Tag Archives: Prigionieri di guerra italiani in Queensland

Welcome… Benvenuto

Welcome to Footprints of Italian Prisoners of War a comprehensive archive of documents, artefacts, testaments, photographs and research relating to this compelling chapter in Australian history. This is a community history involving Australian and Italian families from twelve countries who have shared their stories so that this history is not forgotten.

Sneath Murray Bridge

Over 18000 Italian Prisoners of War came to Australia from 1941 – 1945. Captured in theatres of war in North Africa, East Africa and Europe, they were transported to Australia  via staging camps in Egypt, Palestine and India.

There is much written about internment in Cowra, Murchison and Hay the main Prisoner of War and Internment Camps in New South Wales and Victoria, but only snippets of information are recorded about  Italian prisoners of war in other states.

This research features Italian prisoners of war and their farming families in Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. Articles cut across a range of topics: the battles in Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Greece; the movement of prisoners from the place of capture to prisoner of war camps in Egypt and Palestine; interment in the camps of India; transport to Australia; repatriation from Australia and arrival in Naples.  

The stories and memories of Italian and Australian farming families gives this history a voice.  The diversity of photos and relics shared personalises what would otherwise be a very black and white official report.

The articles featured on the project’s website brings colour and personality to this almost forgotten chapter in Australia’s history.

List of Articles July 2020

The Italian prisoners of war were more than just a POW.  They were fathers, brothers, sons and husbands from across Italy and from diverse backgrounds and occupations.

Follow their journey…. Walking in their Boots

 

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Nonno Ermano Nicoletti’s Journey

(Photos and documents from: AWM, Red Cross, NAA, Trove, Alessandra Nicoletti, Nambucca Guardian: Ute Schulenberg, David Akers)

 

Why?

Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Book Launch Joanne - Copy

Joanne Tapiolas – Accidental Historian

(photo courtesy of Michele Sinclair)

My research started with the Italian prisoners of war growing vegetables up river Home Hill.  As a Burdekin local, I had heard stories about these Italians who had come from North Africa after being captured.  Memories of the locals of the time are sketchy, ‘we knew about them’ ‘ we knew they were there but not much else’ ‘one didn’t talk about those things back then’.  In my mind, there must have been a barbed wire enclosure housing 20 – 30 Italian POWs to grow vegetables.

A puzzle for my young 10 year old self was the image of the map in my school Atlas.  North Africa was a long long way from Home Hill in northern Queensland. Questions beginning with WHY and HOW and WHAT stayed in my memory bank.  Not too much of this made sense.

Map of World

When I found the time to do some research, I consulted an excellent publication on the Burdekin history : Black Snow and Liquid Gold by John Kerr.  A section covering the years of the war provided me with the background and details.  I found the names of two Italian POWs who twice escaped the hostel BUT I became frustrated because in an editing error, the names of these men were printed incorrectly.  They are named as Pietro Di Vincenzo and Landolfi Pasquale.  Their names are Vincenzo DI PIETRO and Pasquale LANDOLFI.  The other Italians mentioned have their names correctly ordered.

My dad was as amazed as myself at the records I began to uncover. The research told a story of 250 Italian POWs who lived in barracks and grew vegetables for the armed forces in North Queensland. Now Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill not only had a history but also a context.  It was one of 10 prisoner of war control centres in Queensland and it operated as part of the Commonwealth Department of Commerce and Agriculture’s Vegetable Project : Home Hill and Ayr.

I became quite attached to MY Home Hill POWs especially when I could put a face to a name.  I left a copy of my research with the local historical society hoping that one day, the children or grandchildren of a Home Hill POW would pass through Home Hill looking for some information.  At least the list of POW names attached would verify that their father or grandfather had been at the hostel up river Home Hill.

I put aside other documents I found about the other nine centres in Queensland, just in case.  I felt that if the Burdekin locals had little knowledge about the Home Hill POW hostel, then did people in the other nine districts know about their POW history.

Curiosity got the better of me and so I began digging for information.  I found little bits of information BUT I was frustrated because the information in the public domain was scarce and incomplete.  The only photographic evidence of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland is three photos taken at Calico Creek.  They are housed in the John Oxley Library. Other records mention only six centres and there is no reference to the differences between a control centre: without guard and a hostel. Once such reference is: Prisoner-of-war control depots were established at Stanthorpe, Home Hill, Gympie, Nambour, Gayndah and Texas.(Fortress Queensland 1942-1945)

I believed that the history of Italian prisoner of war in Queensland needed to be more comprehensive,  contain various perspectives,  and include those who had a memory of the Italians an understanding of the context surrounding the placement of these men on the family farm.

