Tag Archives: Q3 PWCC Gympie

Friendships Forged by War

With few men available for farm work, Bernard Mason signed up to employ Italian prisoners of war mid 1944. On the 8th June 1944, Mario Mercuri and Guido Vaccarini were escorted to his property at Lagoon Pocket by military staff.

By the time Mario and Guido arrived at the Mason’s property, they had left their footprints across four countries.  As POWs, they had spent time in temporary caged compounds in the deserts of North Africa, POW camps on the Suez Canal; in India and Cowra Australia.  The war had gone badly for Italy in North Africa and Guido and Mario were but two of the 350,000 Italians captured in the North African campaigns. For 19 brief months, they lived and worked at Lagoon Pocket, settling in quickly to the daily routine of farm life.

Farming life was never easy in those times.  Petrol rationing meant that farmers became charcoal burners, making charcoal as a fuel to power trucks. Tractors were non-existent and the ploughs were pulled by horses. Farm work was hard, manual work.  Gympie farms did very well during the war, provided that they had workers.  Troop trains came through Gympie on a regular basis with fresh produce sold directly to the army.  Gympie being well situated supplied fruit and vegetables directly to the southern markets of Brisbane and Sydney.

Bernard Mason grew a diverse range of crops and also branched out into a macadamia plantation.  Pineapples, papaws, carrots, beetroots and cabbages were some of the fruit and vegetable crops produced on the farm. Bernie also had another 40 acre property from which he pioneered the macadamia industry.  At the time, there was no interest for ‘bush nuts’ and the Department of Primary Industry had little information about its commercial viability.  But Bernie with the assistance of the ‘Ityes’ planted 800 macadamia seedlings which in time was known to be the largest macadamia seedling plantation in existence. Nowadays, macadamia plantations use grafted trees.  Bernie would go up into the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast around Eumundi and Mapleton to collect the nuts for seeds.

G and M planting pineapples Lagoon Pkt

Guido Vaccarini and Mario Mercuri planting pineapples at Lagoon Pocket 1944-1945

(from the collection of Barry Mason)

It was in this bucolic setting that the POWs became part of the Mason family.  Barry Mason, born November 1939,  was only a child at the time, but he remembers the men well: “They treated us kids well.  I remember how they would put my sisters in a fruit basket and carry them around. And they played games with us.  Dad bought them each a watch and push bike.  There were rules about when and where they could go on their days off, so I suppose this is why he bought those items for them.  They made no attempt to attend church, and I remember a story about Guido and church.  Apparently, he told dad, ‘No church. Madonna no think of me. Me no think of Madonna’.  And there was the story about the POWs at the Butler vineyard.  Jack Butler had the Italians prune back the vines and had a fit when he saw what they had done.  They had cut them right back and Jack believed that they had ruined his vines.  As it turned out, these POWs knew more than a little bit about vineyards and the next crop was the best crop every grown on the farm.”

Another anecdote about the ‘Ityes’ at the Mason farm centres on ‘the still’.  Barry reminisces, “They set up a still to distil alcohol.  I am not sure where all the bits and pieces came from, but they used a milk separator bowl to boil the fruit in.  They used pineapple skins and no doubt other fruit.  They had a coiled pipe and the vapours would go up into the coil and came out a crystal clear toxic liquid. They could turn their hand to most things, although I am not sure that this was ‘allowed’.”  Lots of memories surface about those times and Barry relates a common joke of the day, “I don’t think there was any malice in the words but it went like this: ‘How would one describe ‘tall inebriated Italians?  Hi(gh) tiddly I-tyes’!”

It was however to be a near tragedy that cemented a lifelong friendship between the Mason family and the Vaccarini family. Guido saved the lives of Bernie’s two daughters, Valda and Rae. The girls had been playing in the cabin of the Ford V8 truck when they were rendered unconscious by carbon monoxide.  Bernie, Guido and Mario were in the packing shed when Guido realised he could not hear the girls.  He told Bernie, “Boss, bambini quiet… Mister, no hear bambini” adding “Mister, mister, I go see why no hear bambini”. Giudo had found the girls slumped and unconscious in the truck’s cabin. The girls were removed from the truck and laid on the floor of the packing shed and the Gran who looked after the children, felt all was lost and pushed Mason to the ground and said, “Pray, pray. Pray for the girls”.   Guido was loaded with one of the girls on the back of the truck and Mrs Mason in the cabin with the other lifeless girl.  Bernie had said, “It was the longest 8 mile I have ever driven.  But God must have heard my prayers”. The rush of fresh air across the face of the little girl on the back of the truck stirred her but it wasn’t until they arrived at Dr Warrener’s in Gympie, when a nurse revived the other child, that the family knew both girls were safe.  The doctor said that without the action of Guido, the girls would have died as had the girls inhaled the carbon monoxide for another few minutes, they would certainly have been dead.

