The Italian POW who built a new life in Australia
Frank Foster (left) sponsored Don Capezio (right) to return to Gunnedah after the war. (Supplied: Capezio family)
Italian builder Don Capezio was so impressed with Australia during his time as a prisoner of war (POW) that he brought his family to live here in 1951.
He started a Canberra construction company that is still in business today.
Mr Capezio was one of the 18,500 Italian POWs captured by Australian troops during World War II and one of the many who chose to return after being repatriated back to Italy.
His youngest son, Alex, said his father was keen to grasp the opportunities not available in war-ravaged Europe.
“I think that my Dad from day one … could see the potential of this country,” he said.
“And [he saw] how friendly and supportive the Australian people were, even for him … as a prisoner of war.”
Wartime farm labourer
Mr Capezio was taken prisoner in Egypt in 1940 and detained in camps in Palestine and India before being sent to Australia in 1944.
He was taken by train to the Cowra POW camp, which held thousands of Italian and Japanese prisoners.
But just two days before the Japanese breakout, he and four fellow Italians went to work on a farm near Gunnedah for Anzac veteran Frank Foster.
Mr Capezio used his building skills to improve the property, erecting silos and a concrete water tank, and installing what was reputed to be the first indoor toilet in the district.
Don Capezio made many improvements to the Foster’s farm at Gunnedah. (Supplied: Carpezio family)
Alex Capezio said his father had been concerned about Mr Foster’s daughters, who had to visit “a little dunny outside” with kerosene lamps at night.
“He sketched up how to put a toilet inside a house, in a bathroom,” he said.
“But Frank Foster said … ‘no no no — I’m not Italian … we don’t like smelly things in the house’.”
Mr Foster was eventually convinced to approve the plan and would show off his indoor toilet to visitors.
Mr Capezio’s eldest son Danny said Mr Foster treated his labourers well.
He took the POWs to the pub and the movies in Gunnedah and let them use guns to hunt rabbits.
But some of locals disapproved and blacklisted his farm.
“When he took his cattle to the saleyards no one would buy them because they felt he was in favour of the Italians,” Danny Capezio said.
“He was a huge man, with a huge heart.”
A new life in Australia
After the war, Mr Foster sponsored Mr Capezio to come back to Australia with Danny, then 12, to continue work on his farm.
Eighteen months later, Mr Capezio’s wife Gerardina joined him in Australia, bringing Alex and youngest child Maria.
Mr Foster was there to meet them in Sydney with a truck to transport their possessions to a new home in Gunnedah.
In the late 1950s, during a visit to Canberra, Mr Capezio spotted a newspaper advertisement for a land auction.
“My father said, ‘the capital has to be built … we have to move to Canberra’,” Danny Capezio said.
“So we went to the auction [and] we bought two blocks of land in Dalrymple Street.”
Danny Carpezio (left) and his brother Alex are grateful their father brought them to Australia. (666 ABC Canberra: Louise Maher)
Don Capezio’s legacy
Over the years, Mr Capezio sponsored 127 family members and friends to migrate to Australia, offered them a place to stay when they arrived and found them jobs.
Mrs Capezio found brides for some of the young unmarried men.
The family built two houses in Red Hill then started a company responsible for many major construction projects in Canberra, including the Diplomat Hotel.
And when Mr Foster — always regarded as family — died in 1976, they charted a private plane to attend his funeral in Gunnedah.
“Canberra became very good to us,” Danny Carpezio said.