Our Italian prisoners of war arrived at night, or close on dark and they were scared silly. I suppose they really didn’t know where they were going and the Queensland bush was very different from the camp at Gaythorne. We lived at Aratula. Once they saw my brother Michael, who was about two years old at the time, they were happy to see the ‘bambino’. Paolo De Propertis and Pietro Romano were from Tocco Cassauria. I was only eight years old at the time but I have clear memories of the men.
Dwyer Family 1945
Back: Paolo De Propertis, Des Dwyer, JJ Dwyer, Pietro Romano
Front: Laurie Dwyer, Michael Dwyer
(from the collection of Carmel Peck (Dwyer))
One of our family photos from that time was taken on the day my brother Des was going off to boarding school. He was dressed up in his suit, as was the way in those days. Des was tall for his age and Peter was convinced that dad was sending Des off to enlist as a soldier. He told dad, ‘no fight, no soldier’. I think his face and the tone of his voice said more than the words. They were peaceful men who didn’t want to be involved in the war. And they didn’t want Des involved in war either.
While Michael never learnt any Italian words, he certainly could understand Paul and Peter. The canteen truck came to the farm to bring them supplies and they would buy lollies. They would hide the lollies and Michael would always find where the lollies were hidden. It was a game they played with Michael.
Paul and Peter lived in separate quarters about 50 yards from the house. Mum did the cooking and one lunch, she served them up pumpkin. In Italy, pumpkin was cattle feed and so they would toss the pumpkin out the window. One day, they saw mum feeding Michael pumpkin. Mum explained that the bambino ate pumpkin as a way to encourage them to eat it. “Propaganda” they said. Eventually when they did try it, they loved pumpkin.
When they were to leave the farm, they took it upon themselves to take some seeds with them. They sewed pumpkin, watermelon and cucumber seeds into the lining of their clothes. In a letter Paul wrote, he told mum and dad how all the seeds were cut out of the clothing.
There are many stories about Peter and watermelons. Peter would ‘steal’ watermelons from our neighbours. A neighbour George Steffens chased Peter once with a whip in hand. Peter managed to get some distance away but the hid behind a big log. Steffens apparently stood atop the log, cracking the whip as a warning, not knowing how close Peter was. Another time Oliver Hill was out in his potato fields and could see Peter on the edge of a field of watermelons. It became a bit of a stand off: Oliver would stop and watch. Peter would pretend to do nothing. Oliver would start work again, Peter would creep closer. Peter always managed to ‘steal’ a watermelon without Oliver seeing him in the act. Peter would defiantly stand at a distance and lift the watermelon onto his shoulder. I think there was always laughter afterwards. Peter was big and strong and could easily carry a bag containing three watermelons.
Paul used the dictionary to try to improve his English but decided that English was stupid. There were a lot of problems with miscommunication. Paul would wait for me to return home from school and then get out the yellow book they had for English. Pronunciation was mainly the problem. Paper and pepper sounded the same. He also had difficulty with tree and the. They had trouble with slang like ‘give it a burl’. One morning dad and the Italians were doing some fencing. It was time to go home for lunch so dad told them to leave the crowbar there. The word leave was a problem and they thought dad wanted them to carry it away with them. Dad would have raised his voice and they thought that he was angry with them. Paul told the interpreter the next day, ‘boss got mad, I got mad’. He thought that he would be taken away. Things were sorted. Another time, the Fordson tractor wouldn’t start so dad went to get the draught horses. The horses wouldn’t get into the yards and dad would have blown off steam and whatever he said, or it might have been the way he said it, Paul and Peter thought they had done something wrong. They had a great deal of respect for dad and they didn’t want to get into trouble. So the next time the interpreter came to the farm, they asked to find out ‘what they did wrong’. They would explain what had happened and the interpreter would explain what had happened. They would always refer to mum as ‘Madame’ and my grandmother lived with us and they called her ‘extra Madame’, very respectful. Sometimes we would call grandma ‘extra Madame’ and she would get cranky with us.
Paul had a sister who had come out to Australia in the 1920’s. Somehow Dad made contact with her. She lived in Victoria and Dad visited her and her family. She sent back a gift for Paul and dad brought it back on the TAA flight. ‘Olives’- they were a real treat for the men. I also remember Dad bringing back a tin of whitebait from a business trip to South Australia. I am not sure if it was for Peter and Paul, but I remember that there was no way that us kids were going to try whitebait, not with all these little eyes staring out at us as the can lid was peeled back.
Another food story had to do with the chooks. A chook had died and Peter asked if he could take it and use if for a meal. Dad had a bit of trouble convincing Peter that he didn’t have to use the ‘dead’ chook and that dad was happy for him to catch a live chook and prepare it for a meal. They did trap hares from time to time for meals as well.
Dad was going to paint the house and he asked Peter if he could paint. “Yes sir,” was his answer. Dad gave him the paint and brushes and Peter was making a mess of it. Dad found out that the only painting he had done was painting a pipe line in India. Dad had to teach him how to paint with even brush strokes, up and down, up and down.
Peter hated the pink coloured clothes they had to wear. He would go down the creek and wash the clothes within an inch of their lives to fade away the colour. Just when he had the clothes a decent colour, the canteen truck would come out and he would be given a new set of pink clothes.
Dad knew this was against the rules, but dad took Peter and Paul to Brisbane. Dad had business in Brisbane so he found some civvies for them to wear. Dad is of Irish descent so he had a respectable disdain for authority. Once in Brisbane he had a meeting to go to, so he left Peter and Paul to go off and wander on their own. He told them ‘don’t you go run away’ to which they replied ‘Italy, too far to swim’. Dad said that there were a couple of ships in the Brisbane harbour and the sailors were Maltese, so that a couple of extra foreigners with stilted English would not draw extra attention to them. Only problem was that when dad and the men where in Brisbane, the army captain came around home to do his visit. The rules were that the POWs couldn’t leave the property. Mum had to think quickly on her feet. Dad had a cattle property about 10 miles away up on a mountain and so mum told the captain that dad had taken the men to muster cattle.
Peter and Paul could turn their hand to most things. They could ride horses and operated the farm machines. Once when mum was in hospital, Peter became chief cook. He made us spaghetti and these most delicious potato cakes. There were five of us kids and as fast as he could make these potato cakes, they were eaten and we were asking for more. Peter also made shoes. We butchered our own meat, so he would take the hides and turn them into leather. And then he would make shoes. He was resourceful.
(from the collection of Carmel Peck (Dwyer))
On a Sunday, dad would take them to church. There was a mission priest, Dr Dwyer who would hold services around the district. He had spent some time in Rome and spoke fluent Italian. We would all be taken off to church at Kalbar. I thought that I went to church too many times in those days. One of these times there was special lunch after church. Tables were set up and the meal served. My sister Carmel thinks that it might have been a special ‘farewell’ lunch for the Italians. Church was also a time for all the POWs in the area to get together. On a Sunday afternoon, Paul and Peter with other Italian POWs would go sit up on the hill. You would hear them laughing and talking and at times the conversations sounded quite volatile.
I remember we received a letter from Paul. We took it to a Dutch priest who knew Italian. He translated the letter as best he could. It was written in dialect, which is different from Italian.
I remember that farmers who were of German descent weren’t allowed to have POW labour. There were also farmers who tried to save money by keeping their POWs for a short period of time. After POWs had been with a farmer for a time, the farmer had to pay more money for their wages. So these farmers would ask for a new roster of POWs.
There was a young POW on the Kelly’s farm. I remember that he returned after the war, and he would say, “I not work as a POW no more. I work as a free man”. His name was Benedetto Ierna.
21 June 2017