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15.7.42 to 9.7.18
It was on Ian’s Warrill View farm that I felt closest to this history. Ian walked me back to 1944 and introduced me to his playmates: Francesco Pintabona, Salvatore Mensile, Vincenzo Nocca, Domenico Masciulli.
Through Ian, I could see Ian as a toddler sitting on Frankie’s shoulder, I could hear the Italians singing to the strumming of a mandolin, I caught a glimpse of Domenico walking through the paddocks from Cyril Rackley’s farm and I could feel the emotion and nostalgia of those days.
I met Ian in July 2017 after many phone calls and discussions about this history. We continued our conversations, as Ian honestly understood my passion for this history and the importance of recording it. With his dry sense of humour and gravely voice, Ian taught me much about life and family.
Ian was taken too soon from his family.
My sincere condolences to Carmel and family.
*** I have reposted this story, in memory of Ian Harsant***
The emotionally moving story of Frank and Ian is a special story of a friendship between an Italian POW and an Aussie toddler that spans over seven decades.
Ian Harsant’s life-long friendship with Francesco Pintabona, an Italian POW stationed at Boonah is a beautiful story of a little boy’s memory of his Italian friend and his search to find him in the post war chaos. Letters were exchanged but rarely received and contact was lost. By the time Harsant found any news of Pintabona, he had passed away 20 years previous.
Francesco Pintabona of Taviano, Lecce was captured in Bardia. He came to the Harsant farm, Warrill View Boonah 4th August 1944. Records indicate that he was evacuated to 67 ACH 8th December 1945 and then moved to Gaythorne 27 December 1945, which is probably the reason why Harsant has no memory of saying ‘goodbye’ to his friend.
Ian Harsant as a toddler called him Hank, short for Frank and many childhood photos are of Frank and Ian. Photos taken by Ian’s mother capture memories of a day’s work on a farm and a lifelong bond. Frank and Ian’s friendship was special as Di Morris wrote: “Little careful acts were noticed, like putting his (Frank) own handkerchief over the boy’s face when the flies were bad. Once he even rushed him back to the farmhouse for a nappy change when it became obvious he had soiled his pants…There was another language they shared; the language of lollies, cordial and biscuits which Frank obtained with his little friend in mind when he patronised the visiting truck from Boonah with his small POW wage”. (Morris, 2015)
Ian reflects that the Italians were non-Fascist, fit and healthy. Not one to wax lyrically, Ian recalls an incident between his dad and Santo Murano, who had been transferred from Frank Sweeney’s farm to Warrill View. Roderick Harsant was a firmer boss than Sweeney. The incident involved a lot of shouting and a threatening lifting of a shovel toward the farmer. Mr Collins, the officer in charge of the Boonah centre was called. On Santo’s record in June 1945, is the awarding of 28 days detention: conduct prejudicial to good order, no doubt for this incident. There were other Italians who worked on the farm but they were a good mob. Domenico Masciulli was billeted with Ian’s uncle Cecil Rackley but then went to Warril View when Rackley died toward the end of 1945. Salvatore Mensile and Vincenzo Nocca worked for Wallace Roderick another relative who lived a couple of mile away and either visited Frank or also worked on the Harsant farm.
Memories of music are paired with this time in Ian’s life. The Italians were musical. Domenico had a mandolin and Sundays, their day of rest, was the time you would hear them singing and the mandolin being played. Sunday was the day the Italians from the farms around would get together.
Ian Harsant’s journey to find Frank, culminated in being in contact with Fausto Pintabona, a relative of Frank. Fausto summed up Ian and Frank’s friendship as ‘a beautiful lesson in life’.
Watch the video to hear more about Ian and Frank.
Written and produced by Billy Jack Harsant
A common memory that Queenslanders have about their Italian prisoners of war focuses on food: a dislike for pumpkin, considered in Italy to be livestock food; a love of watermelon; dislike for bread and butter pudding; relishing bacon and eggs; a yearning for spaghetti; learning how to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon; the copper full of spaghetti; hand made spaghetti; rabbit stew. Doug Wilson, once the Italians left his parents’ farm at Lagoon Pocket, refused to eat spaghetti and to this day does not eat pasta. He ate ‘far too much spaghetti’ during those war years.
