Tag Archives: Prigionieri di guerra italiani in Queensland

Longevity and Letter Writing

life and lifelong connections

Dedicated to Ferdinando Pancisi

I would like to introduce you to 101 year old Ferdinando Pancisi. Ferdinando (Ferdy) has lived a full life; in more ways than one. Life events saw him journey from his home in Italy to Libya to Egypt to India to Australia and then home to Italy. Like the majority of Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia, they were absent from Italy for seven years.

Ferdy settled in the village of Civitella di Romagna with his wife Anna; both work in their small convenience shop. With age comes wisdom, and his sage insights were shared in 2017, when he was interviewed .

Longevity also relates to the duration of a special friendship between Ferdy and his Boonah family: The Dwyers. A bachelor, Pat Dwyer applied for prisoner of war workers and Ferdy was sent to his Fassifern farm. Ferdy left the farm on 2nd February 1946 and Pat Dwyer wrote to him soon after. And so began a correspondence that has continued through the decades. Ferdy’s response to Pat’s first letter is typed below…

(Letter courtesy of Tim Dwyer)

Ferdy’s first letter to Pat Dwyer was written on 11th February 1946. From the records it is known that Pauly and Peter were on the farm of Pat’s brother Jack and Nicola and Cosmo were on the farm of Mr TM McGrath.

Ferdy and Pat shared their family news throughout the decades. Pat’s wife Joie took on the role of letter writing after Pat died and then son Tim has taken on this role in recent years.

For over 73 years Ferdy and the Dwyer family have sent letters, cards and photos back and forth across the decades and across the miles. I would think that their situation might be unique.

Seventy three years is a long time: a special connection between farmer and Italian POW; a tangible link between two men from different walks of life; a personal history of war and friendship; a heartwarming story of Ferdy and the Dwyer family; a connection that goes beyond the backdrop of war.

a unique friendship in many ways

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Happy

What was it like living as an Italian prisoner of war at Q6 PWCH Home Hill?

Sante Testa a farmer from Pomigliano D’Arco (Napoli) grew up in the shadow of Mt Vesuvius.  He was 20 years old when he was captured in Libya on 21st January 1941.  His date of capture suggests he was stationed at Tobruk when the Australian army attacked this Libyan stronghold. A private in the Italian army: 10 Artiglieria 7th Gruppo 2nd Batteria, he was one of 25,000 Italians captured at Tobruk.

By the time he arrived at Q6 Home Hill, his travels had taken him on a long and unexpected journey: Tobruk-Suez-Trinocomalee-Fremantle-Sydney-Hay-Cowra-Gaythorne-Home Hill. Unable to sign his name upon arrival in Australia, his ‘new’ world would have been very unfamiliar.

Testa was in the first group of Italian prisoners of war to arrive at Q6, which was still in its construction phase.  It was April 1944 and a month earlier a cyclone had crossed the coast between Bowen and Townsville with Home Hill recording 509 points (c. 130mm) in the last week of March.  The Burdekin had been in minor flood and on 31st March 1944, the Burdekin bridge had 2 ft 6 ins of water over the rails. The rain had delayed construction.

By the 14th May PW and AMF personnel were still in tents with no floor boards, they were sleeping on bush bunks.  Work completed to the Q6 facility included: QM Store, Canteen, AMF latrine – ¾ complete, AMF sleeping huts – stumps and bearers in, PW latrine – complete, PW ablutions- frame completed and floor concreted, PW sleeping huts – not commenced, chlorination pit for septic tank – not installed.

By August 1944 living conditions had improved and the camp was completed including hot water and septic latrines.

But for Sante Testa, his personal circumstances changed in August.  His testimony in his defence of a charge of ‘refusing to obey a military command’ provides a personal insight into his interactions with the army staff at Q6 Home Hill and his views including unjust treatment meted out to the Italian prisoners of war.

