Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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Putting down mines must be one of the most dangerous jobs in a war. Did you ever come close to being blown up? Did any of them ever explode?

Well, the risk is always there, but at least with the kind of mine that we were using at the time, you had to do a really precise, tedious operation of stringing each wire, making sure that the distance was right, and then close to the gap, and a little pressure could have exploded or something could go wrong in the details of the mechanism. No, we had accidents before, but [after] we took charge as officers none happened. But as close as I was to what I felt being dead, when I went with a truck, without ever realising it was a minefield, this mine exploded and the truck was blown and I fell into the hole, the crater of the explosion. Quite frankly, even the concept of touching yourself to see if you had all the eyes, the leg, the face on and you feel that you are still physically existing, to me that was the closest I was, became, to be dead. I was not injured seriously, the other officer that was with me he lost his ear, the truck was destroyed and they didn't send the ambulance from the stronghold because they were convinced there was no need for that, so that has been to me the much closest accident that could happen to me during the war.

So the truck blew up, you fell into a hole ...

... it was the crater of the explosion ...

... the crater of the explosion, you were actually not seriously harmed but your ... the other officer was, but they didn't send an ambulance?

But they said there was no reason for it, there wasn't. I mean the idea of a truck exploding, on an explosion, there was no ...

They assumed that you were dead ...

They would think I was dead. That's it.

So how long were you there in the crater?

Oh, I guess it was a question that gradually we climbed out of it and we came back again ... the only thing I know [is] that a few days later, the chaplain made a Mass to thank God for the miracle. I remember that.

So you were doing a bit of thanking too, were you?

Exactly.

Tell me also what happened on the way to the concentration camp — when you were being transported there, how did they take you and what kind of adventures did you have on the way?

Well, I'm talking about Tobruk to Cairo. There was a railway of course at the time, and I was part of an elite group of priests, doctors and sick people, injured people. And these people that went ahead had certain basics, particularly the priests had their portable altar and paraphernalia. Of course I didn't have very much ... in that kind of trucks they were carrying us towards Egypt, they were just almost railway cattle trucks. During all the stops, one of the stops during the night, I said listen to me, because the Arabs, they stole from the truck whatever there was belonging to each one. So the following day, we went there, we didn't find very much in the confusion. I finished to have something that I didn't have, so in the confusion I got some benefit.

Could you describe that again? They took things from ...

Well, the Arabs stole everything from the trucks, leaving a few paraphernalia that was very... not relevant to the majority of the other people, so I could eventually have my little belonging that ... I mean, you must realise that when you are prisoner, little things — a brush, a little petrol lamp or a bit of sugar or a few packets of cigarettes — that creates wealth, you have no idea what it means at the beginning, what it means for this kind of episode in life. It is just unbelievable what this life [means] when you go to people [in] certain primitive conditions as we were at the time as prisoner.

So you learnt then that in confusion sometimes the person who started out with nothing can end up ...

That's why, I think, that the philosophy of the poor people [is] that they always are attracted by the concept of revolution. Here in reality people that have very little, have got very little to lose in the confusion, and in the kind of upheaval, whatever, they finish to get something. That's why revolution is a very appealing concept to the masses. You believe, you agree?

Throughout your life, have you always looked to make sure you seized any opportunity that came your way? Do you think that has been a pattern in your life?

Yes, yes, opportunity, just to get the opportunity. Not equality, but equality of opportunity, you follow?

So that was a very good example?

Pretty good example ... it was a little episode but very significant to me.

So, back in the concentration camp, you seized a few opportunities there, didn't you? What kinds of opportunities presented themselves in the concentration camp that you were able to take advantage of?

Well, firstly, I could utilise all the time that I had available to study. I realised that even if I had completed my military studies and all the engineering studies, that I had to complete studying engineering and I had in mind a particular degree in civil engineering ... to be recognised officially because you didn't have a degree in the society. So that was one aspect of study that I could use. I could utilise that time available. And there was plenty of books, I mean, through the Red Cross, there was plenty of books, books of all languages, whatever, certainly I improved my knowledge of English and other kinds of trades (that is part of my background) so I could see my background of a tradesman that I had learned from my grandfather and my father. I had my little workshop there and I could do many things, cages for instance for the poultry, cages for the rabbits. We had, I organised, also a special still to do grappa. You see you could ferment the skin of a banana, a fruit or grape and make grappa, so I know that kind of thing. Eventually you'd be surprised how many things you could do in a concentration camp provided you have the basic tools and a bit of will to do it.