Jim Fullerton from Glasshouse Mountains sent this photo to Paolo Santoro in 1947. It explains a little about the Italians’ views on what was put on the Aussie dinner plate. Paolo replied in his letter of 25th December 1947, “I told them some good story you know, about the pumpkins, you had a good crop, but you know I don’t like to [too] much to eat them.”
The diet of the Italian was very different from the good old Aussie meat and 3 veg. Theirs was a diet of little meat, pulses, pasta, rice and vegetables of the season.
This difference is explained in an extract from We Never Forgot Domenico. Thea Beswick [Robinson] recalls:
“There was one young man, Domenico, who understood a little English so he became the spokesperson for the men. The first hurdle was the food. Copious
amounts of meat, eggs and milk, potatoes and pumpkin were served.
Domenico approached Dad and said the men were sick, ‘Too much meat.
We need pasta.” Of course pasta and rice were not available during war
time so Mum had to come up with a more varied meal plan. I think a
few of the chooks may have ended up in a pot and an effort was made to
catch fish from the river.”
The menu below is from November 1941 for Cowra Prisoner of War Camp. The camp appears to have been provisioned according to those for Australia armed forces as the diet is overloaded with meat and mashed potatoes. The daily ration for 100 men for Tuesday was 150 lbs beef, 95 lbs potatoes, 40 lbs cabbage…
The camp cooks were Italians and I am sure they would have been scratching their heads as to how to use the daily rations. The cooks would have been grateful for such generous supplies and so set to, to utilise all produce provided. With five meals on offer a day, the POWs would have felt that they spent most of their day eating. After meagre rations as soldiers in Libya, the abundance of food must have seemed like ‘food heaven’. No longer were they eating one month old bread scraps and tinned bully beef.
This menu also makes sense of something Nino Cipolla said about his dad Ciccio Cipolla who spent time in both Hay and Cowra Camps. Nino said, “When I saw the photo of my father which was taken at Cowra Camp, this was the heaviest he weighed in his life!” And no wonder, after having to eat 1 lb of potatoes a day.
A newspaper report from November 1942, supports Nino’s observation, “Italian prisoners-of-war in camps in south NSW have gained on an average nearly a stone in weight since they reached Australia.” (Western Mail, 12 November 1942 page 8). Another reason for the weight gain would have been the sedentary life and idleness associated with life in a POW camp.
However by July 1943, weekly provisions for 100 men show a considerable change away from meat, potatoes and cabbage as it now included rice, spaghetti, split peas, prunes, puree tomatoes, vinegar, oil, an increase in bread rations, a decrease in meat rations. By this time, Italian prisoners of war at Cowra Camp had 140 acres under cultivation, growing primarily crops for their own use.
Menu for Cowra Camp 10th November to 16th November 1941
This research opens many doors into the past. For my generation, a record player was powered by electricity and was fitted into a well-made cabinet befitting a place in the family lounge room. I knew of gramophones cranked by a handle for operation. But I had never thought of a gramophone as being portable.
Enter Luigi Pinna from Cagliari Sardinia. Luigi sent me a photo of his father Antioco Pinna* and taking pride of place is a portable gramophone. My eyes were focussed on the men, Italian prisoners of war in South Australia, so I had not noticed the crank handle. And so much of what I have been told about Italian prisoners of war and music now makes sense. Portable gramophones gave easy access to music.
A portable gramophone allowed soldiers to take their music with them, regardless of how many times they were moved or transferred. I read about t Jim, an Aussie soldier, who had taken his with him from the deserts of Tobruk Libya to the rainforest of Milne Bay New Guinea. And similarly, the Italian soldiers would have taken their portable gramophone from Ethiopia to India to Australia.
One 1941 newspaper article mentioned that the Red Cross was looking for donations to send to our soldiers. “If music hath charms to soothe a troubled mind,” then surely this is just what these men want, and a good portable gramophone is always a welcome. To be able to listen to the latest dance tune, or even a symphony orchestra when one is miles from anywhere in the desert must be quite a thrill…”
Some of the newspaper headlines of the time read:
Red Cross Wants Gramophones
Gramophones Wanted for Soldiers
A.I.F. to Learn French (via gramophone)
Gramophone from Tobruk
* Antioco Pinna was from Palma Suergio (Cagliari Sardinia). He was sent to South Australia and allocated to S13 PWC Hostel Mt Gambier-Penola-Mt Burr. The search for information about his stay in South Australia is ongoing. His son Luigi is hoping to find the South Australians in photos brought back to Italy by his father.