After his repatriation to Italy in 1947, Guido wrote to Bernie in 1949 to ask for sponsorship to return to Australia. Bernie Mason said, “This, I felt was the least I could do because he was the means of saving our two little mites.” Guido arrived back in Gympie in 1951 and his wife Rina emigrated a year later.  Barry said, “When my dad died, the family wished for the graveside service to be private.  Guido asked to pay his respects to my dad and we decided that he deserved a place there.”

The Mason and Vaccarini families still reside in Gympie. Barry and Margaret live in Gympie and have become the custodians of the photos and stories of that time.  Valda married Duncan Polley of Polley’s Coaches and Rae married Gordon Saxelby and they now live in Bundaberg. Guido has now passed on some years ago.  In a fitting tribute to the close family ties, Barry had the honour of conducting the service at Guido’s funeral.  Guido’s wife Rina is still with us though she is very frail. Son Marco and Rina live in Lawrence Street Gympie.

While time progresses quickly these days and memories fade, the stories of the Italian POWs on Gympie farms are clearly remembered.  The special bonds forged between a prisoner of war and a Gympie farmer continue to be part of Gympie’s Italian prisoner of war history.

Bern, Guido, Joe

1950’s Bernie Mason, Guido Vaccarini and Joe Brooks in front of 4 x 4 Chev Blitz Truck

(from the collection of Barry Mason)


War Time Friends

Alex Miles lived on a farm at Mooloo about 11 miles outside of Gympie during World War 2.  As a young lad, he had ‘a ring side seat’ to the comings and goings of the Italian prisoners of war in the Mooloo area. Assisting in the recording of his father’s memoirs, Alex has ensured that the stories of the Italian prisoners of war on their Mooloo farm are part of their family history.

And 72 years later, Alex remembers Sam, Frank, Marino, Mario, Tony, Amerigo and Raffa as being like his ‘childhood’ friends.  They were part of Mooloo’s history and the Miles farm became the centre for congregation for the Italians on a Sunday.

Alex remembers them as  family men who made spaghetti by making the dough, talked of their children with longing,  crafted kites for the children which flew high on the westerly winds in winter, took the children for a ride in the billy cart of an afternoon and loved nothing more than nursing baby Joan Miles who was born early in 1945.

Alex says that they were ingenious, industrious and inventive and could turn their hands to most things some of which went against the rules. They make a potent brew with their home made ‘illegal’ still, dammed a creek which they bailed out so that they could catch fish, set up a barber shop for all the POWs in the district, bought  items for the Miles family from the canteen truck in return for money, carved out a secret place inside their shaving sticks to hide their Australian currency,  made belts from the cellophane wraps of their cigarette packets and created rings from one shilling and two shilling coins.


Ring in the Making: 1943 Florin

(from the collection of Alex Miles)

The four Italian prisoners of war on the Miles farm were:  Mario Lauretti (uncle) and Marino Iacovacci (nephew) from Vallecorsa Frosinone; and Antonio Buffa and Francesco Ciaramita (both from Xitta Trapani and possibly brothers-in-law).

Amerigo Capriotti and Raffaele Fischetti were at AW Collard’s farm at Mooloo and Vincenzo Di Domenico and Filippo Castiglione were at LF Sizer’s farm at Mooloo.

The following extracts are from The Life and Times of Percy Alexander Miles:

…Three months after the Italians arrived, Mario became ill and had to go back into the prison camp to be near medical help. Andy and Nellie Anderson decided they didn’t need their prisoners, so we took them on, namely Francesco and Antonio. “Tony” was an officer’s cook in the Italian Army, so they wanted to cook for themselves.  This was ok by us as they didn’t like our cooking, they wanted spaghetti every day of the week.  Clyde and I put a kitchen on the end of the shed they were living in…. As time went by our kids used to eat with them now and then.  In the end the kids preferred their food to ours.

…Everything was good, except I couldn’t get enough spaghetti for them.  Because I had 3 POW’s working for me, I was allowed to apply directly to the factory to buy the spaghetti.  I filled out a form enquiring about spaghetti.  Next thing I knew there was ½ ton of spaghetti at the Gympie Railway Station for me. The prisoners were really happy but I didn’t know how they could possibly eat it all before the weevils got into it; I sold a lot to other farmers who had POW’s.  My three still maintained they could eat it all.  Turns out the three of them probably could have eaten the ½ ton in 12 months.    By the end of the year they were making their own spaghetti.

… Nearly every Sunday all the Italian POW’s from all the farms within walking distance (up to 5 miles away) would come to our farm.  Marino was a barber in Italy and the Australian barbers gave them short back and side haircut, they didn’t like that so they came here.  Marino cut hair all day; he charged them so many cigarettes for a haircut.