DEFENCE

The accused being duly sworn gives the following evidence:

On 2 August 44 in the afternoon I done my duty like all other prisoners of war. Sgt Gibson did not send me to prison because of the work.  He sent me to prison because he doesn’t like me, because I had asked him for a change of squad.  The same day in the evening at teatime while I was proceeding for a wash, Sgt Gibson called me.  He said, “Testa you come to the commandant”.  I replied “Yes”.  After I finished washing I went.  He took me to the Commandant.  The Commandant asked me why did I refuse to work.  I told him that I had not refused I had done my duty.  The commandant sent me to prison.  I told the Commandant “you are sending me to prison unjustly that to-day I did my duty”. On 3 August about quarter past eight the Lieut. Hamilton and Sgt Zappala came to the Compound and he told me “Testa why are you in the Compound”. I answered “Sgt Gibson sent me unjustly”. The Lieutenant told me “Testa you come to work”. I said “No”. Had the Lieutenant told me that I would have been paid I would have come out to work willingly.  After that he took me to the Commandant.  The commandant asked me if I would work that morning. I told him “Yes” but I asked for a change in squad.  He told me “No”.  And the Commandant declared me as having refused, but I had not refused.  Had the Commandant told me that I wold have been paid I would have gone out willingly because he on the 19 June had sent me to prison without any trial and I was awarded seven days detention. Three days bread and water and four days, Australian rations and worked without pay, and for this reason I said “No”.  I did not refuse for any other reason. A Prisoner of War with seven days detention, three days on bread and water, worked and no pay and forfeited his free issue of cigarettes.  If on 3 August he would have been told that he would have been paid he would have gone to work willingly.

I have now been 19 days in detention unjustly and have had no soap and no writing material and no free issue of cigarettes.  This morning was the first issue of soap I have received, because the Commandant knew that there was Officers coming. 

There will come a day at this camp that no Prisoner of war will go to work because the Camp Commandant he punish the men unjustly and if a Prisoner of War has an accident and that would be sick for a period of about 20 days the Camp Commandant does not allow him to make purchases at the canteen.

His evidence is read to accused.

I certify that the above Summary of Evidence was taken by my at HOME HILL on the Twenty-first day of August 1944, and that the requirements of Rules of Procedure 4  ( C) , (D), (E ),  (F) and (G) have been complied with.

 Nugent Wallman [Captain AIF Lawyer Stationed in Townsville]

(NAA:A11626, POW20)

A summary of Sante Testa’s record and detentions is as follows:

3.6.44 Q6 Home Hill 4 days detention by C/O

19.7.44 Q6 Home Hill 7 days detention

3.10.44 Q6 Home Hill 120 days detention by court martial ‘disobeying a lawful command

7.1.45 Hay Detention Barracks – 3 days No. 1 Diet, gave letter w/o permission to a POW

And so Testa’s journey continued: Q6 Home Hill-Gaythorne in transit-Hay Detention Barracks-Murchison-Naples

3936403 Testa 030228 13

Murchison, Australia. 1 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D1 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49374 A. Curcio; 48235 S. Nardea; 62062 A. Criscuolo; 48243 G. Olivares; 55953 G. Dinapoli. Front row: 64344 A. Fantetti; 56526 A. Picheca; 64339 P. Fabrizio; 46885 S. Testa; 63786 I. Buttarelli. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. Photo documentation suggests that names are listed, back row, front row, left to right.  (AWM Image 030228/13, Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)

Trouble in the Tropics

I keep being drawn back to Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill.  It is after all my starting point; a personal interest in finding the history to this site.

By the time some of the Home Hill Italian prisoners of war arrived at Q6, they had been in captivity for three years and had experienced life in camps at Hay, Cowra and Yanco.  One could say, they were ‘camp savvy’ regarding their rights under the terms of the Geneva Convention. 

Three Italians who wanted their views on record were Mario De Nigris, Ottorino Palermo and Alfonso Lopez. A letter was penned to Captain Burke outlining their objections to their treatment at Q6 Home Hill; all three signed the letter.

There are two sides to every story.

A note in one of the military files records a statement from a Commandant about this letter and one of the writers:

‘An insolent truculent trouble maker. Author of a most insolent and threatening letter sent to his Camp Commandant and useless as a worker, or for any other constructive purpose. He is an extremely bad influence among other P.W.s and good for nothing at all.’

The letter is strongly worded, critical and angry:

14-11-44

Captain,

This letter forwarded to you is the fourth of the things we draw to your notice t0 – in the first three we have not been given no exit.  This signifys being laxidaisical or either you don’t take offence at the words written to you, or either the Interpreter who translates the letters hides the significance of the words, and this signifys cowardice.

