Tag Archives: 80th anniversary internment camp Western Creek

Return to the secret internment camp for the first time – and two new discoveries…

It’s been almost a decade since I headed to Millmerran and Western Creek with Roger to try and find the internment camp where ‘Joe’, Nonno Anni and many other Italian men were held in 1942. Back then, hardly anyone knew of the camp, either authorities or locals, and to find its location I was relying on my grandfather’s memories from decades before and scant information I’d been able to garner. For those who’ve read, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, you may recall I stopped at a spot out at Western Creek largely on a ‘feeling’. It seems absurd, I know, and hardly scientific. However, since then, more research and investigating has been done by others to locate the camp site and I can hardly believe it but the spot I had a feeling about ended up being the exact right location. So wonderful to discover this (and a bit spooky too perhaps!)

Clockwise from top left: Location of the internment camp Western Creek, the memorial stone, internees in 1942 (Nonno Anni standing on right), with Cec at the crossroads near the camp, Nonno Anni there in 1964 and the possible spot now, Western Creek, at the memorial stone, red dot marks the spot. And centre: Roger at the galley cook area find, and how it would’ve looked based on a similar one from the era still standing.

The second discovery we made was while walking around and deeper into the site, this time in search for where Nonno Anni had his photo taken when he returned there in 1964. I’m not convinced we found exactly where he stood, even though there was a stump where the other tree behind him had been, but nearby, we made a new discovery, the concrete slab where the crude, galley cooking area of corrugated iron had been. Again, by chance.

To return to this location, now confirmed, on the 80th anniversary that the internment camp was there, felt very special. I’d been invited to speak at an event for this back in May but it was cancelled due to rain and I felt sad in not being able to honour the internees that day. I’d vowed to still return to the site anyway when I could, just quietly, and I picked some nearby wildflowers (and weeds – but pretty!) and left them at the memorial stone that now marks the site.

It was lovely to share this moment with both Roger and also Cecil Gibson, born and of Millmerran and Western Creek for all of his 86 years. While others later became involved, for which I’m very thankful, Cec deserves special mention because he was the first local to pick up on this hidden history after reading about it in, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, and to contact me. He remained focussed on honouring the history both at the site and the Millmerran Museum, even when much seemed against him at times.

The first internment camps in Australia were established under the Menzies government in 1940 and most of these were full by the time the war really ramped up in 1942 and the ‘overflow’ of ‘enemy aliens’ were interned in unofficial and secret camps in isolated state forest and bushland. While other countries like Canada apologised to its Italian-Canadian WW2 internees in 2021 and the U.S.A. has introduced a Bill towards doing so, Australia remains silent on this. And sadly, most Italian-Australian internees are no longer able to receive an apology. That doesn’t mean it’s not important also for their descendants though and all those others who care deeply for their local history.

To write about this internment camp and what happened to Italian-Australians in the 20th century is the most important part of what I’m fortunate to do. And I don’t think the people of Millmerran were given enough credit with the camp being kept secret from them for so long. All of those I’ve spoken to from the area have had nothing but respect, acceptance and the will to help preserve this history and for that I’ll always be grateful. Zoë x

Thank you if you read until the very end! 😊 I just couldn’t skimp on this one. 💛 xx

Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar

6 Comments

Filed under inspiration + history

Rare internment camp currency… and an 80th anniversary

Something special to share with you on the 80th anniversary of the Western Creek internment camp – a penny Nonno Anni kept from his time there. Internees were barred from having Australian currency in the camp so it couldn’t be used to escape, remain at large, bribe guards or others, or for subversive activities. Instead, any money they carried was swapped to internment camp currency.

Minted in Australia during WW2 and officially referred to as tokens, the coins were struck in five denominations – penny, threepence, one, two and five shillings, which couldn’t be used or redeemed outside a camp. Some internees in various camps created their own currency including paper money but the Australian Department of Army distributed tokens such as this one for official camp use. (This penny was struck by R. Arendeen & Sons Pty Ltd in Malvern, Victoria. The coin dies now owned by the Royal Australian Mint.)

At the end of the war, internees could exchange their tokens at the Commonwealth Bank for their equivalent in Australian currency. The tokens were then withdrawn by the government and the majority melted down in 1945, although it’s said, “some were souvenired by officials, army personnel and even prisoners and today they are eagerly sought by collectors of Australiana”.

The Internment Camps five shillings pieces are now considered so rare that many more extremely rare and valuable 1930 pennies appear at auction than these. (If only Nonno Anni had kept one of those rather than a penny! Just joking, of course, a museum or the Australian War Memorial likely its best option.) Both governments and historians consider such coins historically significant as evidence surrounding the internment of those deemed ‘enemy aliens’ in Australia during WW2.

It seems incredible it’s eighty years since March, 1942 when Annibale (Joe), aged only eighteen, saw dozens of Italian men picked up by police while working on farms around the Stanthorpe area. The only reason he wasn’t arrested on the spot too that day being his cheekily having fled from Ingham to avoid internment without notifying authorities of his change of address as required, but once they saw him among the others the game was up and he had to go in. How it must have felt to be taken away in the ‘internee special’ train not knowing where to, then driven around in army trucks for hours in the dead of night to confuse their whereabouts to end up in a camp seemingly in the middle of nowhere surrounded by bushland.

Annibale was always a hard worker so the initial time in the internment camp while in his prime with nothing to do but be detained must have felt like such a waste, even if he accepted it as a consequence of war. And much later, down the track, once given the option to join a Civil Alien Corps forestry work gang, he was happy for something to do during the long, empty days, but it certainly wasn’t for the six shilling a day payment considering he’d earnt 30 shillings a day cutting cane.

One penny – the smallest amount – but to me this eighty-year-old coin is beyond precious, knowing it comes at the cost of him being interned and knowing he once held it in his hand.

Leave a comment

Filed under inspiration + history