Warren Dowling still lives on the Hurdle Gully property that was home to Italian prisoners during WWII.
Warren Dowling still lives on the Hurdle Gully property that was home to Italian prisoners during WWII. Mackenzie Colahan

Burnett's forgotten WWII history

More than 70 years on, tales of Monto's forgotten WWII history are still being told.

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

Of those prisoners, 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-years-old, but remembers clearly the day Vincenzo Pace and Nicola Morelli came to work at his family's Three Moon property.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, Mr Dowling and his wife are still there.

"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.

"They didn't want to fight. It wasn't their war and they were happy to surrender.”

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 and Europe from which they had come.

The Government's plan was to bolster the workforce on farms in response to the shortage caused by local labourers enlisting.

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

They were provided with appropriate living quarters and the farmers treated them well.

They were fascinated by Kookaburras - which they called 'ha-ha pigeons' - and wondered out loud why Australians didn't eat the delicious-looking birds.

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

A practice he later learned was strictly forbidden. It wasn't advised to give prisoners of war a loaded gun.

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

"We had one cranky fella who was uncooperative but the army came and took him away,” he said.

"There were no problems with the others, their only complaint was the Aussies had taken their watches and wallets - the spoils of war.

"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 history 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 uncovered and documented almost all the Italian prisoners of war to come through Queensland.

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

"There was little documented evidence of this period in time. Rural life was very insular during the 1940's 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 the Monto 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 and opportunities on offer in the bush that they chose to stay, or returned later in life.

"Morelli wrote asking us to sponsor him to emigrate back here. He eventually returned to live in Victoria,” Mr Dowling said.

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