What did you sell these kinds of things for?

I beg your pardon?

What was the currency?

The currency was token money — that means a sort of useless piece of paper — that justify, to justify ... but is ... if you realise that if you sell outside and I was able to sell to Lahore University, and that, university models in engineering, architecture, and I was doing some of those ... automatically they were paying me in good money, that means rupee and that means local currency and that of course is much more valuable than token money. So I could buy many other things including, for instance, oil colour for painting, brushes, tools, books ...

Did the guards buy these things for you and bring them into the camp or did you get to go out to the shops to get them?

No no no, you couldn't go out. Of course, you had the type of contractor that would offer you these things, you could go to the contractor, make the order and the things would come after. I mean, you are still surrounded by the periphery of barbed wire but there is always [a] local contractor that probably is part of the system, who could organise and buy ... basically if you had the money you could buy even a motorboat or whatever, you could buy anything. You could order and they would bring it to you. If you need it or you could use it, it is not relevant. I mean, there was sufficient amount of freedom, part of the authority — provided you didn't do anything illegal, you were allowed to do many things.

Well it sounds as if in this concentration camp, you set up your first multi-faceted company.

Well, the concept of becoming a wealthy man, a wealthy entrepreneur started right there because I could see that, in the average of all people, if you had a certain amount of initiative you could certainly utilise it, even in a surrounded area ... something different, that was a good example of entrepreneur ... entrepreneuring as a skill that certainly helped me later on to do what I did in Australia.

So, in terms of the camp, did you become very wealthy, in so far as you could in a concentration camp become wealthy? Were you seen as the richest man in the camp?

I was certainly very well looked after, because even if you consider for instance that I could have spaghetti already cooked come to me, because I could already have made a special machine to do spaghetti, so I eventually did the machine so I got this paid to me in kind. Follow ... this kind of relationship between the other people that were utilising the result of your, let's call, effort and you getting back the effort.

So you were sitting there in a concentration camp in the middle of India eating spaghetti that had been prepared for you to your specifications ...

With my machine.

So as far as the camp was concerned, you were a really very very successful person?

The camp for me was a relaxing period. I won't say I never regret having spent ... I mean there was no alternative, but I did the best I could under the circumstances. That I think is a lesson — do the best you can if you are there.

So what happened after the war? Were you released and sent back or what happened next?

Well, after all the war, all the treaty, all the kind of relationship developed during, soon after, the war, the prisoner [are] the last people to be looked after. I mean, you wait until everything else is done. So the war practically finished in 1945, but it was in the middle of 1946 that eventually I was allowed to go back to Italy. It was certainly very painful waiting, because you never know when there will be a decision to assist you, what to do. On the other hand you are nobody, even when you went back home, people, you have lost all the friends, you didn't know what to do. Most of the positions ... were available were already taken, so automatically you had to start from scratch.

Was your family pleased to see you?

Well certainly, I went back [to] Naples on this ship from Bombay. It was different kind of ship that took from Ismailia to Bombay, this time was another ship that went up to Naples, much smaller. The return in a way was in a sort of depressed state. I mean the euphoria of '42 when you were supposed to be still on the winning side. Therefore if you are a prisoner you didn't know, at least, you hoped the war would go one way or another. Now of course we knew at least that the war was lost. My war was lost, therefore it was a depressing period of my life, and I went back to Gioia del Colle with my father, my mother was there, and they said they were very happy to see me, but it was a pretty short period because now I had to catch up. The idea of catch up on time lost. Not only was I robbed of my youth, as part of my military academy first. Now I had lost an important segment of my life from 25, from 28 to 32 basically, so I had to catch up and the idea of catching up on time lost and space lost became more important because my aim was to complete my study in engineering and get the degrees of engineering — is very important to get a sort of visiting card to go anywhere. I was still convinced at that time and I am still convinced that the official recognition of your title is very essential for you to move over.

So I went to Gioia del Colle and I was only there for a few weeks, if any, and you could see one of my photographs when I came back from concentration camp. It looked like we were really sick people, I was really sick. But I went to Torino and still as an officer and I was in one of the units and straight away I took part of the readjustment in life in Italy. I had to think about what to do with my studies and that was a very important period for me. Almost August, by the end of 1946, I was able to complete my studies in civil engineering and by the end of the year, I already had a degree in civil engineering ...

You got a degree in one year?

