Chapter 44: Move to Cercola. Chasing Women Out of Camp. First Coke! Face Slaps for My Efforts. Vesuvius Erupts
March 3, 1944; Amendola, Italy. The service trucks arrived this morning and we all pitched in and loaded tech and quartermaster supplies on the trucks. We will leave this field at 8.00 AM today, en route to our new field which is so close to Naples that we can see Mt. Vesuvius clearly.
Plane number 78 which I was responsible for, left for Naples in the afternoon and flight-chief Volter said I could ride with him in the jeep. Because of our movement, we have not received any mail recently, nor were we permitted to send any mail (for obvious reasons.) This of course causes time to hang heavily on our hands, and manifests itself in a lot of grousing and ill-feeling.
March 4, 1944; Amendola, Italy. We broke camp at 8.00 AM, and I left early with the Gas Bowsers (Gasoline Tank Trucks), instead of waiting and leaving with Carl Volter, our flight chief. We located the airdrome in the suburbs of Naples, at Cercola, and found it to be a mud hole with an air strip. Half of the trucks got stuck in the mud. It finally stopped raining and we put our tent up.
Spracks (one of our two Texans in the tent) did not help us erect the tent (or help us tear it down at the last airfield), so we told the flight chief (Carl Volter) to speak with the First Sergeant (Pettis), to move Spracks out of our tent. We were quite upset about this! I shall have to pull a week of 'Sergeant of the Guard' starting tomorrow. The shifts are 4 hours on and 4 hours off. This is a tough schedule because you are always sleep starved! In addition to us on this airfield, are the 324 Fighter outfit, a P-40 squadron, and two service groups.
The next day we received an issue of three bottles of Coca Cola. This was the first Coke I’d had since leaving Hillsgrove, Rhode Island some 20 months ago.
I made the rounds during the afternoon shift on Guard, and most of the time I had to chase the Italian women out of the camp area. This is our main trouble right now, and the reason we need so many guards is because of thievery! The first night here, 60 pounds of Fresh meet was stolen by the Italians.
During the first night, there was an air raid on Naples, and we were treated to a spectacular display of celestial fireworks! Two days later I went to Cercola with Luis Lelderman, and 'Little Joe' and we wandered around rubbernecking. Not much going on in such a small town with little skirt-chasing possibilities. In the afternoon I hung around the main gate and tried to promote a little romance. I managed to get my face slapped three times, and nothing else to show for my efforts!
March 7, 1944. Northing unusual occurred on the 6 to 10 Am Guard shift this morning. There was a canteen of cigarettes, candy, and other goodies. We all received a booster vaccination after lunch. I found an Italian man who could cut hair and I brought him to Leland Pettis our First. Sgt. He said we will set him up in camp so that nobody would have an excuse to have long hair, or need a shave.
Sgt. Pettis is also going to have metal footlockers made for everybody. That will be an improvement from having all our clothing, etc in Barracks bags.
March 8, 1944: Cercola, Naples. There was a notice on our bulletin board this morning to the effect that passes to Naples will start. The bad news is that with the first two cases of social disease they will be discontinued. We were quite puzzled by this turn of events; however we soon discovered the reason behind that rule. It seems that all the outfits near Naples have about 75% social disease cases, and are restricted to their posts.
Rumors are rampant that we will soon leave for the island of Corsica. However, of more importance is the fact that Mount Vesuvius is erupting, and is spouting smoke, flame, ashes and lava tonight.
It is raining intermittently, making things quite miserable for all concerned. However we are treated nightly to a lovely display of red lava running down the side of Mt. Vesuvius that faces Pompeii, Amalfi, and the Mediterranean. The lava is following the same path it did during the Roman Empire, when it covered Pompeii. I manage to catch 3 hours sleep between 4- hour shifts of Guard Duty.
Photos of the Vesuvius eruption and some of its impact on us are found in Chapter 45.
So ends part 44 of my wartime memoirs.
My younger brother (9 years my junior), sent me an E mail sometime in 2004,in which he said he had just seen a documentary on the Mt. Vesuvius Eruption in Naples, Italy of 1944. He asked if I had been anywhere nearby at the time.
My email response to him was as follows:
"When Mt.Vesuvius erupted, my squadron Camp area was located at the foot of it. At night I could look up at the mountain and see the RED river of lava running down the mountain towards Pompeii (where it had run originally, burying that city in lava and ash.) Yes,the lava appears to be red when viewing it at night).
