Italian Historical Society Journal - ‘Italian Internees in Victoria and the Murchison Ossario’
Vol.14 No.2 Jul/Dec 2006
Ossario: One of Australia's Sacred Sites - by Vivien Achia
You could be forgiven for driving though Murchison in northern Victoria thinking; just another pleasant country town, with the river beside the main street, and little more to see. But if you drove on you would miss the Ossario (Bone House), a mausoleum of national and international significance, housing the remains of Italians who died in Prisoner-of-War and internment camps throughout Australia during WWII.
The strong Italian community in the Goulburn Valley, prior to, and during, World War II, and the tireless efforts of a voluntary worker, Luigi Gigliotti, provided the funding and support for the construction of this Ossario.
Murchison is surrounded by orchards, where the promise of Spring is announced by clouds of pink blossom, and is fulfilled in summer with packing sheds full of plump golden and red apricots and peaches, and heavy yellow pears.
The names of the fruitgrowers reflect post World War I immigration to this area, the rising numbers of Italians perhaps a consequence of the severe restrictions imposed upon them entering the United States in the 1920’s. Easier entry into Australia attracted Italian immigrants with names such as Lanza, Gervasi, Natalizzio, Italia, Lagazzino and Quattrocchi, whose devotion and skill in growing fruit and vegetables were rewarded by the irrigation, good soil and temperate climate of the Goulburn Valley.
When Italy entered the war on the German side, the status of Italians in Australia changed radically. The National Security Act of 1939 gave the government of the day the power to make, and enforce, regulations that overrode the constitution and bypassed the parliament. In particular, the right to act against ‘alien enemies’ or persons having enemy associations or connections. Internees were civilians whose place of birth, or political leanings, were considered potentially dangerous to national security. Included amongst these were ‘alien’ and naturalised Italian fishermen and market gardeners, fruit growers, cane cutters, farm workers and construction workers.
In 1940-41 Murchison, Tatura and Rushworth were chosen for the establishment of three POW and four internment camps. Joyce Hammond reports in her book ‘Walls of Wire’ that there were 19 camps in total throughout Australia, financed by Great Britain, and administered by the Australian army. These were built in response to a need to confine thousands of captured enemy servicemen, and Italian, German and Japanese civilians from the United Kingdom, South Africa and within Australia itself. These camps held 12-13,000 people from 23 nations, overseen by several thousand army guards. Inmates lived in tin huts behind multiple rows of barbed wire, some for up to seven years. Barbed wire fences at the Tatura camps were two metres high and ten metres apart.
Only 70 local Italians were interned in Victoria. Melbourne’s powerful Catholic Archbishop, Dr Mannix, persuaded the Australian government that Italians were of more use to the war effort if they remained productive on their farms, but thousands of Italian males were arrested and interned in other states of Australia. Hundreds were sent here from other countries, including many young Italians rounded up in England and sent here on the ship, the Dunera, where one internee, Marco, said
‘We were treated like cattle by the British authorities’.
Italians from Britain, arriving at Station Pier in Melbourne, spoke with English, Welsh and Scottish accents. The Receiving Sergeant bought Woodbine cigarettes for the smokers, and chocolate for the non-smokers, a generous gesture that was a balm to their injured spirits after their rough treatment on the voyage to Australia.
Some Italians came from Palestine on the Queen Mary, others came from Singapore and Malaya. Some of the best Italian chefs in London were sent to camps in the Goulburn Valley where they prepared banquets and one memorable smorgasbord visited by General Blainey. Italians distilled the leavings from wine-making to make grappa, a potent clear spirit, cleaned and gardened, and played golf, tennis and bocce.
Camp 13 at Murchison became home to 4000 POW’s, mainly Italians and Germans. Many Italian POW’s had been fighting for ten years under Mussolini in Ethiopia and Spain before they were captured and sent to Australia. They arrived here starved and frustrated, delighted to find that food was plentiful, and that they were treated well by the guards. In 1941 Italian seamen were also brought to Camp 13. By 1942 there were 1392 Italian POW’s at Murchison and 379 Italian internees in camps at Tatura. Also in 1941 the Australian Government took large numbers of POW’s from the Middle East, with a further transfer of Italian prisoners in 1943. Of a total of 25,700 POW’s held in Australia during WWII. 18,432 were Italians.
Joyce Hammond states that internees were paid sixpence by the Australian authorities for tasks such as working in the camps, cutting wood from the bush for the camps and hospitals, and growing vegetables for the local hospitals.
‘The Tatura group of camps became known as ‘model’ camps to the Australian army, and as ‘holiday camps’ to the internees and POW’s, because conditions were so superior to the camps in Europe.’
Australia was a signatory to Article 11 of the Geneva Convention 1929, and was therefore required to provide inmates with food appropriate to their background and culture. Italians were supplied with olive oil, tomatoes and pasta. Men, women, and children received rations equivalent to the amount provided for the army guards, so there was abundant food inside the barbed wire walls. Among the internees there were many fine cooks, including cooks from the crews of merchant ships. The prisoners ate Italian and German dishes, followed by fine German pastries.