…They were not allowed to have a radio or to listen to one.  If ever we went away, they would go into the house and listen to our radio.  I bought it new in 1941, it was a big cabinet push button Brevelle model radio. To change stations all you had to do was push a button. How we knew they were listening to it was they always forgot to switch it back from short wave. I don’t know whether they found any Italian stations, I never let them know that I knew, it must have been hard for them not knowing what was going on in Italy.

Francesco was a tin-smith, he spent weeks cutting a kerosene tin into strips and rolling them into half inch pipes and soldering them, then joining them together.  It turned out to be a still to make alcohol which was something they were not allowed to have.

I turned a blind eye at first but in the end I had to tell them to destroy it, but not before they gave me a sample of the alcohol it made. They had old rotten pineapples and potatoes and any other fruit they could find in a 4 gallon drum with a top on it with the pipe coming out of the top. A clear vodka-like fluid was dripping out of the pipe.  They gave me a ¼ cup to try, Alice put some on a teaspoon and put a match to it, it had a nice blue flame. I thought this may be the way to fuel my ute, but it had to be destroyed much to the POW’s disappointment.    

Italian Sailors at Ross Creek

A photo, a banana farm, two names and a story of Italian POWs at Ross Creek.


Tony Franco and Giovanni Irace at Ross Creek via Gympie

(from the collection of Kathy Worth (nee Knowles))

Kathy Worth (nee Knowles) is the keeper of a framed photo of two men standing beside a bunch of bananas.  Her mother, Ellen Knowles, carefully noted the names of the men on the reverse side of the photo and 72 years later this photo tells a story.

Clarrie and Ellen Knowles of Ross Creek Gympie grew bananas during World War 2.  At some stage, they also grew beans between the runs. On 14th May 1945, two Italian POWs were sent to the Knowles farm and took up residence in the workers’ shack on the farm.

Both from the Amalfi Coast of Italy, Antonio Franco was from Maiori Salerno and Giovanni Irace was from Praiano Salerno.  Kathy remembers Tony and Giovanni from the stories her parents told her and she says, “Dad loved fishing and would take them to Tin Can Bay fishing with him but apparently they were not to leave the farm.  The ‘Ities’ as Dad called them ran out of milk one day so he went and milked the draught horse and they commented how sweet it was and he told them it was mare’s milk which caused a laugh.  They were frightened of fire flies as well.  Dad said that when they saw fire flies for the first time they were scared.  They told Dad how they called into the night, ‘boss, boss, is that you boss’.  Mum remembers that they didn’t want to go back to Italy”.

Delving further, the back story to Giovanni Irace and Antonio Franco coming to Australia is noteworthy. The last transport of Italian POWs to Australia was the General William Mitchell arriving in Melbourne; the 2076 Italians on board disembarked on 13th February 1945.  Two hundred and fifty were sent to Gaythorne in Queensland arriving on 13th March 1945 for onward placement on farms.  Irace and Franco were placed on Clarrie Knowles’ Gympie farm within two months.  Other Italians were encamped at Gaythorne for five months before placements were arranged to work on farms.

Another interesting point of history is the place and date of capture for Irace and Franco.  Both sailors in the Italian Navy, they were captured at Massaua (Massawa) on 8th April 1941.

The Red Sea Flotilla was a unit of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italia) based in MassawaEritrea, when Massawa was part of Italian East Africa. In World War II, the Red Sea Flotilla was active against the British Royal Navy East Indies Station from Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 until the fall of Massawa on 8 April 1941.

The location of the squadron meant it was isolated from the main Italian bases in the Mediterranean by distance and British dispositions. The British capture of Massawa and other Italian ports in the region ended the Italian naval presence in the region in April 1941.”

(Wikipedia: Red Sea Flotilla)


No More Pasta

Doug Wilson was a child when his father, Vernon Wilson at Lagoon Pocket took on two Italian prisoners of war.  The farm grew beans, tomatoes, bananas and beetroot and as well, had a dairy which was leased to another farmer. It was war time, and labourers had gone off to fight in the war, so the Department of Manpower promoted the employment of the Italians.

Doug’s memories of that time centre mainly on food and children.  Doug recalls, “Living on a farm, the Italians were well fed.  Mum would have a leg of ham hung up and the POWs took a liking to having a thick piece of ham with their eggs.  Eggs was another luxury, but because we had chooks, we had lots of eggs.  There was also fresh milk.  Two buckets of milk would be collected from the dairy each morning as part of the lease arrangement dad had. These items were in short supply in town and there were also ration cards.”  But Doug’s most memorable food story is about pasta.  His mum would cook up the pasta as that is what they were used to.  Doug says, “I was so sick of pasta, that after the war I refused to eat pasta.  To this day, I still won’t eat pasta.”

