Gunner John Brent Mills
No 111246, 2 South African Anti-Aircraft Regiment
Captured: June 1942
The following account is from John's wife Pamela, who tells of their return to the area for their honeymoon in 1948 and later as the South African Ambassador to Italy. (click on an image to enlarge)
RETURN TO FIND THE HEROIC “CONTADINI” AFTER THE WAR
My husband, John Brent Mills, was the first ex-prisoner of war to return to Montorio Romano to find the ‘contadini’ who had saved his life. The opportunity came on our honeymoon in 1948, and it was an interesting and moving experience.
We were told in Rome that Montorio Romano did not exist, but on further enquiry we found a Postale, the bus being the only communication with the outside world, which ran back and forth to the mountains once a day. We left our luggage with the driver (imagine doing that now!) who queried our reason for the journey. After a trip around Rome, we returned for the evening departure to find the whole bus full, with everyone knowing why we were there.
They told us that Gioacchino Pichetti, (John’s first helper) would board the bus half way along the route, as he had been visiting Angelino, his son, who was now at the Seminary. Tension built up as we stopped at the recounted spot, and there was Gioacchino, having bought the first new plough since before the war, trying to get it on the bus, or anywhere it would go. A seat had been left on the other side of the isle from John, but Gioacchino was so busy telling everyone about his plough, that he did not look at John. With the atmosphere near to bursting point, John stood up and put his hand on Gioacchino’s shoulder. You could see the stunned look as his brain went round in a whirl, and then there were hugs and kisses, with the whole story of the war being recounted.
Once in the village the families sat outside their doors and greeted each other as others trundled past on their mules over the cobbles. There were no cars or traffic and pollution. It was a close community, and although they had so little there was an air of content, which one rarely meets. Once a month a market came into the village, as happened on the Sunday – day of rest – and there they could buy materials and cooking utensils, and other necessary wares. It was a cheerful sight with all stalls set up in the village square. The one dramatic experience was when someone died and they had the funeral that night. The whole village attended the procession as they carried the coffin all around the village to the church, before taking it to the cemetery just outside the village. The children led the procession carrying candles, followed by the families, then the coffin and the large wreaths, behind which was the priest and the rest of the village. Bringing up the rear was the band (from another village) playing the Death March. They shuffled over the cobbles on their way to the cemetery, the sound gradually stopping, so that the village became completely silent as life went out of it, sending a chill down ones spine. You could hear a pin drop. Then once more they gradually returned and the cobbled sound brought life into the village again. A very impressive night!
After a week, when we said we had to leave, they begged us to stay longer, which was not possible. Everyone wanted us in their homes to entertain us before we left. The danger of their wonderful culture was that as soon as you stepped over a threshold you had to drink or eat something. As this lasted some hours going from one house to another, our digestive systems suffered somewhat.
However, we were up on time to be on the 6 am Postale the next day when the whole village turned out to bid us farewell. We felt they had given us more than we could ever give them, and were so glad we had made this worthwhile visit, which we would never forget.
Their motto was, “He is someone’s mother’s son.”
We did not learn of some of these tales of their great heroism until our time in Rome. Angelino told us that the day the Germans had surrounded the village and swept down the mountains, catching three of John’s group, his father, Gioacchino, had been put against the church wall with others who helped the prisoners, a gun trained on them for hours, when the German Officer told them they were not going to shoot them then, but if they continued to help the enemy, they would be shot, together with their families and houses burnt. Regardless of this warning, he told his wife to prepare food to take to the “boys”, because if they were still there they would be frightened and hungry. Augusta was horrified after what had happened. Nevertheless, with food hidden in the panniers he went down and found John and his friend, Barney. The other three having been taken, and Gioacchino was in tears.
When Angelino asked him in later years why he had done what he had to help the prisoners, including going over the mountains at night to another village to find flour, when they had used all of theirs feeding extra mouths.
His answer was, ”Do good and forget it. Do evil and think on it”
This, from someone with practically no education, leaves us food for thought.
Our family still keeps in close contact with our Italian families and their descendants.