Caporciano, near L’Aquilo, Italy
Genoa, Italy on 4 May 1952
Melbourne on 4 June 1952
Bonegilla for 6 weeks, Greta for 13 weeks, tents at Singleton army camp for 13 weeks and Guthega (Snowy River) for 4 years
Kotara South, Newcastle
Cook at Greta migrant accommodation, Hunter region
Cook at Singleton Army Camp; specialist welder at Snowy River Hydro Electric Scheme and BHP Newcastle
My name is Domenico Sidonio and I was born on 25 December 1923 in Italy in a town called Caporciano near L’Aquilo. I came out to Australia on 4 June 1952 from Genoa on the ship Castel Bianco, an ex-liberty USA war ship.
In 1943, I was in the army in Italy. I was very young, only 19. Within eight months, I was sent to Greece, on Rhodes, to fight the Germans [in World War Two]. I was eventually captured by the Germans and sent to Athens by boat. I was so hungry; we travelled without food or water. Then they gave us some bread and water. It was very bad, very bad. [I am not ashamed to say] it was hard and I used to cry; I used to cry for my mother. I am a Catholic and I used to cry for St Anthony to save me, to help me.
We were in a camp in Athens and the Germans put us to work and we were guarded every night. It was a big camp and you can imagine the hunger; it was horrible. I was there for about a month and all I had to eat was maybe a handful of chickpeas once a day and a handful of wheat another day.
I eventually escaped with the help of some Greek people. Then the English came and they liberated us around October 1944. The Allies gave me 19,000 lire and three used American blankets, and I went home on the ship Alcantara, landing in Taranto, Italy.
I was lucky as I did get back to Italy when many others didn’t, but I had to travel about 500 kilometres to get home to my village. I went by train for a while then the last 200 kilometres I walked and reached my place in the evening after [a few] days on 19 November 1944. People saw me and said, “Domenico is back! Domenico is back!” I still remember my mother screaming, “Where is my son? Where is my son?”
When I got home I found that there still was war raging up in the north. My brother was still with the Allies up there fighting the Germans with the Fifth Army. I still have an Italian postcard showing him in his army uniform. In April 1945, the Italian partisans shot Mussolini with his girlfriend and that was the end of it. We tried to survive and we did.
Sometime in 1947, seven of us left our village with knapsacks on our shoulders and we went to Turin to climb the Alps to get across to France to seek work.
About 11 o’clock we left the Italian side with some guides from Val di Susa. We climbed the Moncenisio Pass (elevation 2,081 metres), walked for 22 hours and reached the French side of the mountain and stayed in a camp at Chambery.
We waited there for some work. I wanted to work in the factory but I was told I had to go to the mine or I would be sent back to Italy. I ended up [far away] in the mine in Lille, a part of the Calais region. I worked there for four months and it was really dangerous. After four months, I decided that before I died or got maimed I had better go home. I would find a better way to work and earn money.
So, I went to the Italian Consul and asked for repatriation and I went back home.
Anyway, one day I was reading an article in a magazine called OGGI and it had some writing about Australia. “Australia,” it said, “Work in factory” and there was a big sign: “Work for people”. I was so impressed and I said, “Wow look at this!”
The day after, I made the application to go to Australia. After two weeks, I was told I had an interview and I was accepted. I came out to Australia as a ‘select’ migrant, [not a Displaced Person, so] the National Institute for Workers Abroad (I.C.L.E.) lent me the £96 for the ship ticket to come here. I had to pay it back in 21 instalments when I got a job.
On 4 May 1952, I left Genoa, Italy for Australia. I was given a working contract at Genoa before we embarked and I still have it. I also have the ticket for the ship.
I landed in Melbourne on 4 June 1952; it took 31 days to arrive here. When we got to Melbourne, we went on a double decker bus to the Bonegilla migrant camp; I had never seen a double decker bus before. The first thing I noticed, and I pointed it out to my friend, was the fact that people drove on the wrong side of the road.
I saw these rows of beautiful houses and I thought I was in a fairyland; houses with red, blue and black roofs. All painted a different colour with gardens in the front. I was really amazed at the beauty of the things. I came from a village made out of stones, but here it was really nice.
At Bonegilla, I went to a school to learn English. I had a box of chalk, beautiful sticks of chalk in a box. They were all different colours and I liked drawing and I started to draw on the walls of the barracks. The barracks were lined with some sort of hard cardboard.