First of all we will bring to your knowledge that the faithful Interpreter not only does not understand Italian, but also does not understand English correctly, therefore he can never and never be an Interpreter.  We have asked for an improvement in Rations, we have begged to now the Canteen Profits, a major cleanliness of the camp, of having fixed Barbers who can keep us clean.  There are no disinfectants for the Barracks, and for a month there has been no hygiene paper in the Latrines.  You have put the pigs almost in the Barracks, dogs that go into the Camp, horses, cows etc., etc., This is incivility, cowardice, brutality, created only by yourself and your crawlers.

A few days back you itemised rules, addressing the name of the ‘Adjutant of the POW Camp, and you and your faithful Interpreter think that we believe the dirty words spoken to the POW. If so, you are in complete error.  These instructions written by you and read by your faithful, is nothing but abuses, because there is no one to control you, and therefore to refill your wallet through the POW vital interest.  We, the POW have been in Australia for four (4) years, and always worked conscientiously without Guards.  We have never permitted ourselves to escape, either from Camp or from work. Can you explain why? No – you do not know.  It is because, both in COWRA and HAY Camps, there were honest and human Officers commanding, and not those who try to rob the POW because they have no one to defend them.

Its not enough that from our Rations and from the PW Canteen, you keep all your men, and bank your money, but also appropriated the Canteen Profits which you had the barbarious courage to say that in six months they £1.6.6. this is open face robbery.  The cigarettes taken from the punished PW, are seen smoked by your dependents.  This is what you do.  Therefore we say that in the COWRA-HAY Camps we never escaped, and instead here we will never and never cease to escape, until the cleanliness and the Superior Command won’t make provisions for everything.  Regards the armed guards you send out with every gang, by which you think to dominate us POW, you are wrong.  On the contrary, if sometime you do not wish to observe that the POW are capable of tying hand and foot and disarming the Guard and Sgt, do away with the Guard.   

(NAA:A7919, C100387)

For their ‘honesty’ the three men were awarded 28 days detention and transferred to Murchison.  It was however around this time that Captain Burke was replaced with Captain Pollock as Commandant of Q6 PWC Hostel Home Hill. 

IMG_7294.JPG

 View from site of Q6 PWCH Home Hill looking across the Burdekin River

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

Childhood Memories…

Ross Di Mauro’s dad had the farm on Block 182 Home Hill. Ross remembers his father’s story about how in the middle of the night, two Italian POWs who had escaped from the Home Hill POW camp came to their farm.

Ross’s dad gave them a meal, a bit of money and food and sent them on their way.  But before they left, he did ask them why they thought that his house was a ‘safe’ house to visit.  They replied that they saw clothes on the line and felt that the stitching had been done by Italians.  There were a number of unsuccessful escapes from the Q6 Prisoner of War Hostel Home Hill.  The furthest afield the escapees were found was at Bowen.

Another memory associated with prisoners of war is from the Stanthorpe district. Ross and his family spent some time during the war at a farm at Ballandean via Stanthorpe.  One of the stories about the POWs there was that there were a number of POWs in the district and they would get together on a Sunday and this was against the rules.  If a suspicious vehicle would be seen coming down the road, they would all scatter, hiding amongst the grape vines and fruit trees

 Felici, Sesto 3901142 Balladean Military Police

Cowra, NSW. 16 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49354 A. Biagioni; 46612 P. Rossi; 49906 B. Rodofile; 45671 S. Felici; 45091 C. Bono; 48923 F. Carlone. Front row: 48942 G. Filippelli; 46085 D. Martinuzzi; 45627 B. Falchi; 46807 M. Salvini. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030147/14, Photographer: Lewecki)

Ross says of the Ballandean POWs, “There was this one fellow that stood out. He was quite imposing, he had a shaved head and a big beard and he had a stick/baton in his hand. It seemed like he kept the others in line, like he was a policeman.” Tracking down this POW was not difficult.  Sesto Felici was from Pieve Sant  Giovanni Arezzo and his occupation was ‘Military Police’.  From February 1944, Felici was working on the farm of the Colvin Bros at Ballandean. The Cowra photo of Sesto Felici did not surprise Ross as this is exactly how he remembered the Ballandean ‘policeman’.

