight in the war, so the Department of Manpower promoted the employment of the Italians.
Doug’s memories of that time centre mainly on food and children. Doug recalls, “Living on a farm, the Italians were well fed. Mum would have a leg of ham hung up and the POWs took a liking to having a thick piece of ham with their eggs. Eggs was another luxury, but because we had chooks, we had lots of eggs. There was also fresh milk. Two buckets of milk would be collected from the dairy each morning as part of the lease arrangement dad had. These items were in short supply in town and there were also ration cards.” But Doug’s most memorable food story is about pasta. His mum would cook up the pasta as that is what they were used to. Doug says, “I was so sick of pasta, that after the war I refused to eat pasta. To this day, I still won’t eat pasta.”
The two Italian prisoners of war were family men. Francesco Nicoli had a son and a daughter and Bernardino Patriarca had three sons. “I remember the men treated us very well. They treated us like their own. They were always around us and played with us. One of the funny memories is how they were worried that mum bathed the baby every day. ‘Why wash bambini day?’ I suppose things were different in Italy,” Doug muses.
Treasured letters from the Italians explain the bond they formed with children. It has been suggested that Italian POWs were more settled when there were little children on the farm and the words of these men tell of the special memories they would carry with them to Italy.
Bernardino wrote on 4th May 1946, “…Glad to hear that your children have not forgotten us yet. You can’t imagine how hard it is for us to leave this country without seeing your lovely children once again. Last night in my dream I was with your children to play to, but it was a dream only.”
Vernon Wilson Farm Lagoon Pocket Gympie
Men: Bernardino Patriarca, Vernon Wilson, Francesco Nicoli
Children: Wayne Choy Show, Leonie Choy Show, Douglas Wilson, Myra Wilson, Frances Wilson
(from the photographic collection of Doug Wilson)
Francesco wrote from Hay on 29th May 1946, “…thank you so much to your children for their remembering to us. Please, will you send me some photos of your children and family as I want to see you and keep them as a remembrance of my Australian friends. When I get back to Italy I will send you some of mine too.”
Written by camp interpreters, Francesco and Bernardino wrote letters of their time at Gaythorne Camp, the delay in departing for Italy, the weather at the Hay Camp and the special connection between themselves and the Wilsons. The letters also tell of wanting to be free men once more. Unfortunately, these men were taken off the farms on 4th January 1946 but it was almost a year before they boarded Alcantara on 23rd December 1946 to return to Italy. They were prisoners of war for over five years.