The two Italian prisoners of war were family men. Francesco Nicoli had a son and a daughter and Bernardino Patriarca had three sons. “I remember the men treated us very well.  They treated us like their own.  They were always around us and played with us.  One of the funny memories is how they were worried that mum bathed the baby every day. ‘Why wash bambini day?’  I suppose things were different in Italy,” Doug muses.

Treasured letters from the Italians explain the bond they formed with children.  It has been suggested that Italian POWs were more settled when there were little children on the farm and the words of these men tell of the special memories they would carry with them to Italy.

Bernardino wrote on 4th May 1946, “…Glad to hear that your children have not forgotten us yet.  You can’t imagine how hard it is for us to leave this country without seeing your lovely children once again.  Last night in my dream I was with your children to play to, but it was a dream only.”

Wilson.Bernardino.Francesco with children 1

Vernon Wilson Farm Lagoon Pocket Gympie

Men: Bernardino Patriarca, Vernon Wilson, Francesco Nicoli

Children: Wayne Choy Show, Leonie Choy Show, Douglas Wilson, Myra Wilson, Frances Wilson

(from the photographic collection of Doug Wilson)

Francesco wrote from Hay on 29th May 1946, “…thank you so much to your children for their remembering to us.  Please, will you send me some photos of your children and family as I want to see you and keep them as a remembrance of my Australian friends. When I get back to Italy I will send you some of mine too.”

Written by camp interpreters, Francesco and Bernardino wrote letters of their time at Gaythorne Camp, the delay in departing for Italy, the weather at the Hay Camp and the special connection between themselves and the Wilsons. The letters also tell of wanting to be free men once more.  Unfortunately, these men were taken off the farms on 4th January 1946 but it was almost a year before they boarded Alcantara on 23rd December 1946 to return to Italy. They were prisoners of war for over five years.

patriarca letter.png



A Voice from the Past…

In a beautiful tribute to his nonno, Damiano Lumia recorded the voice of Antonino Lumia telling his story as a soldier and a prisoner of war.

Lumia Antonio Lumia Hay II

Hay, NSW. 9 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 6 POW Group. In this group are known to be: 46032 Raffaele Lomonaco; 46627 Giuseppe Restivo; 46007 Antonio Lumia (front row second left); 45586 Isidoro De Blasi; 46206 Gaetano Mineo; 45360 Giuseppe Cannata; 45103 Leonardo Barbera; 45997 Pietro Lomonte; 46221 Antonio Rondi and 47999 Leonardo Ciaccio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number.

(Australian War Memorial Lewecki Image 030143/33)

Antonino’s  journey begins in Sicily and listening to his voice, we follow in his footsteps from his home town of Bompensiere to Toburk and Benghazi, then Australia. Finally, Antonino takes us back to Italy and his family.

Antonino Lumia begins his story with,

My dear grandson, I had a lot of trouble. When they called us…”

and ends with…

I saw your grandmother. I came down. I came home. I rushed to your father. Here is my story, dear grandson. The sufferings were severe, dear grandson”.

Damiano’s video Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946  combines images of Bompensiere with photographs and documents from Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia  to take the viewer on an intimate journey through time.

Antonino’s memories are told with humour and melancholy. English subtitles combined with Antonino’s voice, makes this accessible for those who only speak English. More importantly for those Queenslanders who have memories of ‘their’ Italian POW, it brings back to life their voices: the timbre and musicality of the Italian language.

“Footprints of Italian Prisoners of War in Queensland” has always been about connectivity between people, with the past, between Italians and Australians, with memories and history.

I am honoured and humbled that Damiano Lumia’s video has become part of this project for the oral histories of Italian prisoners of war are paramount to adding depth and perspective to this project.

Another aspect of the project has been to connect people with information. Research has provided Damiano with details about Antonino’s time in Queensland.  Antonino Lumia was assigned to Q3 PWCC Gympie along with Giovanni Adamo.  They were employed by Mr R – Mr Kevin John Rodney of North Deep Creek from 14 March 1944 to 4 January 1946.  Miss Gloria, mentioned by Antonino is Miss Gloria Davis from Auchenflower.  Mr R and Miss Gloria were married in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane on 6th May 1944.

Antonino remembers with clarity when he first met Miss Gloria. “The farmer was back. You could hear the horn of his car in the distance.  His wife was with him.  I had planted very beautiful flowers near the hut. I mad a bouquet of flowers.  When they arrived near us… I offered flowers to his wife.  He introduced us to his wife: Miss Gloria. They went home. For us the work continued. The next morning Madame served us the meal.  A very nice woman. Every morning I brought wood to this woman for cooking”, speaks Antonino.

Antonino Lumia’s testimony is not only a voice from the past but also an important window into the past.  Click on the above link and take a walk with Antonino through history.

Lumia Antonio Lumia Hay


(Australian War Memorial, Geoffrey McInnes Image 063371)