With the war over, Italian prisoners of war were withdrawn from farms at the end of 1945 – beginning of 1946. With a sense of hope, they believed that they would be home in Italy within one or two months. Many letters written to Queensland farmers from their ex POW workers talk of going home soon.
Reality was, that the majority of Italian prisoners of war were not repatriated until end of December 1946 – January 1947. Recalling 13,500 Italian prisoners of war into the POW and Interment camps came with logistical problems. However, a number of Italian POWs were sent to army ordinance sites and training sites for a range of duties from ordinance maintenance, maintenance and improvements of camps, salvage work, vehicle maintenance.
N33 Hostel Nobby’s Road was one such site. Alan St John spoke with a number of Italians working there…
NOBBYS ITALIANS ARE NOT SO HAPPY
By Alan St. John
Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW: 1876-1954), Saturday 28 September 1946, page 5
A TRUCKLOAD of red-uniformed Italians prisoners-of-war rolls westwards up Hunter Street. They look interesting. They smile, reveal flashing white teeth. Their long, dark hair flicks with the wind and they seem carefree, even irresponsible.
To chat with the 36 Italians behind barb wire, I went to their camp at Nobbys this week. They turned out to be interesting, but don’t let those happy smiles fool you. They are not irresponsible. These sallow-skinned Latins are worried men with a sterile past and a cloudy future. About Christmas time they are due to go home. They have to search for their people, to eat, to work and to seek stability in a country still heaving after the convulsions of war.
Corporal-major (an n.c.o. rank) Mario Dominelli has a thin face and steady, serious, dark eyes. He told me with emphasis: “We have nothing to be happy about. We are penniless. We have lost all our youth. We will soon return to a strange home with 30 years and more on our shoulders to start with.”
Dominelli, 30, son of Milanese master carrier was impressed into the Italian Army three and a half years before the war.
There was no option about Dominelli’s becoming a soldier. Failure to attend the call-up would have resulted in a visit from a burly gendarme and possibly, in rough treatment. The period of service was meant to be 18 months, but when war hove in sight, young men just were not released.
Dominelli served as a motor mechanic with tanks in Libya and was ‘caught’ by the Australian Desert Rats in 1941. About two and a half years of his imprisonment he spent in India, but when Italy surrendered prisoners of war there were released on parole. He had charge of 60 men. When he came to Australia, he went behind barbed wire again. He can not understand why, though it is all over now, he is still behind the wire.
“Australia is a fine country,” he said. “But I should be let out to see it.”
The serious Dominelli became graver at mention of his family. “My people – I have not heard of them for three years.”
A contrast to his fellows is Carlo Narboni, whose tall, straight figure, blonde hair, blue eyes and ruddy complexion could cause him to be taken for an Englishman. A native of Tripoli, he was in the Italian army two years before the war, as an artilleryman. He was one of thousands the Australians captured at Tobruk.
Narboni has seen something of Australia during his five years here, much of his time being spent on a farm at Coonabarabran. Carlo is useful with his hands and, at Nobbys, has turned out an excellent carpenter.
Though his father and brother in Italy are trying to rehabilitate their big rope works in Padua, 27 – year-old Erminio Navarin, a Venetian who has been in uniform since 1938, wants to stay in Australia. But arrangements to allow prisoners of war to remain here are still in the ‘talking’ stage, he has been told. When he turned 18, Navarin failed to report for army service. The breach cost his father a fine of about £7.
LITTLE MAN, BIG TRUCK
Another Nobbys prisoner attracted to Australian farming life is Gaetano Cavallaro, a 25-year-old native of Rovigo, near the ancient Italian city of Padua. He has worked on farms at Murwillumbah and Tamworth. Cavallaro, who was 18 when he joined the army, is only 5ft. 2 in tall and the camp dwarf. He was driving a 35-ton Isooto Frashini army truck when he was cut off from his unit in Bardia. He, too, was taken in charge by the Aussies. He is keen to see his parents, four sisters and a brother, in the town which he says is ‘something like Newcastle.’
At 46, Lorenzo Strambi, grey-haired and sombre, who entertains his Nobbys camp-mates with his guitar is a victim of circumstance. Out of work, he left his native Genoa for Africa and became a quarry-worker in Addis Ababa. War came; there was no transport to take him home so he was pushed into the army. He has not seen his wife and 21 year old son for eight years, and this week he received a letter from his wife for the first time in four years.
Nobbys other musical Italian is Crescenzio Catuogno who was a real Neapolitani gondolier. His civilian job was to punt tourists around Naples Harbour in his gondola and, as an added attraction, entertain them with his fine tenor voice.
Gondola Tenor: Crescenzio Catuogno standing at far right
Cowra, NSW. 16 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49305 E. Allunni; 46486 F. Palladino; 48249 G. Olivares; 46433 G. Polise; 49690 A. Rea; 45169 C. Catuogno. Front row: 49310 A. Argento; 49566 A. Di Pala; 49670 G. Joime; 45256 A. Ciancio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030148/10)
Marshalo (Warrant-Officer) Florentino left Nobbys recently with a nervous breakdown. [Domenico] Florentino was highly intellectual – a Bachelor of Economics, a chartered accountant, and holder of a first-class steamship master’s ticket. The confinement of camp life got the better of his highly strung temperament, and he was sent south for special treatment.
Florentino failed to adapt himself to the life, as his comrades, who have worked out their own forms of expression. Some study trades, some read, and some make trinkets. To finish off his cement garden ornaments, Angelo Fumagalli, even makes his own paint-oil mixed with soil, brick dust and pulverised Nobbys rock. One of his creations is a model six-story building.
The prisoners go to Mass at Tighe Hill every Sunday.
Their food is good, and they make their own excellent macaroni. In addition to a free ration of cigarettes (from a special fund), the Italians may buy six ounces of tobacco and three packets of papers a month. They have their own currency: half pennies and pennies with their centres punched out, rated at 2/ and 5/. Pay for non-commissioned ranks is 1/3 a day.
But the prisoner of Nobbys are far from happy. I don’t blame them. Carlo Narboni, the English-looking fellow, shrugs and explains: “Eat ees good here, and the capitani he is a gentleman. But if you have been a soldier, you will understand: we have been away from home a too long time.”