Because I had only to complete the segment of study that were not recognised for the one done in the military academy, so I had to do some complementary examination. I would say that I was pretty decisive in what I wanted to do in my studies.

You were very ...

I was very motivated, not only did I do a degree in civil engineering but since my background was in electrical subjects I continued all the corresponding examinations in electrical for which, in a matter of the following six months, I got a degree also in electrical engineering. So that was a very good step forward for me to get two degrees in engineering. Now, I said, I could start moving and do exactly what I want. That was my essential visiting card to decide to leave the army.

So what kind of an Italy had you come back to? Demoralised?

To start with, my brother was treating me as a second-rate citizen because I was not ... I was out of conception of what was the new life. He felt that I was completely useless and the idea of having spent five to six years out of Italy, I could not adjust myself to the new condition. I felt myself that Italy almost didn't belong to me anymore ... .

It seems so different ...

... quite remarkable, so I had to decide to do something. Here or there. And it was a very difficult period of adjustment in Italy.

You weren't received as a hero?

Even if I was still in the army, I was very keen enough to get a job, which I did. Actually I went to Milano, I was able to get a job with an Italian company. This is just a chapter that eventually came to a conclusion in Australia because that company — building transmission lines all over the world — got a contract in Italy and that company engaged me, mainly for the knowledge of English and French. So the two languages would be useful for the company to send in one of the places where this kind of a language was useful and, when this contract was landed in Australia, it was trusted to me the plan to go to Australia to build the transmission. So that was a great opening for me. I agreed that I would not necessarily decide to come to Australia or anywhere else. My idea was just to go somewhere. And [during] the same period I was dealing with some South American company called Techint and I could possibly have gone to São Paulo because I was studying a little bit of Portuguese. I mean, to know a bit of Spanish and then Portuguese is complicated enough, but it was due to my wife that by then was my girlfriend. She had this sprinkle of English and she had studied Mark Twain at university. She said 'much better Australia', so eventually I accepted to come to Australia. She had the influence of the girlfriend of what you are supposed to do tomorrow.

What did you know about Australia at that stage of your life?

Well, Australia is known in the Italian geographical book as continente nuovissimo, the very new continent. And the only thing I knew about this was kangaroo. I know the words of Melbourne, Brisbane or Sydney, but I didn't know anything about these facts. Australia was just an adventure.

So you actually quite liked the fact that you didn't know much about it because you were going to find out?

Find out, exactly. In reality it was the idea of going somewhere which I didn't really know the purpose, I didn't know much about the future, that idea of adventure was mainly the spring that pushed me to come to Australia.

Now you had met at last a woman, you'd had time at last for a woman in your life. How did you meet your wife?

Nah ...

We've got to get you married. Come on. How did you meet your wife?

Now I ... at the time [in] our city had different contacts with different people. I was living in place in Torino, it is the most beautiful city, I would say that of all the other, all the other cities in the world, if I had to choose, beside Sydney, I would go to Torino. I'm very much in love with Torino having done in Torino the military academy and all the studies, so for me it is really the prime Italian city, and there I was living in a boarding house and through the boarding house lady I knew different kind of girls, different kind of people, different kind of ladies and by chance I knew also this old lady that eventually was the mother of my girlfriend. I didn't know these people but I knew the mother and the mother mentioned about these three daughters and eventually I met the three daughters and the one that to me looked more close to me in size, first of all, and also more attractive, and that was the beginning of my, I would say, my love affair with Amina. And I would say that if there was any, really, love affair in my life, it was just that. I really love intensely this relationship, which was very brief incidentally, because I met my wife in the period of January, yes, Jan 1951 then, and I was then living and working in Milano and I was going occasionally into Torino and even if was practically winter time at the beginning, with my little motorcar which is smaller than this small car that you see around. And going through the ice of the autostrada, normally every two weeks or so, so my contact with my girlfriend was pretty much limited. But that was my really serious deep love affair, that I had with anybody, that was Amina.

And she encouraged me to go to Australia. Well she made a final decision about which of the two different solutions. So, in a way, she was probably the one that is responsible for me to be in Australia.

So did she come with you?

No, no, she didn't come with me. She came eight or nine months later, mainly because the project was immediate and the passage also for paperwork was not possible to be done in that short time and she joined me nine months later, so I finished to have two marriages. One in Italy and one in Australia, so I am the one having two marriages instead of one.

So you actually married her before you left to go to Australia?