Not only was food abundant, but prisoners were encouraged to use their time productively. Textile workers interned from Leeds and Manchester in Britain made looms from wood, and taught others to weave. The ‘Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum’ contains examples of tools, looms, woven cloth and clothing, carved buttons and buckles, drawings and paintings, letters and diaries. Many internees were teachers, so children were taught in Italian or German during their years in the camps.
Tatura Museum records show that in family camps sleeping quarters were partitioned off with masonite to accommodate family groups, while POW camps and internment camps for single males had barrack-style accommodation. Guards and other support staff were garrisoned outside the compounds.
The relative bounty inside the camps was not reflected in the real world outside, where strict rationing was in place. The National Security Act also enabled the government to introduce rationing, pegging of prices, blackouts and brownouts in cities and coastal areas, and the issue of personal identity cards. At this time the Women’s Land Army was formed to take up the work usually done by men. Petrol rationing was introduced early in the war, and Warwick Finlay, president of the Murchison Historical Society, remembers the gloomy evenings at home, as petrol was too precious to use in their home lighting plant. Cars and farm vehicles were fitted with clumsy ‘gas producers,’ which leaked and eventually ruined the engines. Each person was allowed three cups of tea per week, and 453 grams of sugar. The sugar ration amounted to only a third of normal requirements, as sugar was used in the baking of biscuits and puddings, which Australian families ate at least once, if not twice a day. From 1943 butter was rationed to 170 grams per week, meat to one kilo, and coupons were needed to buy clothing. Poultry, fish, and rabbits were not rationed.
Understandably, some people suffering deprivation and hardship due to rationing resented the generous provisions for those inside the camps, but a general spirit of sacrifice for the war effort prevailed. It was common knowledge that POW’s and internees were being treated according to the requirements of the Geneva Convention. Some wives and children of internees asked to be interned in family camps with their men, to avoid vandalism and abuse from locals. Italian businesses suffered a punishing decline throughout Australia, as wives, sisters and mothers struggled to keep their families, working hard for little reward.
In towns, cities and coastal areas people blacked out their windows at night. Even inland, in the Goulburn Valley, windows were blacked out, and some people, fearing a Japanese invasion, trained as aircraft spotters, studying the different markings and wing types. The Australasian Post magazine published a design for building home air raid shelters, and some families built shelters on their land. Despite this overriding anxiety and fear, internees and POW’s were treated with consideration and friendliness, demonstrating a generosity of spirit in marked contrast to the harsh treatment of asylum seekers today.
Angelo Musso, a fruit grower in Murchison, was a small boy in Queensland when WWII broke out. His father, a canecutter, was interned for several years. Angelo and his mother managed as best they could, but they were difficult times for Italian children. Angelo suffered during the war as people thought that his name had been shortened from Mussolini. While travelling with his mother by train, someone changed the name ‘Musso’ on their luggage, adding ‘lini’ to the label. His school years were spoiled by bullying and name calling, ‘You’re a dago.’ Always outnumbered and too small to fight, he took evasive action whenever possible. Other Italian children reported feeling lonely and being discriminated against at school when the war was over. The secure camp life with their parents and friends was not replicated outside in post-war Australia.
Angelo’s father left Italy at a time when Mussolini was exercising increasing power over people’s daily lives.
‘Sicilians loved to congregate around the cafes and bars and talk, but Mussolini put a stop to that so my father decided to emigrate.’
In Australia he regained his personal freedom, only to lose it again when he was interned as an ‘enemy alien.’ He had worked extremely hard as a canecutter, and had never taken the time to become naturalised. However, this would not have saved him from the camps, because even naturalised Italians were interned for several years. After his release Angelo’s father found that he had lost his house, because he had been unable to keep up the house payments while interned. The family moved to Victoria, and eventually bought land in Murchison, finally dispelling the bitterness he felt at the loss of his first home.
Italy surrendered and joined the Allies September 3, 1943, when British and American forces landed in Italy. Joyce Hammond writes that in March 1944 Italian POW’s were finger-printed before being released into the community from camps throughout Australia. They were subsequently employed on farms, in orchards and rice growing areas, working in burgundy coloured uniforms, and returning to transit camps at night. They were subject to restrictions on their movements: forbidden to enter towns, hotels, shops, or houses other than those of their employers. They could not accept money or gifts, but were usually fed and treated as members of the family.
Not everyone in the camps survived the war. 130 Italians died while imprisoned, their remains originally dispersed across Australia. In 1956, prior to the construction of the Ossario, the graves of some Italian prisoners of war in the Murchison cemetery suffered severe flood damage. Luigi Gigliotti, MBE, became a tireless advocate for the Italians who died in the camps. He conceived the idea of a dedicated memorial for Italian POW’s and internees from across Australia, to be built in the Murchison cemetery. Luigi Gigliotti’s negotiations with the Italian Government and Consuls resulted in all the remains being interred in one place. To fund this project he approached Italian families in the Goulburn Valley, raising 25,000 pounds sterling, asking for, ‘a shilling here, a shilling there.’ Construction of the Ossario began in 1958, and it was consecrated in 1961.
