Italian POWs helped grow Australia

Italian POWs helped grow Australia

Around 14,000 Italian prisoners of war were put to work on Australia's farms under a unique scheme.

When Colleen Camarda finally retired recently in her 80s as head of the major building company she helped build, it marked an end of sorts to an Australian saga.


Not the saga of her working life itself, but a tale going back to how it all started.


Colleen Camarda links back to a little-known piece of Australian history that, itself, has just turned 70 years old.


Ron Sutton has the story.


Colleen Camarda once ran away with a fugitive.


Or, as the title of her self-published book put it more sentimentally years ago, I Loved an Italian Prisoner of War.


It was World War Two, and Domenico "Mick" Camarda was one of an estimated 14,000 Italian prisoners of war put to work on Australia's farms under a unique scheme.


They had been shipped from British prisoner-of-war camps in India starting in mid-1943, brought out to replace the men pulled from the farms to fight the war overseas.


And the way it started out, as Ms Camarda tells it -- the ship landing in Melbourne, a train to Cowra, New South Wales, and a walk to the prison camp -- was not a pretty sight.


"They made them walk up the street from the railway station of Cowra to the camp -- you know, where the camp was. As they walked, (people) were throwing rotten eggs, tomatoes, everything. And he said, 'What in the hell's ... Why, God, did you bring us to this land, this hell of a land?' It turned to be a good land in the end to him."


Mick Camarda turned out to be one of the lucky ones, sent from the prison camp to work for a good boss at an orchard in Orange, New South Wales.


The then Colleen Cantrill worked in the neighbouring orchard.


He was 28, she was 18, and they fell in love.


When the war ended and the prisoners were returned to camp to await shipment home as the Geneva Convention required, she cycled the hundred kilometres to see him.


But when he was moved to the edge of Sydney, it finally became too much -- for both of them.


An Italian man who owned the big market gardens nearby in suburban Liverpool helped them escape.


"He put us on the train at Strathfield in Sydney, and he gave Mick civilian clothes. And we had, I think, 30 pounds in our pockets, because he used to make trinkets, little timber trinkets. And he said to Mick, 'Don't you talk to anybody. Let Colleen do the talking.' And he put us on the railway station at Strathfield in the night, about 10:30, and we set off for Griffith. We didn't know a soul -- we had a letter of introduction to this Macedoni."


The Macedonian contact helped them settle into the deeply entrenched Italian community in Griffith, a quiet, isolated town in rural, southern New South Wales.


When a woman in the community was ordered to post photos of missing P-O-Ws on her shop wall, she recognised Mick Camarda and silently removed him from the set.


When Colleen wrote to her mother, she would take the letters to Sydney, to the man with the gardens, and he would send them on trucks heading to distant towns to be posted there.


For two years, they lived in hiding, celebrating the birth of their first child.


Colleen Camarda was seven months pregnant with her second when their own little world in Griffith crumbled.


"Somebody there wanted 25,000 pounds to buy a farm, a Macedoni. And there was a reward put out -- if you hadn't given up by, I think it was, the 15th of July, whatever year that was, they would pay 25,000 pounds for each one reported. And this Macedonian reported my husband and two other prisoners of war."


Colleen Camarda would only find out for certain who turned in her husband years later, when she was researching her book.


It was, she says, the same Macedonian man they had gone to for protection upon arrival in town.


"When I wrote the book, I went back to Griffith to talk to him, and he'd just come out of hospital. And he said, 'I've been up in hospital. I fell down and broke my leg.' But he says, 'I can't die. I've been in and out of that hospital, but I can't die. Something won't let me die.' He says, 'Now you've come, can I talk to you?' And I said, 'Yeah, well, what do you want to talk about?' He said, 'What would you think if I said I was the man who reported your husband?' I said, 'Oh, I had an idea it was, but I wasn't sure.' Then ten days later, he died in peace. He said, 'I can die in peace now.'"


Mick Camarda would return to his homeland, joining about 150,000 other Italians taken prisoner of war in northeast Africa and originally shipped to the camps in India.


Some of the POWs in India had eventually been shipped to South Africa to help build the railway there.


Gianfranco Cresciani, author of The Italians in Australia, says Australia wanted 50,000 for its farms.