The hot ash was landing on our airplanes,and we had to relocate them to a different airfield in the Naples area.
We were requested to evacuate the residents of two towns,high up in the mountain,and we did so.
The morning of March 24,1944 the squadron packed up, loaded on to trucks and drove to Naples Harbor, where in the evening we boarded an LST (Landing Ship, Tank), (the one with doors that open in front so a ramp could be extended towards shore), and we found ourselves together with Zouaves (Arabic troops from Morocco, who carried their goats with them!). The ship remained in Naples harbor that night,because it was their practice to load and unload at night in order to excape detection by German planes. There were five air-raids that night, however our ship was not harmed.
The morning of March 25th we set sail for Corsica in a three-ship convoy. Our vessel, a Liberty Ship and a British corvette escort. As we left Naples harbor we saw what an atomic bomb blast cloud would look like more than a year into the future. The volcanic ash rose to a height of about 35,000 feet, and then inverted into an umbrella shape. It is a sight that one does not readily forget! We persuaded our medic to break into his stock of 180 proof ethyl alcohol, into which we mixed the dry lemon powder from cans of 'C' rations,to make a hybrid Martini. shortly thereafter a lot of our boys were found passed out,some even hanging over the rims of the ack-ack pits on deck!
The next day we discharged at the port of Ejaccio (the birthplace of Napoleon). Hundreds of Corsicans stood at the dock, wondering what the Americans looked like. They stood open-mouthed, as first came a parade of our dogs (about 20 of them), and then we drove down the ramp and proceeded to our designated airfield. We were then told that our fighter group (the 57th) and its 3 squadrons (64th, 65th and 66th (mine) had been designated a 'separate task force' to operate in Corsica, together with the Famed French Lafayette Esquadrille (Free French), from the same airfield with the purpose of destroying all rail and road transport moving down from Austria. This is the first time that an Air corps Group had ever been so designated. (a task force, you know, consists of a fleet of destroyers, carriers, support ships etc). So History was then re-written by our group. When we viewed the map,we found that we were now situated well above the bomb line (the front) in Italy, and lying between us and the Po Valley in Italy was the Island of Elba (where Napoleon was exiled), and,in order to operate in the Po valley our planes flew over that Island, held by Germans with an active airfield. Each time our flights returned after a raid in the Po valley, if they had any machine gun ordinance left, they shot-up the airfield. After 10 days of this the Germans moved out.
We operated in Corsica for 6 months,and covered the invasion of Southern France from there. The measure of our competence can be determined by the fact that on June 5th,1944 we received a Distinguished Unit Citation (General Order #45) from General G.C. Marshall,Chief Of Staff, on behalf of the Secretary Of War.
The following incident occurred while we were operating from Corsica.
My plane had to make a forced landing in San Rafael on the French Riviera, due to an overheated engine, and the pilot was returned to us a week later by the French Underground, non the worse for wear,strangely enough.
We owned a B-25 (Medium Bomber) having traded one of our P-40s to a bomb outfit for it. So,the squadron commander flew me with my tool box and my flight chief, and we landed at that emergency field (dirt strip) in France. I repaired the problem (forced graphite grease into the water pump so that it would turn freely).I tied the tail down to two unused bombs I found, and ran the engine up at full throttle for 10 minutes. Everything was in the green,so I told the pilot we had brought with us, that it was OK to fly.
He was a new replacement, he didn't know me and had his doubts, so he asked if I would fly the plane if I were he. I said 'Sure, so he said OK, he threw out the chute, and got in and said OK, sit on my lap.
What could I do? So I sat on his lap and we took off, got up a few thousand feet, then he dived down. The flight chief stood in the center of the runway,and as we approached him we were about 20 feet off the ground,and when he saw us coming he fell to the ground. We were so low,that when I looked back, we had stirred up a huge cloud of dust and dirt.
I know I got carried away a bit here,and gave you more than you were seeking,but I was overcome by a bit of nostalgia, remembering the scene of Mt.Vesuvius erupting as we left Naples Harbor. If I have bored you,I apologize. There was so much that I saw and lived through during my 5 Years in the Military,that it takes something like your inquiry to trigger my recollections. You missed a lot by not being in harm's way, because during such times one feels emotions that cannot be compared to those felt during peaceful times. One is grateful that one survives each day and tries to fill those days with as much pleasure as possible,under the circumstances."