It became obvious that this history was not found in the books of the libraries.  This history is found in the memories of Queensland locals and Italian families. Letters to editors, newspaper articles, letters to historical societies, Facebook posts, cold call letters, website development, oral history interviews, face to face interviews and radio interviews.

Slowly but surely, Queenslanders and Italians have helped write this history.

And just as I had hoped, the son of a Home Hill POW did come looking for the footsteps of this father.  Francesco (Ciccio) Cipolla was at the Q6 PWCH Home Hill from April 1944 to November 1945.  His son, Nino, on previous trips to Australia had visited the PW & I Camps at Hay and Cowra but the notation Q6 Home Hill had remained a mystery.  On a holiday to Melbourne in 2017, Nino searched yet again for some reference to this Q6 Home Hill. Nino found my research and Stepping Back in Time, Ciccio’s son was able to understand better his father’s time growing vegetables for supply to the armed forces in the north.

2017 Q6 36

Nino Cipolla Home Hill Railway Station April 2017

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

And back to the answer to the question: Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Because it hadn’t been done… because if it wasn’t done now, the stories would be lost to time…because it needed to be done…Because it is a valuable part of Queensland history and this history should have a voice.

The rest they say is “HISTORY” and on these pages is this history.

Walking in their boots JPEG

A Special First

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.

Mooloo 1

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

Dear Joanne,

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.

Yours sincerely,

Aiden Silvestro

Acquisitions Officer | Registration

A special first

Walking in their Boots

 

Walking in their Boots

Italian Prisoners of War in Queensland 1943-1946

Walking in their boots JPEG

North Queenslander, Joanne Tapiolas, has been delving into the history of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland and slowly the stories and memories of this chapter in Queensland history have emerged.

Walking in their Boots incorporates the facts and the personal narratives  from the ten districts where the POWs worked and lived.  Queenslanders and Italians sharing their memories, artefacts, photos and letters have added a richness and diversity to this chronicle.

Walking in their Boots is a record of this history and a valuable reference to the background and context of Italian POWs in Australia.

Book now available

$25.00 plus postage and handling

200+ pages

English version only

For further details and to place an order:

contact Joanne Tapiolas e. joannetappy@gmail.com

Precis of Walking in their Boots

Over 1500 Italian prisoners of war, captured in the battlefields of North Africa, came to Queensland during World War 2.  The Italians provided a much-needed workforce for farmers throughout nine south-east Queensland districts.  Additionally, 250 Italians worked at the Commonwealth Vegetable Farm on the Burdekin River, to supply fresh produce to the north’s military forces.

Queensland farming families welcomed the Italians onto their farms and into their homes.  A temporary refrain from life behind barbwire fences, friendships were forged, and lasting memories remain clear over seven decades later.

The Italian prisoners of war left their footprints in the landscape and in the memories of Queenslanders. Walking in their Boots traces the history of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland and tells the stories of a time when POWs worked on our Queensland farms.

Boonah.Niebling1

Footprints in Concrete

Farm of Ron Niebling Lake Moogerah via Boonah

(photo courtesy of Pam Phillips (nee Niebling)

 

It started with George

VALE: Eric Charles BEHRENDORFF

Aged 97

15th November 2019

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.

Giovanni Ragusa

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”.

Giovanni Ragusa Italy

Giovanni Ragusa

(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.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

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 and Joanne.jpeg

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.

Finding Ferdy

Vale: Ferdinando Pancisi

26.2.1917 to 6.6.2019

Aged 102 

Anna and Ferdy Pancisi 2017

Anna and Ferdy Pancisi 2017

Finding Ferdy is like finding treasure…

Tim Dwyer had heard his father’s stories about the Italian prisoners of war on their property at Aratula during WW2. He knew their names and a little bit about them, but it wasn’t until he took over from his mum, as letter writer to one of the POWs, that he appreciated the bonds of friendship formed over 65 years before.

Ferdinando Young Man

Ferdinando Pancisi

(photo courtesy of Ferdinando Pancisi)

Tim continued to write to Ferdinando Pancisi (known as Ferdy) from 2010 but the ceasation of replies from Italy in recent years signalled the end of a era.

In a tribute to his parents and Ferdy, Tim while on holiday in Italy in 2017, decided to visit Ferdy’s village Civitella di Romagna.  With an envelope in his hand and very basic Italian, Tim asked a lady in the street for directions to the address written on the paper.

