Warren Dowling, Vincenzo Pace and Sidney Dunne.
Warren Dowling, Vincenzo Pace and Sidney Dunne.

Work of Monto prisoner of war camps revealed

MORE than 70 years on, tales of Monto's forgotten World War II history are still being revealed.

During the war 1500 Italian soldiers captured in the North African desert were sent to work on Queensland farms.

Of those, 142 were assigned to Q9 Prisoner of War Control Centre Monto.

Sadly, few Queenslanders are aware of this chapter in our wartime history.

Warren Dowling was only six, but remembers clearly the day Vincenzo Pace and Nicola Morelli came to work at his family's Three Moon property.

"The war finished in '45 and as time goes on, the new generations forget,” Mr Dowling said.

"They were good workers. It was a dairy and lucerne farm in those days and without modern machinery we needed a fair bit of manpower.”

Life in outback Queensland was a far cry from the barbed-wire fences and confinement of the Cowra internment camp, or the battlefields of northern Africa from which they had come.

The government planned to bolster the workforce in response to the shortage caused when local farmers enlisted.

The Italians, for the most part, shared a good relationship with their captors.

"They were fascinated by kookaburras - which they called 'ha-ha pigeons' - and wondered why Australians didn't eat the delicious-looking birds,” Mr Dowling said.

As Mr Dowling recalls, they were great with kids, often taking him and his siblings duck shooting.

This was a practice he later learned was forbidden; it wasn't advised to give prisoners of war a loaded gun.

"Their only complaint was the Aussies had taken their watches and wallets,” he said.

"The Dunne family lived with us then, whose wife was also Italian.

"Pace and Morelli were very happy when she cooked spaghetti, they didn't much like my mother's cooking.”

It was the work of a former North Queensland high school teacher that shed new light on this remarkable history.

Joanne Tapiolas began digging through the archives as a passion project and, despite very few official records, has discovered and documented almost all of the Italian prisoners to come through Queensland.

The accounts of many of these prisoners, farmers, and their families are told in her book Walking in their Boots.

"Rural life was very insular during the 1940s and memories fade,” Mrs Tapiolas said.

"Most of the prisoners were sick of fighting Mussolini's war.

"They weren't happy they weren't home, but they were pleased to no longer be fighting.”

With Monto's depot established in August 1944, it was little more than a year before the war ended and the Italians were sent home.

Many of them so enjoyed the Australian lifestyle they chose to stay, or returned later in life.