Chapter 45: Nosing Over In Mud. Shooting down FW190s. Massive Effort At Cassino. Vesuvius Amazing Sight. Losing Pilots.
March 11, 1944: Cercola, Italy The last few days were uneventful for the most part, as I was still Sergeant of the Guard. Most of the time I was chasing Italian girls out of the camp area, sometimes 5 O’clock in the morning before the First Sergeant or the Squadron Adjutant could see them.
The airfield is a muddy mess, and within the last 4 days a plane has nosed-up every day, not just by crew chiefs, but by pilots too. Lt. Williams just nosed one over and it needs a new propeller. The runway is dusty; making life miserable for everyone, due to the swirling dust eddies when the planes are taxiing.
I was relieved of guard duty this morning, and I went back to work on the flying line. My plane flew one mission, bomber escort over Rome. Yesterday we received 9 new planes, to bring our total up to our normal strength of 30. Last night from midnight to 2.00 AM German planes were bombing and strafing our area, with no damage to our squadron.
Rumors are flying that we will be making a boat trip soon, to the island of Corsica.
March 14, 1944: My plane flew one dive bombing mission this morning. Lt’s Bell and Hansen each shot down a FW190 (German fighter). The next morning my plane flew on a mission, dive bombing a railway station at Cassino, Italy. My pilot said that the air near the target was packed with our planes and they had to wait in line to drop their bombs.
We hear that the British 8th Army has sent their Indian troops (Gurkhas) over to the American Army side of Italy, and started a push this afternoon. The Germans bombed Naples for an hour and a half last night, and hit an officer’s barracks, a nurses quarters and an Italian air raid shelter. This morning we found some shrapnel holes in Plane 72, but that is all the damage we suffered.
March 15, 1944 Right after midnight our area suffered a heavy air attack. With Mt. Vesuvius serving as a beacon an estimated 30 JU-88 two engine bombers and Heinkel 111 bombers first dropped flares then returned on bombing runs. While their bombardiers were dropping the bombs, their gunners were peppering our landing fields with machine gun fire. Our field was not damaged but two 500 pound unexploded bombs were discovered about 600 feet from our airstrip. You can judge the severity of this raid by the fact that our anti-aircraft guns knocked down 6 planes while our night fighters claimed 6 destroyed.
The 79th Group on an adjacent airfield had one P-47 damaged. Naples did not seem to suffer much damage. In an amusing sidelight to the raid, when the first bombs started falling, two Italian 'ladies' were seen running out of a tent without the benefit of clothes.
We mounted two dive bombing missions today, one on a supply dump near the beach head and the other was against long range cannons in front of the beach head. We did a lot of strafing motor transport and gun positions near Rome.
There were over 3000 sorties (individual planes) made over the Cassino area today, which will give you an idea of the all-out effort mounted by our air force to help our ground forces take Cassino. It is a strategic target because from it the Germans can view the surrounding area, and act as target spotters for their cannons.
We were told later in the day that the town of Cassino was taken by the Indian and New Zealand divisions of the British 8th Army. Due to the sustained aerial attacks of fighter bombers and bombers, and the stiff resistance put up by the Germans, very little is left of the town. Our planes had caused so many 500 pound bomb craters around town that tanks could not enter it until the engineers cleared a way for them.
March 16,1944 My ship flew a dive bombing mission near Cassino today. The Germans still hold the area containing the Monastery, whose high tower is used as an observation post. We are told that we were not allowed to bomb or attack the monastery until President Roosevelt obtained permission from the Pope. The following day my plane flew on two dive bombing missions near Cassino, one of the targets was a bridge.
Mt. Vesuvius has been erupting, and the lava can be seen at night, flowing down towards us for the past two days. The Italians say it is the worst they have ever seen, and three towns on the mountain have already been evacuated. The hot ash is settling on our airfield, since we are located near Mt. Vesuvius. It has made the field the dustiest we have ever been on, even in the desert. At night the lava appears deep red in color, as it flows towards Amalfi, on the coast. This was quite surprising to me, because I had always thought that lava would appear white hot.
March 20, 1944: Today Gene Schnabel and I got on his motorcycle and headed for the top of Mt. Vesuvius. We went up past the last town, but were prevented from reaching the top by the molten lava running down like a river, toward the Mediterranean Sea. It was a sight to see, many rivers of molten rock, the smell of brimstone and sulfur, and huge clouds of smoke hanging over the rivulets of lava. The town near Cercola was evacuated last night, and the river of lava is now less than 4 miles from our camp.
March 21, 1944: Lots happening today, our planes made one mission, dive bombing and strafing two trains, wrecking them. Just imagine yourself traveling on one of those two trains and having a flight of 4 Fighter-bombers attack you, each dropping two 500 pound bombs and strafing you with eight 50 Caliber machine guns, and six 120 millimeter rockets !
Add into the equation that our pilots have flown in continuous combat for the past 18 months, and have received frequent commendations from the British 8th Army, for the manner in which they have provided expert aerial support to their ground forces. However, there was a price to pay for this action, and it required us to lose three planes and two pilots Lt. Schuren bailed out, and his parachute failed to open. Lt. Carrick’s plane hit a mountain, and one other crashed while landing!
Lt. George Stern made a wheels-up landing at another field and collided with an A-20 Light bomber. It is a bad day when you lose two pilots out of a roster of 25!
Of interest today was the arrival of a Lockheed Hudson Transport Plane, filled with soldiers from the Free French Army. I spoke with the pilot in Spanish and he said they were looking for the town of Pigmaglio, and I directed him there. We were struck with a hail storm at 4 PM today, to our surprise, because we had not encountered such a phenomenon before
So ends part 45 of my wartime memoirs