The remains of forty POW’s and internees from Victoria, thirty-eight from New South Wales, twenty-six from South Australia, twenty-one from Western Australia and five from Queensland, the majority of whom died of natural causes, are interred in this simple and striking building. Gigliotti personally took delivery of each of the coffins.
The Ossario stands on the river side of the Murchison cemetery, and is approached along an avenue of dark Mediterranean Cypresses that were planted after 1970. Each tree bears a plaque with the name of an Italian military service association. Amongst Italian ex-servicemen and women a strong bond exists with a similar memorial chapel at El Alamein, Egypt, commemorating Italians who died in battles in Africa. Outside the cemetery’s cyclone fence, beside the Goulburn River, black and white cows graze under huge peppercorn trees and eucalypts. Inside the fence the Ossario transports you to another country, Italy, and another time, when war and politics made ‘enemy aliens’ of former friends and neighbours.
Reminiscent of a church, the Ossario was constructed of richly textured grey, cream, and gold Castlemaine stone, roofed with red Roman tiles. To the right of the building stands a bell tower topped by a plain cross. Inside iron gates, under an ornate copper lamp, a white marble altar stands before a crypt that houses the remains in wooden coffins mounted on the walls, each bearing a bronze name plate. A deep stillness prevails.
The silence is broken on the second Sunday of November each year. On this day several thousand Italian visitors from Victoria and interstate converge on the Ossario; members of Italian service associations; army, navy, air force, parachutists, nurses, the French Resistance, the striking military police (the carabinieri), all supported by family and friends.
On the appointed morning numerous buses arrive outside the cemetery fence, as hundreds of cars also jostle for parking. Inside, along the gravel path leading to the Ossario, a brilliant spectacle awaits participants and visitors.
A long procession forms as uniformed members of the military associations line up, holding red, green, blue, white and gold banners and flags, embroidered with crests and emblems. Some carry elaborate and brightly coloured wreaths. The marchers are led by the carabinieri in their magnificent black, red and white uniforms with red and blue cockaded hats. The Italian Consul General, who will lay a wreath, and other dignitaries, including the Mayor of Shepparton, the local Member of Parliament, Professor Genovesi, (President of COMITES, a group of Italian Service clubs), and a representative from the Returned Services League, follow, flanked by bersaglieri, from the rifle regiments, who act as marshals.
This one day of the year the iron gates at the entrance to the mausoleum are open, and the official party stands on the steps to receive the groups. Local service clubs, including the Lions Club and St. John’s Ambulance, police and enthusiastic residents, are also involved in the commemoration. Conversation stops, firstly for ‘Advance Australia Fair’, followed by ‘Inno Di Mameli’ a stirring Italian song, then finally the ‘Last Post.’ The Italian Consul greets all the dignitaries, and in November 2003, asks those present to remember the Italian policemen shot while on duty in Iraq. The assembled crowd murmur agreement. A minute’s silence is broken by the screeching of cockatoos wheeling overhead.
A large crowd gathered on either side of the pathway applauds each group as they pass, while a breeze blows the flags, creating a brilliant panorama of colour. The bersaglieri, wearing their distinctive hats with cascades of shining black rooster feathers, are famous worldwide for a band whose musicians run with their musical instruments. These older men walk, some stiffly, until someone in the crowd calls ‘Run.’ For the last twenty metres they run, as the watchers cheer them on.
Veteran attendees of this annual event, mainly older people, have wisely brought chairs, coats and scarves. One woman waves an Australian flag as the groups pass. Guido Ciacia, an official organiser of the commemoration since 1975, speaks
‘We remember the courage of Italians in hard times, the sacrifices they made for us all. They form part of Italy’s patriotic story. We remember countrymen, husbands, brothers, friends. We know that life here is transitory; we must live our lives, as they did, with values that are eternal - justice, truth, faith and love.’
After the formal remembrance has been completed, a local priest conducts a memorial mass, assisted by a small but fervent choir. The mass ends with a handshake of peace, while hundreds of people line up to take Communion. A lone bell rings. The fallen have been remembered, their names honoured, the fact that they died painfully far from friends and family, acknowledged.
When the ceremony and solemnity of the commemoration are over, thousands relocate to the park along the riverbank, where the Italian love of food, wine and company is evident, with much spirited talk and laughter.
On the second Sunday in November each year, as Murchison celebrates one of Australia’s sacred sites, no visitor can remain unmoved by the memories evoked, and the sense of communion with the past. Murchison richly rewards those who stay awhile, and make time to discover its history.
Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum, Hogan Street, Tatura, houses a large collection of photographs, written material and memorabilia. Stories of many former POW’s, internees and garrison staff are available for researchers to use.
Mail: Tatura and District Historical Society Inc, P.O. Box 156, Tatura, Vic 3616
or contact Lurline Knee, tel: 03 5824 1084 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opening hours: 1-3 pm Monday- Friday 2-4 pm Saturdays, Sundays, Public Holidays