Anthony Brown reminisces about the Nicko and Pasquali who lived on the Brown farm via Kenilworth 1944-1945:
I remember Mum saying, “Boy can they eat!” They ate meals with us and were part of the family. Mum did all the cooking, she was a fantastic cook. Nicko and Pasquali slept on the verandah with my brother Craig and myself. My sister slept in her own room inside the house. The beds were canvas stretchers with a coir mattress (husk of coconuts). They were supplied with their own blankets which I recall were dyed red.
The red coloured clothing was supplied by the army and was plentiful. The red dye came out in the wash tubs. In those days you carted water from the creek and a wood fired copper was used to wash the clothes. The clothes were wool and I remember them only wearing long trousers.
In those days, neighbours helped each other out. There were two creek crossings into our farm which kept getting flooded. The POWs from EV Kirk’s farm helped our two pick up rocks from the farmers’ paddocks to put in the creek crossings to dam the water way in preparation for concreting the crossings. My dad contributed his POW workforce which meant he paid the wages for the job. Another farmer paid for the cement and the council supplied the trucks, overseer and equipment such as a cement mixer. The 1956 floods washed away the top of the causeway they made.
Our two POWs were different in nature. I was 12 years old, and through my eyes, Nicko seemed more like a farmer and Pasquali more a ‘towny’ type. Pasquali seemed more low key and spoke better English than Nicko. My sister Dolores remembers that Pasquali sent a letter to us after they went back to Italy. She was nine years old at the time and thought Pasquali was good looking.
Nicko was short. I was 5 foot six inches when I was 12 years old, and much taller than Nicko. His record states that he was 4 foot 11 inches. Once when a bag of potatoes came down from the Maleny butter factory dad kept them up in the dairy which was a way from the house. Dad measured out about 40 pounds of potatoes and gave them to Nicko to take home; it was about 1 km from the dairy to the house. Nicko took over ½ hour to get home with the potatoes. When Nicko arrived home, he said to my dad as a way of excusing his lateness, “Mr Brown, you up there. Poor Nicko down here.” Dad was 6 foot tall and Nicko was 4 foot 11 inches.
Pasquali and Nicko helped in the dairy; milking morning and night. So the farm routine was early to rise and to bed by 7pm. On the farm, we had 32 volts electricity. They did other jobs as needed. Dad sent them down to brush away the rubbish from near the dairy. He wanted the area cleaned up from the side of the hill leading down to the creek. They cut down mum’s cumquart tree and left the other trees standing. I remember Dad saying “The only tree you chopped down was the cumquart tree!” It had prickles so I think they thought it was a rubbish tree. The tree recovered and is still there on the farm today.
Nicko told Dad about his capture, “I flee! I flee!” He was the more industrious one and made baskets from the lawyer cane. One of the things they were required to do during their captivity was to learn crafts to keep them occupied. I had the feeling that Pasquali was more of an academic as he didn’t seem to do too much of the physical work.
One of the baskets made by Nicko was called “The Egg Basket”. It was used by to collect the eggs laid by the hens. My sister Dolores remembers that Nicko also made a laundry basket; used for collecting the clean clothes. She also remembers how they loved their spaghetti and taught my mother how to cook it. The first time mum made it, the big boiler was chockers with spaghetti. One of them said, “We cook in copper next time.”
The Italians were always referred to as generally as ‘Dagos’ but I never knew why. At the time, I didn’t know if it was a term of endearment or derogatory.
Their names were Pasquale Mastrantonio and Nicola Fantetti and the records indicate that they came to the farm of AA Brown on 3rd August 1944.
My daughter Sharon has two baskets made by Nicko; a fond reminder of those days during the war.
Upon entry into Australia, all money in the possession of Italian prisoners of war was to be ‘handed over’ to authorities. Property statements were maintained indicating money on hand. This statement was a receipt.
