FIVE hundred and twenty-one Australians were killed in Vietnam war. The Vietnamese lost about three million, mostly civilians.
The suffering of civilians (“collateral damage”) is usually left out of war histories. Civilians were the majority killed in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hanoi, Dresden, London, Coventry, Bologna, Rome, Hamburg, Leningrad, My Lai and Fallujah. They accounted for 30 per cent of deaths in World War I, 60 per cent in World War II and 90 per cent in Iraq.
During the Second World War, civilians all over Europe, from Holland to Greece, faced an unprecedented famine. They ate dogs, cats, horses, lizards and snakes. A mother divided a worm her twin daughters were arguing over. My Italian father said there isn’t a more painful cry than that of a starving child. In first-generation Australian families, wasting food is still inexcusable.
In Australia, the indigenous people were the first civilian casualties of war. Travelling through South Gippsland in 1846, Henry Meyrick wrote to his mother of the Aborigines: “No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with.”
Long after the dead have been buried, war continues to inflict emotional damage. After both world wars, many Australian children had no father or a father they hardly knew who was more like a detached hyper-tense stranger.
Wonthaggi was still feeling the effects of war during my youth. Far from the battlefields of Europe, Ted Whiting’s house in Cape Paterson was barricaded with old tin trip wires and noise-creating metal. He told me he regularly saw German lights out at sea.
Andre Van der Craats lived across the road from us in Reed Crescent. At the age of 16, he had been conscripted from his home in Holland and taken to Stuttgart to work in the war industry. When the war ended, he took a month to walk home, begging for food along the way.
Johannas Huitema was beaten till he was blue but refused to reveal the young teenager he was hiding amongst his other 13 kids, including “Ocky” then aged nine. Seventy years later, in Wonthaggi, Ocky still had a tone of fear in his voice as he recalled the terrible screams of his neighbours being interrogated
My aunt Natalia Da Rugna and her friend Anna Todesco caught typhoid while working in Germany due to poor nutrition and no medicines at all due to bombing. They both lost all their hair. Anna died and Natalia was sent home. “Everything I saw broke my heart,” she said.
Children absorb the constant anxiety of their parents, particularly mothers searching casualty lists for names of family friends and neighbours.
Saskia De Jong was three years old in 1943 when her Dutch father was killed in a bombing raid along with 185 other civilians. She remembers staying in the cellar for four days and soldiers fighting from her front yard. “Horrible sounds of sirens and exploding bombs.”
Her mother and the two children went to stay with her Jewish grandmother in Amsterdam. “We all had fleas and lice. Everyone was in the same situation.” Saskia recalls one day hearing heavy footsteps of soldiers coming to their apartment. She could feel her mother’s fear. To this day the sound of heavy footsteps gives her goose pimples.
The McLaren family of Glen Alvie were having Christmas dinner in 1943 when they got the news that their son had been killed in war. Christmas would never be the same. Yet kindness and humanity is so much part of some people that despite everything they see strangers as fellow humans. Roy McLaren had two Italian POWS working on his farm. Some of the locals looked askance when he brought one of them to the Glen Alvie dance.
One Italian POW living in the district received his first-ever birthday cake from a family he had been brainwashed to believe were convict Aboriginal child-eaters. His hosts hoped maybe somebody in Italy would be kind to their friends who had been taken POW.
Italians helped escaped Australian POWS. A woman in my mother’s town of Lamon was burnt in her house for giving refuge to an “enemy”. My Italian grandmother gave drinks to the German teenage soldiers occupying the village. It was all she could do to assuage the anxiety of not hearing from her oldest son who was missing on the Russian front. He never returned.
In Forza, Natale Gheller was 18 when he was dragged out of bed and shot in front of his mother and dragged around the piazza as a warning to the locals.
In Chupano Caltrano, 12-year-old Ugo Andrigetto would collect scrap metal by building a small fire around unexploded shells He had a finger so badly lacerated by a bomb that the doctor wanted to amputate but a defiant Ugo was determined to keep it. It’s now his war memorabilia. Ugo, who migrated to Wonthaggi in the 50s, also remembers three fighter jets flying low into the valley and firing on an 8am train full of commuters.
In 1952, Giocomo Gheller, aged 32, had arranged a passport and bought tickets for his wife and two daughters to migrate to Wonthaggi. His youngest daughter, Silvana, remembers the explosion that shook the house and farm buildings and killed her father. She was five at the time.
Maria Brusamarello and her two sisters had their heads shaved and were forced to watch their father killed in front of them.
Bruna and Giovani Bordignong, just children at the time, were traumatised beyond words at what they saw. To this day they can only shake their heads in sadness.
In San Donato a terrified four-year-old Vic Piasente covered his ears in the dark as nearby firing roared over his home. He remembers a young German soldier called Emile crying. Sixty years later he wrote a letter to his federal member protesting against Australia becoming involved in the invasion of Iraq.
In Australia, Smiths Weekly and Truth published rabidly anti-Italian material. Irma Coldebella, who arrived in Kilcunda as a child, had to protect herself and her younger brother Livio (Wazza) from stone-throwing children.
When miners in Wonthaggi refused to work with Italians, union leader Bob Hamilton gave a speech. “It’s not ordinary working people who cause wars,” he said. “We’ve been working together in peace till now and we will stay at peace. Now get back to work.”
Des Pugh was in the Second World War and survived bombs from Italians, Germans, British and Americans. His wife Margaret saw a queue of school children blown to pieces. In 1966 they left Wonthaggi and took their family back to England to avoid having their eight sons conscripted and sent to Vietnam. “My boys won’t be attacking anybody,” Mr Pugh said.
Recently a group of Asians were picking peas in South Gippsland when a low-flying crop duster approached. They ran in panic for the nearby trees, as they had done many times as children.
In Australian classrooms today, children of Italian, German, English, Scottish, Iraqi, Iranian Indian and Pakistani descent mix freely, oblivious to the fact that their grandparents or great-grandparents were once at war with one another.
We hear of sacrifice in wartime. What sacrifices would we be willing to make to avoid war?
September 30, 2015
Well researched and well written - a story told with palpable humanity and empathy. The stories of the POW’s echo similar responses and reactions now reaching down 2-3 generations since Changi and WW2.
September 22, 2015
What an interesting and amazing article Frank … really enjoyed reading this article and the effects of war on Wonthaggi. Would love to read more about the memories of the local people and the effects that it left on their lives. Many thanks Frank and waiting for the next article .
Thank you, Great articles as usual and always learning more and more about the area in which we live.
Joy Button, Coronet Bay