Gunner J B Mills

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.

We finally arrived at Montorio, after winding our way around the dirt, mountain roads. This was the final stop, and the whole village always came to greet the bus, so there was much excitement when John and I stepped off. Gioacchino told his awaiting daughter to quickly tell her mother, who was so overcome, she put her apron over her head.  Gioacchino paraded us around the village to show us off, so proud that “one of his boys had come back to see them”. If one had given them a million dollars, the pleasure for them could not have been greater. The gifts we gave them, all very practical for their daily use, were quickly put out of sight, as though they were not necessary.  


We stayed there a week, and witnessed the lives they lived.  They lived in two rooms, one with an open fire, where they cooked and ate, and the other where they all slept.  There was no water except the flowing village fountain, from which the women collected the water in a conca, a copper container, and carried on their heads. The only other progress was one electric light bulb in the front room. (The one in the rooms they found for us, went out, so we had a metal cruse, with oil and a wick, to light us to bed as in ancient times.) They possessed few material things, just basic necessities. The Pigs had now been housed in barns outside the village as were rabbits, but there were still other farm animals around the streets. Otherwise they sustained themselves from the surrounding mountains. – olives, wheat, fruit and vegetables grown in different areas which they would have inherited. Some had a few cattle, and the shepherds lived and tended their sheep in the mountains.  Everything was homemade.


It was harvest time, June and hot, so the men were already in the fields by 4.30 am. Augusta made a big basket (pannier) of pasta and sauce to carry down on her head by late morning. It was so heavy that John could hardly lift it, but once settled on her head, Augusta went down the precipitous mule paths, knitting at the same time! (There was me in my Clark’s sandals, realising why John had told me to buy boots!) They helped each other with the harvest, so there were a few young men in the group who sang beautifully to us after their lunch in great harmony. One found wild strawberries to add to the meal too.  They would not let us help. Sometimes a daughter would join us, and if Gioacchino needed something he would call across the mountains to her, and the reply would come back a few seconds later. It is amazing how sound travels up and down the mountains. Every evening Gioacchino insisted that I be taken home on the mule because I did not have boots, so I cannot tell you what an experience that was on a wooden saddle with the mule jerking up the mule paths. The whole village used to come to see me taken off the mule, and the children, who had not seen anyone dressed like me, (most were still in their black hardy clothes) followed me around like the Piped Piper, especially as I did not speak Italian in those days. The other discovery was that the babies were still in swaddling clothes, absolutely stiff from the feet up. That way they felt secure. They were also breast-fed for about eighteen months. It was still a men’s world, and they ate at the table before the women, who sat around the fire in the meantime. Women went and found their men if they needed them. They laughed at John when I called out for him. “Ha,ha, your wife is calling you!!” when I  cooked them an English meal as best I could on the open fire as they had such good fresh, natural produce; and all the women of the village came to see this unusual event.
      
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.

John was so lucky to have two postings to Rome, Italy, which gave us the opportunity to revisit all the families which had helped him. The first in 1960 – 1962 and as Ambassador from 1977 – 1981. In 1960, one weekend, we camped out in one of Gioacchino’s casales, in the mountains around Montorio, so that  the children too could experience what life had been like during the war. Many creepy crawlies live in the straw! We also reached Collegiove in the higher mountains to the great delight of the Vicari family, and enjoyed many festas together. It was not until 1977 that we were able to reach Pietraforte, as there had been only a mule path to the village via a small bridge. Now there was a road, and to John’s amazement, after over 30 years, the son, Pepino, who would have been about eight, came running across the valley, shouting, “Giovanni”. He said he could never forget that tall figure. His mother, the lovely Domenica Montanari, whose husband was taken prisoner by the Allies, saved John from giving himself up when he contracted dysentery again, by letting him stay in her stable and found rice to feed him until he recovered. The other villagers thought she was taking a great risk, but she told them she hoped that if her husband was in need, someone would give him aid. 

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.