With much gesticulation and explanation,  Tim’s village guide understood he was “The Australian” and knocked on a door and roused 100 year old Ferdy.

Ferdy.Anna.Tim.Ferdy

Anna Pancisi, Tim Dwyer and Ferdinando Pancisi September 2017

(from the collection of Tim Dwyer)

Finding Ferdy was like finding treasure and Tim left Civitella di Romagna with a heavy heart.  There was much he wanted to say and questions he wanted to ask but his holiday schedule and language were against him.

Realising the importance of capturing the memories and stories of Ferdy, not only of his time with the Dwyer family, but also his time as a soldier and prisoner of war, Tim engaged the services of Tammy Morris, a Kiwi living in Tavarnelle, Chianti.

The legacy of friendship between an Italian POW and the Dwyer family, is the capturing and recording of this vital first hand account of the life of an Italian soldier and POW.  Read the full story: PANCISI Ferdinando.

Tammy and her husband Nicola Cianti arranged to visit Ferdinando, tape his memories, transcribe them then translate them.  Tammy said, “Ferdinando has an extremely fresh memory and is an energetic and jovial person!”

Ferdy walked back in time and explained about his time as a soldier and medic in Libya, his capture, working in the hospital in a POW camp in India,  his first impressions of his farm boss (Tim’s father), his return home and almost emigrating to USA and Ferdy sang  SOTTO IL CIEL DI BANGALORE.

Ferdy reflected about his return to Italy in 1947,

“They prepared my bed, heated it up for me.  I had a warm welcome, felt cozy, happy to be home. The only problem was that when I woke up in the morning, I felt kind of out of place! I was used to moving around and seeing the World. How was I going to make it here? I was feeling a bit like a fish out of water! This little village was too small for me!”

Even as a young man, Ferdy had a gift for wise words and in a letter he wrote to Pat Dwyer in 1946, he sends a message: ‘A cheer up to Pauline! Tell her she should be glad because youthness passes away like a wind and nobody can’t stop it’.

When talking about Tim and Cathy’s unannounced visit, Ferdy’s philosophy on life is revealed: “You see, this is the joy of living life -when you don’t know what kind of surprise is coming your way, making each day a pleasure”.

And quite possibly Ferdinando Pancisi’s philosophy and positivity guided him through those difficult war years.

I congratulate Tim on his efforts to co-ordinate a remarkable mission to capture Ferdy’s memories. I thank also Tammy Morris  and Nicola Cianti for realising the importance of Ferdy’s journey as a soldier and prisoner of war and their willingness to record this history.

Footsteps.Pancisi

Tammy Morris, Ferdinando Pancisi, Anna Pancisi and Nicola Cianti 2017

(photo courtesy of Tammy Morris and Nicola Cianti)

 

 

 

 

The Hand of Friendship

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (5)

Adolfo D’Addario

(from the collection of Assunta Austin)

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.”

Monto.DowlingWarren.Pace.Dunn Syd (7)

Adolfo D’Addario

(from the collection of Assunta Austin)

Angelo Valiante

Vale: Angelo Valiante

1916-2018

I am reposting this article in memory of Angelo Valiante. Interviewing Angelo in 2017 was truly an honour. My sincere condolences to Angelo’s family. One of life’s true gentleman.

2018 Valiante Angelo

Angelo Valiante is well known in the Granite Belt  of south-east Queensland for his contribution to the region.

He is so well respected  that a mural by Guido van Helten was commissioned by the Stanthorpe Art Gallery in 2016 to celebrate his 73 year involvement in the community and his 100 year milestone.

Stanthorpe.Valiante.jpeg

Mural in Stanthorpe: Angelo Valiante

(from the collection for Joanne Tapiolas)

Soon to turn 101, Angelo has also been captured on canvas for Jacques van der Merwe’s exhibition “New Arrivals” and his story is part of  Franco and Morwenna Arcidiacono “Echoes of the Granite Belt” which details the history of Italians and their contribution to the area.

Life goes a little more quietly now for Angelo but a morning spent with him showed that he is a keen and animated story teller and willing to talk about some of his experiences as an Italian soldier in Libya, his treatment as a prisoner of war and his memories of incidents in Cowra and Q1 PWCC Stanthorpe.

Q1Stanthorpe.Valiante

What  I learnt from Angelo was not only details of his journey as a prisoner of war.  With a wily wisdom and experience that comes with being 100 years old, Angelo gave me  much more than facts.  I found out about determination, endurance and perspective. A youth stolen from him by war. Starvation and deprivation as a Mussolini soldier. Prejudice experienced as a migrant family in the 1950s. Success with hard work. Strong family connections. A proud legacy.