Ross also remembers that there was some trouble between the farmer and his POWs and it was written about in the newspapers. The words the Italian said stuck in Ross’s memory, “No like Calaboose”.  As reported in a newspaper, Attilio Corgiolu spoke these words after he and his friend, Antonio Perduto emerged from a Military Court hearing held in Stanthorpe in January 1945.

Calaboose

(Truth (Qld.: 1900-1954) Sunday 28 January 1945, page 24)

It is interesting what one remembers and remarkable when a memory is given a context.  Ross’s childhood memories highlight that the children of those times, have accurate memories which can be validated by photos, newspaper reports and government documents.

 

A Very Special Thank You

Gayndah. Robinson. POW photo

“Glen Olive” Gayndah: Robinsons and Italian POWs

 Ruby Robinson (at back)  and  Olive Munro (Robinson) (in front)

Who is Who? Antonio Colomba, Antonio Alfarano or Giuseppe Vergine

(from the Collection of Avis Hildreth)

“Glen Olive” and “Glen Ellen” in Gayndah were farmed by father and son Francis Charles Robinson and Francis William Robinson who employed Italian prisoners of War to help work their citrus orchards.  Five young Italians, all in their early 20s and from farming backgrounds, arrived at the Robinson’s property on 8 July 1944: Domenico Petruzzi, Nicola Micali, Antonio Colomba, Antonio Alfarano and Giuseppe Vergine.

Avis Hildreth granddaughter of Frank Senior relates with fondness family memories of Domenico Petruzzi: “My late mother, Ruby Robinson, remembered him as being very young.  He was well regarded by the Robinson family and according to family accounts, he did not want to return to Italy when the war ended… Domenico gave some needlework to my late mother.  It is an arrangement of Australian wildflowers. My mother gave it to my sister”.

Gayndah Tapestry (2)

Domenico Petruzzi’s Gift to Robinson Family

(from the Collection of Colleen Lindley)

Colleen Lindley, granddaughter of Frank Robinson Senior, is now the custodian of this special gift and her mother also entrusted her with its story. She says, “I only tell you the history of this piece as I was told by my Mother. My Mother had this needle work sent out to her by mail order. She intended to do the needle work herself.  Domenico asked her if she had any needle work that he could do to fill in the time of a night.  My Mother decided to give it to Domenico as a gift, never thinking that in time, it would become his thank you and farewell gift to her.   It was to be a cushion cover, but I was not willing to use it this way as I felt that it should be preserved. Mum had kept it wrapped up in a cloth with her linen until the day that she gave it to me.  The lettering at the bottom was Domenico’s doing.  He had put the lettering on the bottom and told her what the letters stood for: Remember Domenico Petruzzi Prisoner of War”.

 Before Domenico left the Gayndah orchard, Mr Robinson had discussed with him the possibility of sponsorship so that he could return to Australia.  The Robinson family could not locate or contact Domenico in Italy and letters sent to him possibly did not find him.

Over the years, family members thought often about Domenico.  An ABC documentary in the early 2000s reignited Ruby Robinson’s interest in finding Domenico and so daughter Colleen took up the challenge.  She contacted local historical societies and the Australian War Memorial but there were no answers nor leads.

There were many complications in the search: AWM requested a Prisoner of War Number; Ruby Robinson had never seen Domenico’s name written down so spelt it as she remembered it: Dominico Pertruse; and even if the family found his record, his home town was written as Nizzanello Lecce rather than Lizzanello Lecce.  Such are the many brick walls that Queenslanders have hit when trying to locate information on their Italian POWs.

Domenico Petruzzi’s gift is an enduring memory of his time working on a citrus orchard outside of Gayndah.  It is beautifully crafted and a treasured memento from the time Italian prisoners of war worked on Queensland farms.

More importantly, Domenico has had his wish come true.  His story had been embroidered into his gift and the sentiments of the words have ensured that he has not been forgotten.  Domenico Petruzzi’s Australia family will continue to remember him as this gift is passed down through the generations.

 

It started with George

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.

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.

Pane Irma.jpeg

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)