No, I didn't marry her before, I married her when I was in Australia and I married her when she was in Italy by then. And then I married her again when she came here, so there was two marriages, one called by proxy, the other one will be the final one.

So you were married by proxy after you came to Australia?

That's it. That's it.

But you were confident when you set out that she would wait for you, that she'd still be there for you. You weren't afraid after you left the country she might forget you?

I think by then that my girlfriend became probably really became in love with me. On the beginning I was not convinced because she was probably very choosy, I would imagine or probably she was not convinced, but eventually I was sure that her decision was final.

So what did you find in Australia?

I recall simply wilderness, wilderness, because here, even coming here, everything was too hard, very hard to get — the first thing that I learned here was just very hard to get. The idea of coming here — I came with this company — my function was mainly to coordinate the technical. I mean, my English by then was enough, not really well enough but enough to manipulate all the customers, the clients, the supplier and I became a kind of 'jack of all trades' here, to build the first transmission line in the country — that was the Sydney to Tallawarra — the first transmission line in Australia. There was a lot of blackouts, I mean, if you consider the fact that bushfires were burning all the wood poles, so the little power that was available was spasmodic and no-one was surprised that the power was available only for a few hours a day; probably you don't remember that.

So the transmission lines that went out into the country ...

The transmission lines from the power stations say in Tallawarra, near Port Kembla, should send the power to the Sydney and there is a line to bear the power. That was the first important transmission line built in Australia, I talk about 1951. And that power line was built with a very, I would say, skeleton staff — if you consider today, with all the paraphernalia of background, of trucks, tools, cranes and equipment, there were very little and we did miracles. This company built up a camp in Menai, where there is now the [Australian] Atomic [Energy] Commission, and we'd a simple camp in tents. The power was only given to us through a wire under the road, a pipe for water and the people were just living a very simple, rudimentary life. I mean, the idea of ... not simply for these immigrants but also for the Australians in many projects, including along the railway, they were living that way. I mean, life in Australia in 1951, most people could not remember, even with the high standard, the relatively high standard of living, [it] was extremely very primitive. I mean, there was no air conditioning in the office ... if you consider traffic congestion did not exist, transport, communication, all sorts of other facilities that now we take for granted, so the tremendous development that has taken place in Australia from the '50s to the '90s is a great compliment, a great tribute to this country, done in 40 years, changing the standard of living here, at least two and a half times, at least if you consider the GDP, the General Domestic Product [Gross Domestic Product] of the country, and you consider the fact that now we are, taking into account even inflation, that we are two and a half times better [than] what we were then. Take the immigrant, that also made the contribution in the period — this is what changed Australia in the 50 years.

So this group that was camped in Menai and building our first proper power line up from Port Kembla to Sydney, were you all Italians?

Yes. Not only were there Italians, they brought also the Italian chaplain. That was just a tribe of Italians coming here for the purpose, and I'm pretty sure they didn't come as immigrants, I didn't feel myself, that I was an immigrant. I came here for a project. So they came here to do the transmission line; there was a compact team of Italian skilled tradesmen. They were doing in absolutely record time with total discipline, efficiency and there was a miracle because people couldn't realise that a single man landed in one spot that particular morning when the truck was coming in the evening, the foundation was already ready. That man would have dug the forefooting by the day, by himself.

So they worked very, very hard.

Absolutely, good skilled and selected people. It was a privilege, by the way, to come to Australia sent by this ... all these people they didn't come by ship, they came by plane. Mostly people never saw the plane before, so they were already given a special kind of treatment, let's face it, so they considered them proud if being part of this team.

If you were only expecting to stay here for the length of the project, why did you decide to bring your wife out?

Well, I'd fixed, I'd already signed, an agreement with this people for three years, so at least I had three years of commitment, so in a way, even for a trip, I think it was worthwhile for my wife to come here.

And what made you decide to stay?

Well, the idea now, three years is already a long time. We had already children, Marco was born I think, 1952-53, then we purchased a house in Clontarf, a little house, for 5000 pounds. The money came as part of a loan from my employer and part from my father-in-law, part from my saving and part from the bank, so I had already made a commitment. So after three years, we had already made a commitment, so, but we didn't finish to pay the house, and it was a chance. At least they asked me to option for another two years, and I did, so eventually my contract lasted five years to me, it was a fantastic period of apprenticeship. You see, you never stop learning — this five years had been a tremendous period of learning ...

[end of tape]

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