Carmel Peck (Dywer) from Boonah told me that her family’s Italian POWs enriched their lives. This reflection holds true on so many levels and for so many Queensland families who welcomed the Italian POWs.

After interviewing Angelo in September 2017, I can honestly and humbly say that Angelo Valiante has enriched my life.

Walking in his Boots: Angelo’s Prisoner of War Journey

Lasting Friendships

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.

Memories from West Wyalong

Graydon Bolte

Brisbane

February 2017

 

 

Gentilissima Signorina Irma

A trainee nurse, Irma Vettovalli was working at the Ayr General Hospital during 1944 and 1945 when Italian prisoners of war from Q6 Home Hill Hostel were admitted to the hospital. While the military rule was that Italian prisoners of war were not to fraternise with women, Irma was not about to let military regulations get in the way of her nursing duties.

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Trainee Nurse: Irma Vettovalli

(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)

Agostino Leto was admitted to the hospital for chronic appendicitis 29th May 1944.  The story goes that the senior doctor at the hospital refused to operate on a prisoner of war, but the junior doctor, Dr Kelly had no hesitation in acting according to the ethical obligations of his profession.

Once he was admitted to the ward, Irma Vettovalli, realising Agostino had little English, went out of her way to speak with this patient. The Matron ordered Irma to cease her contact with this prisoner and under no circumstance was she to talk to or nurse Agostino again.  A plucky 18-year-old, Irma offered her resignation to Dr Kelly, without reason.  Upon questioning Irma, Dr Kelly identified the issue and told Irma to continue as before.

Agostino spent one month at the Ayr Hospital before returning to Q6 Hostel on 29th June 1944  but he did not return home to Prizzi Italy until January 1947. Upon his return to Italy, his recount of his one month hospital stay to his mother, prompted her to write a letter to Irma. Irma’s care and ability to speak Italian, was remembered and retold with great affection and appreciation by Agostino.

Prizzi 20 February 1947

Gentilissima Signorina Irma,

…As a mum it softened by heart and I feel an ache in which I must thank you through this sheet of paper.  I hope you accept my poor letter writing… [my son] says that yours [your visits] as a nurse were special.  He found you and only you will remain in my heart and you will be unforgettable to my dear son.  I wish that I could see you in person so I can tell you all that my poor heart feels, that I cannot put on paper.

And so my most gracious Miss, this is a small token of my esteem and from all my family to pass on to your dear ones.  I wish you good fortune and every kind of good.  Consider me your unknown friend. Rosa Leto.”

Pane, Irma Envelope

 

Mail from Rosa Leto to Irma Vettovalli

(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)

Held in high regard, Dr Kelly, the medical superintendent wrote in December 1945, “she [Irma] gave eminent satisfaction, on account of her obedience, application to duty and intelligence.”

In 1992, Irma Vettovalli (now Mrs Irma Pane) received an award from the Alpini and Friends Group “expressing their profound gratitude for Irma’s ‘Noble gesture of Human Dedication for Italian Prisoners of War recuperating in hospital during the war period’.”

Irma wrote about those times, “Because of my dedication to Nursing in Ayr, I came in contact with people from all walks of life, colour and creed and having had respect and compassion for all during their illness, I too gained their respect.  Re- the war years, on some occasions only the ignorant would make hurtful remarks…”

Those war years were complicated years for Irma’s family.  Enrico Vettovalli, Irma’s father, was interned in February 1942 and sent to Gaythorne for processing and then to Loveday Internment Camp.  He was a naturalised British Subject and had been resident in Australia since March 1922.  Enrico was interned until May 1943 when he was released to work for Manpower SA.  In November 1943, he returned to Queensland.

Adding to the complexity of war, Irma’s brother Donato had in January 1942, been called to duty in the Australian Army. He was released for discharge in May 1945. Born in Italy, he was three years old when he migrated to Australia with his mother 1924.

Agostino Leto is seated first on the left.

 

Leto 3

Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49115 C. Trentino; 49354 G. Ippolito; 49592 A. Poggi; 49107 G. Zunino; 48833 R. Bartoli; 49212 R. Papini; 48863 S. De Micco.

Front row: 48939 A. LETO; 49172 A. Mandrini; 57531 B. Protano; 49923 F. Carlone; 45196 A. Ciofani. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (Australian War Memorial Image 030173/11)