"All the farms, the Australian farms, were left basically manless. The women and the children were left to mind the properties. And the Australian government asked Great Britain if they could send to Australia 50,000 prisoners of war from India, Italian, to be employed as farm labourers -- mainly because many Italians, if not most, were farmers in Italy. Unfortunately for Australia, there wasn't enough shipping to transport, during the war, prisoners of war from India to Australia, and the very few ships available were basically used for military purposes. So, instead of 50,000, some 18,400 Italian prisoners of war were transported to Australia."


The officers and other fascist loyalists among them were kept in the prison camp, just as all the Japanese P-O-Ws were.


But those Italian POWs deemed trustworthy were sent out to the farms.


The program was supervised, but Mr Cresciani says the supervision, at times, was a joke.


"There was one case whereby a group of three Italian prisoners of war was taken to the pub by car by a soldier, and the soldier gave the gun to one of the prisoners while he was driving. So, you have these funny stories which enraged the Australian security service, because the safety of the country was endangered by this, uh ... carelessness of the soldiers."


For others, though, it was a time of neither humour nor love.


Biagio Di Ferdinando was sent from the Cowra camp to a farm outside Parkes, again about a hundred kilometres away.


Treated much more like slaves, he and another prisoner lived in an old sheet-covered hut near the stables with a stove and a dirty bathtub.


They rose early each day to feed the pigs and chickens, milk the cows and have boiling water ready for tea for the farmer, a 50-year-old man, when he awoke a few hours later.


Then they worked the fields, mended fences, cut firewood, cared for the sheep and, at the other end of the day, brought the cows back in, ate and went to sleep.


Biagio Di Ferdinando is careful with his words in describing the owner of that farm -- because it all had a happy ending.


"The boss was a good man, but he was a bit greedy. You know, like ... you know, there are people who (act like), 'I am, you know, a big man.' But he was all right. I came back ... he nominated us to come back to Australia."


Mick Camarda and Biagio Di Ferdinando both made it back to Australia after being returned to Italy.


Mr Di Ferdinando came back with a new Italian wife, returning to the farm to work and then moving to Sydney and raising a family.


Today, at age 96, he may be the oldest survivor of the camps living in Australia.


It is a life, he says, that all stems, really, from a decision he made 70 years ago, when Italy was facing up to defeat in the Second World War.


At the camp in India, an Italian colonel walked down the line of Italian prisoners of war with a question for each one:


"We know the war is lost, but the Germans are still in Italy, and we must hunt them out. Do you want to fight with the British to remove them, or do you want to remain captive?"


Seven decades on, Mr Di Ferdinando still remembers his response clearly.


"I had already (suffered) for four years. So I said, 'No, I don't want to go and fight any more.'"


Unwittingly, that simple decision to step to the line on the left instead of the right would lead to his first ship to Australia, which, in time, would lead to his second, back from Italy.


Gianfranco Cresciani says there is no research to show how many made their way back to Australia after the war, but Colleen Camarda suggests it might have been just 15 or so.


She fought for more than a year to get Mick Camarda back.


On the night of his arrest, the Australian officers had given them a few hours to prepare and his boss had suggested taking them away to another town, but they declined.


"Mick and I sat down, and we said that, (for) two years, we'd escaped. And we sat down and said, 'There's no life for us as a prisoner of war. We're not free. So what about if you give up?' Sooner or later, we've got to declare ourselves."


After the long fight to let him back into the country, they had that life, finally settling near New South Wales' south coast in the ultimately Australian-sounding town of Jamberoo.


They raised four children and, with her brother, built a construction firm whose mark on the region ranges from a school to a police station to a golf course to a stadium.


Mick Camarda died in 1994, but Gianfranco Cresciani suggests, in the wider view, he and his fellow Italian POWs left an even bigger mark on Australia as a whole.


"While Italians during the First World War were allies to the Commonwealth, to the entente cordiale (between) France and England against the Germans, and, after the war, the migrants, the Italian migrants, who came to Australia were, shall we say, badly treated, or very badly looked upon, after the Second World War, when the Italians were enemies of the Commonwealth, the migrants who came in the late '40s and '50s were very well received. And I think, to a large extent, this is due to the fact that Australians started to know Italians through their experience and their contact with the Italian prisoners of war during the war years."



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