I remember the first time I had Australian fruit; I had a great big apple. When I bit into it, it was floury and it wasn’t sweet at all.
In Bonegilla migrant camp, we had a big rebellion. Some of the migrants who had arrived before me worked at fruit picking and when that finished, they were just sent back to the camp. And they also had to pay for their food at the camp. I had never been out of the camp to work. I was there for six weeks and started to ask what we were doing in here; they sent us here to work but there was no work. We left our families in Italy and I had to repay the money for my ship ticket, but I had no money to do that.
Then we started to threaten. We had a [meeting] at the camp on 19th July 1952 and a few [police trucks] came along with two police [officers] in every utility. When we saw the police coming, we got very agitated, it was very bad. Police! And we started to scream and yell and the police got back into the utilities and they went away.
The Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, and Mr Holt, the Minister for Immigration, then started to take notice of us. A Melbourne newspaper reported the meeting; I still have the article.
[Not long after], I was called by name and told I had to go by train to the Greta migrant camp in [the Hunter region of] NSW for work. That was where most refugees went, but I wasn’t a refugee. There were 40 of us who had to go there and then 30 (3 gangs) were sent up north to cut cane.
I was learning English night and day at Greta. They called me to the office and said, “Mr Sidonio, you speak English?”, and I said, “Yes”. They said that the Castel Bianco was [coming] with 850 Italians for the Greta camp. They asked me if any from Bonegilla could cook and I said, “I am a cook”. So, we got boilers and prepared food for the new Italians that came here. In fact, there were 800 males and 58 single females. We had 40 drums and coppers with chimneys and wood fires and we cooked about 100 kilos of spaghetti. I was at Greta for about 13 weeks. I was still learning English and improving every day.
I then went to Singleton army camp in the Upper Hunter Valley and was in charge of 154 Italians. I was working in the kitchen and I had about ten kitchen hands. We cooked the breakfast, lunch and tea. We lived in army tents and we were lucky that it was December and it was warm. I was there for 13 weeks and one day I said to the boys, “I am going to the Snowy River [Hydro Electric Scheme] near Cooma”. I had talked to some people from the Hunter Valley horse studs and they said there was a lot of work at Cooma.
I worked at the Snowy River scheme for four years as a welder, a specialist welder. All that time I stayed at the Guthega Snowy River camp. I learnt English and I worked day and night. I had good food and shelter and I put my money in the bank.
I didn’t regret leaving anything behind [in Italy]. I was a single man so I didn’t bring that much. When I came out, I brought a nice suit, a sports coat with trousers to match and a pair of shoes. The suit was a grey herringbone suit, very elegant.
I also brought my working clothes, which lasted a good while. I used to wash them in the Snowy River. Most of them were army clothes in very good condition. For the first two or three years, I wore mainly my work clothes because I was working all the time.
I brought a clock in the Snowy River back in 1953. The alarm would wake me each morning for work. It is a Cyma clock from Switzerland and I paid £15. It was a lot of money then, £15. I still have it and it is still working very well.
Then I had a holiday.
When I came up to Newcastle, I met my Australian-born wife, Marjory. After 18 months of engagement, we married on 12 January 1957.
We visited Italy in 1958 with our first daughter, who was four months old. I must have been the first migrant in Australia who took an Australian wife back home. We eventually had five children; three girls and two boys.
We lived at Kotara South [and] I got a job back in Newcastle at the BHP. I had a reference from the Snowy River scheme that I was a specialist welder and straightaway they put me in the fabricating shop.
Eventually I brought my mother over here in Newcastle to live with us. We then built a bigger house with a flat for my mother. It was built on two blocks of land and everybody called it ‘the big house’. My mother suffered from arthritis very severely; she could hardly move and needed a stick. She was with us for ten years and she died in 1975.
We then took the children to Italy for five months to show them where my mother, their nonna, came from. We got a van from England and we travelled to nine countries. We went to Greece to show the children where I escaped from the Germans when I was held a prisoner of war.
I am Australian, you know. Australia gave me life. Italy couldn’t; Italy was so torn with war and there was so much killing in the war. I am anti-war 100%. I have been back to Italy many times but I am settled here.
I wish I had kept more documents. I had a folder with many more documents but I must have thrown them away. Things bring back memories when you look at them.
I was fortunate in Australia because I was a hard worker and I saved my money. I built my house and then I built another house. The opportunities have been here and when I went back to Italy, I was very proud to show them the strength that I had, that came from Australia with the hard labour. Australia is a beautiful country.