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A committee is hoping to save the fading history of one of Australia's World War II internment camps for so-called enemy aliens and war prisoners.

During the war security concerns grew over foreign nationals in Australia, and many Germans, Italians and Japanese living here were rounded up and transported to internment camps across the country.

More internees were sent from allied nations including Britain and New Zealand; some were naturalised British subjects or born in Britain and Australia.

According to the National Archives, at the peak in 1942 more than 12,000 people from over 30 countries were interned in Australia.

Now a community committee is trying to create a museum for one of the largest camps, the Loveday Internment Camp in South Australia's Riverland.

The camp comprised four compounds which at one stage collectively held more than 5,000 people.

Local historian Rosemary Gower, who set up the museum committee, says there are now few physical reminders of the camp's existence.

"It's really sad because there's nothing left here. There's houses everywhere, there's grapes and vegetables and... we have no access to the three camps any more," she said.

"The only access we've got now is to the headquarters and that's where we're going to set up our museum."
Audio: History risks forgetting wartime camp (The World Today)

Ms Gower has spent nearly 25 years collecting information about the camp through interviewing internees and guards and collecting photos and video.

There is a small display about the camp at the nearby Cobdogla Irrigation and Steam Museum but Ms Gower says a bigger and more prominent display is needed.

She is working with the local council and Regional Development Australia to realise the project.
'Secret projects'

Ms Gower says some internees were tasked with helping the war effort.

"They had a number of secret projects, and one was the growing of the opium poppies and they were actually the largest suppliers of raw opium in Australia at that time," she said.

"They were growing the poppies so the Army could make morphine for the war effort."

Julian Stefani, whose late father Stefano was one of the many Italians interned at Loveday, says a museum would be particularly important for relatives of the internees.

"It would be nice to be able to, in a permanent way, have something of more significance to be able to say this is where the camp site was and perhaps build up some visitation. I think it would be probably good for the area as well," she said.

Ms Stefani's father was captured in 1940 while working in Papua New Guinea to support his family in Italy and given the number 9393 when he was interned at Loveday.

"[They were] photographed in their prison clothes and he on the back of the photograph wrote 'the worst 42 months of his life'," she said.

"I think he probably suffered because of that lack of freedom, but other than that I think there was plenty of food and no great hardships endured."
Not prepared

Stefano did not return home until 1949 and the family later moved to Adelaide.

Professor Klaus Neumann from Melbourne's Swinburne University says at the time the Australian government was not prepared for interning lots of people.

"There was a big push for internment that didn't come from the government but that came from local communities who said 'the greengrocer at the corner, he's Italian. We are sure he's spying for the axis powers and therefore you should intern him'," he said.

"So they used jails in New South Wales, the Gladstone jail in South Australia, the Alice Springs jail in the Northern Territory. In Western Australia they interned people at the Northam racecourse and in Queensland they interned them in a hospital.

"It was only in 1941 after mass internments had started in 1940 that the government set up purpose-built internment camps."
 

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I wonder if Imanutjob decries that bit of dark history as a myth, too?

While it is all interesting, I particularly like the bit about growing poppies for morphine.
 
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