There are memories of the Italians having Australian coins with which they made rings for themselves and for their farm families. Black market trading in ‘canteen goods’ for Australian money is also inferred. However, Italian prisoners of war caught with Australian currency were given 7 days detention for having money in their possession.
Many Italian prisoners of war managed to ‘hide’ money. Alex Miles from Mooloo via Gympie has lost the Italian bank note he was given by one of the Italians. It showed the she wolf with Romulus and Remus.
Veniero Granatelli has shared his father’s POW money. His father, Filippo Granatelli managed to keep a bank note used in the Bhopal Prisoner of War Camp India, which is shown below.
Very excitingly, are the coins that Filippo Granatelli kept hidden. They are Internment Camp tokens. These tokens were used as payment at the Army Canteen and their production and destruction was strictly controlled. A little of the history of these tokens is included below.
An indication of how valuable these coins are today is the price for a set of tokens. Considered a rare and unique collection, a set can be purchased for $7,950. An uncirculated threepence sells for $250.00 and a penny token $299.00.
The reasons for their introduction are as follows:
a) to prevent bribery of guards
b) to prevent escaping prisoners and internees from having in possession any money which will facilitate their remaining at large
c) to prevent the use of prisoners’ and internees’ money for subversive purposes.
A Department of the Treasury letter 9th February 1948 summarises the production and post war holdings of these tokens:
5/- 34643 produced, 33903 held
2/- 91720 produced, 84428 held
1/- 18000 produced, 169771 held
3d. – 224000 produced, 182022 held
1d. -144630 produced, 104161 held
Cousins Nicola Del Vecchio and Pasquale Falcone from Roseto Valfortore were so well regarded by farmer Henry Stey of Harveys Siding via Gympie, that he assisted them to return to Australia in 1951. While the military records provide invaluable information about Nicola and Pasquale, the personal stories about these men, can only be told by the farming family. Thanks to Faye Kennedy (Stey) the story of Pat and Mick emerge.
There were 40,000 Italians taken prisoner of war at the Battle of Bardia, but somehow, somewhere in the deserts of North Africa, Nicola and Pasquale found each other. Nicola was with the Infantry and Pasquale with the Artillery and were both taken prisoner of war on the first day of this battle, 3rd January 1941.
By the time they arrived in Geneifa Egypt for processing, there were together. Their Middle East Numbers (M.E. No.) indicate that they were close in line: Nicola M.E. 69698 and Pasquale M.E. 69701. From Egypt they spent time in POW camps in India and arrived in Australia onboard the Mariposa into Sydney 1st November 1943. They are photographed together in Cowra 6th February 1944 six weeks before they were sent to Gaythorne in Queensland for farm placement.
Together they were sent to Q3 Gympie and placed on the farm of JH Sargeant at Wilsons Pocket on 6th April 1944. Together they were transferred to the farm of HJ Stey at Harveys Siding on 4th May 1944. Henry Stey’s granddaughter Faye Kenney relates the memories of her family: “Nicola and Paquale befriended Henry and became close to his family. At the time, Henry’s wife became pregnant and the honour of naming the baby girl was given to these two men. My aunty was named Ventris in 1946. Henry’s family called the men Pat and Mick. There is the story of an incident at the farm, involving another POW worker who was going to attack Henry with a machete. But another worker close by, stepped in and held the worker until the police or military staff came out from Gympie and took him away. Apparently, Henry started proceedings with the Immigration Department to get them back to Australia. Henry’s application was successful as they both arrived in Sydney from Naples onboard the Assimina in February 1951. The destination on the ship’s register is noted as Harveys Siding via Gympie. My family told me that when they’d returned to Harveys Siding, sadly Henry was deceased. He had died in November 1962. Maybe they had not come straight to Queensland. I found a listing for Pasquale at Leichardt Sydney and one for Nicola in Ascot and Albion in Brisbane.”
While the only photo the Stey family have of Pat and Mick is a little blurry, it clearly tells a story. Together Pat and Mick lived on Henry Stey’s farm at Harveys Siding. They worked side by side with the farmer. They enjoyed the company of children and being part of a family. They earned the respect of Henry and were given the honour of naming the Stey’s daughter. And together with the assistance of Henry, they returned to Australia.