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.
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.”
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.
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)