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CHAPTER SEVEN - Naples, Vesuvius, and the Monastery at Cassino

It was a relief to get back to the Squadron, but shortly thereafter an event took place, which on reflection illustrates how ornery I must have become. I went to the Naples PX one afternoon with some buddies to see what a real PX was like again. After buying a few items I went out front to wait for the other guys. It was cold and I was wearing my army pink trench coat and a 100-mission crush green hat. I leaned back against the wall to people-watch when two big MP's came up. One said, "Capt. you have your hands in your pockets!" Immediately annoyed because they were blocking my view, I said, "Yes, I sure do." He surprised me by, "Why do you have your hands in your pockets?" Thoroughly aggravated now, I replied, "I'm scratching my testicles; beat it, you're blocking my view." When they finished laughing they told me that was the best answer they had heard all day, but would have to give me a summons anyway -- to report to Base Com Court the next day at 0900. I told them where to go and that I had a mission to fly. They apologized and said that they were ordered to say that anyone not reporting at the appointed hour would be court-martialed.

The next morning an apologetic Major addressed about 300 of us who showed up. He advised us that Base Com had decided that the U.S. troops should make a better impression on the civilian population of the area by dressing better and conducting ourselves with more military bearing and manner. He said this was a warning ticket and disciplinary action would be taken in the future, apologized again for taking us away from our duties, and then made the idiotic mistake of asking if anyone in the audience had anything to say. Three hundred Officers and men immediately stood up making growling noises and loud speeches all at the same time -- none of the remarks are printable.

All of us were proud of our dive bombing accuracy. We rarely failed to clobber our aiming points, whether a bridge, rail or road junction, or just coordinates on the map. Our effectiveness was greatly enhanced by the use of combination bomb loads from those bombs available to us; determining which mixes were most effective for different targets.

When Vesuvius erupted it was something to behold. We thought we were a powerful military force. It was as if Mother Nature were saying that power is a very relative thing. That mountain was mean for a long time. We had to land our planes further away at Capodechino airport in Naples after the last missions of the day, just in case the wind might shift. Fortunately for us the wind remained northerly, but the B-25 outfit located to the south of Vesuvius caught the ashes and rocks that spewed out of the volcano top and many B-25's were damaged. The ashes followed the old historic route, dumping several inches on the partially excavated town of Pompeii and quite a lot as far away as the Isle of Capri.

At one point there was a rupture near the top of the cone on the north side of Vesuvius and the molten lava began to creep down the mountainside toward a small Italian town. Our enlisted men worked around the clock on a volunteer basis to help evacuate the people and their personal property from the town. The town was doomed, but thanks to our men's efforts the population and much of their property was saved. The Italians appreciated it.

Lava moved through the town in a flow about 20 feet thick, crushing or flowing right through buildings in its path. Most of us in the outfit at one time or another went to stand in front of the flow as it inched forward, the base moving out not more than 15 feet or so ahead of the top of the flow. I expect some of the 316th veterans still have ash trays made from the lava, formed in molds as it cooled down.

One afternoon a couple of jeep loads of us went to view the lava flow. It had progressed some distance downslope from the destroyed town. At that point there was one of those typical Italian high stone walls about four feet wide, and the last 100 feet or so of the lava was flowing parallel to it on both sides. After observing the forward creep for awhile we all climbed the wall and advanced to observation points above the leading edge of the flow; seeing who could tolerate the heat and advance farthest. We were making scientific comparisons of this heat with hell, etc., when one member of the party said, "Well boys, I think this fire has burned long enough." Taking the cue all of us unzippered and urinated in unison on top of that lava flow. I hesitate to tell the rest of the story, but it is a fact that the lava flow did not advance more than another ten yards, and Vesuvius began to settle down to a smoking but more subdued volcano.

I have previously mentioned that in addition to the usual wartime hazards, it was very easy to kill oneself, unintentionally of course, as a result of a momentary lapse or error in judgment. We bombed a little bridge one day and hit all around it but missed the bridge itself. We were given an eight ship mission to take out the same bridge the next morning. I was determined to set up a very steep dive bomb run to clobber that bridge. Everybody else said it was a perfect run and it must have been for them -- nobody missed the bridge except me. I was so steep that by the time my nose passed vertical I knew all I could do was bomb the road approach on the other end. Just as I released my bombs a dadgummed motorcycle scooted across the bridge and right into my gunsight. A short burst only kicked up dust behind him.

Instead of further risking life and limb I should have continued to pull up from the bomb run. I pulled in a little more lead as the motorcyclist leaned into a turn in the road and popped him with a full blast. He and the bike (complete with saddle bags and secret papers, as I told Bob Wynne, our intelligence officer, later) went ass over tea kettle, but I didn't have time to gloat. I was still in a dive, airspeed too high and the small mountain I had to climb over on the pull out was too close. I hauled back on the stick as hard as I could until I almost blacked out. As I started up the mountainside I was so low that the streamers from the trailing edge of my wings appeared to be floating down into the trees like a fog. As we joined up some wit said, "Where've you been?".

The rest of the mission was an armed recce on a westerly route over the valley that leads to the Mediterranean just north of Gaeta Point. The high G's I had just pulled must have rattled my brain because when I saw three or four vehicles and a couple of tanks on the road at the bottom of the valley I decided we should take them out.

The shape of the valley was such that we could not do our usual pass at a 90 degree angle across the road, so asking the top flight to stay up for top cover, I took the lead flight down on a pass at the best angle we could get. It seemed that the light flak opened up as soon as we started down. We got the vehicles all right and the four of us started a line abreast (with that much light flak no one was about to lag behind) climb out over a little mountain about half the size of the larger mountains surrounding the valley. Those P-40 engines were giving us all they had, but it wasn't enough because this mountain slope as we quickly discovered was loaded with gun emplacements. As our airspeed began to bleed off the intensity of the flak barrage increased until German tracers were zipping past on all sides.

In desperation, I guess, I called, "Turnabout left -- Go!" The quickest four ship 180 degree turn in history took place with unbelievable precision. Usually when you begin to hose down gun emplacements, the enemy would cease fire at least until you were past them. This time most of them did that, but the best feeling was seeing airspeed increase while roaring down that hill blasting everything in the way. It was only four or five miles to the coast, so down the valley as low as possible was the only way out. We had plenty of holes to bring home, but amazingly no one was lost. I don't think any of us would have survived had we tried to continue our climb back to altitude in that flak barrage. There was no way to estimate how many people were killed or flak batteries we destroyed on that wild escapade, but it was obvious that the few vehicles we destroyed were not worth the risk. Since all of us survived we knew that we had shaken up the enemy considerably and were able to provide intelligence with considerable eye-ball information about enemy strength in the big middle of the Hitler Line.

Fortunately, there were some remarkable happenings when the situation did not seem so perilous. Some of these events centered around the results when you caught a target at the point where six 50-caliber machine guns converged. A locomotive or boxcar might be lifted right off the track or stand on end or just disintegrate right before your eyes. Once we strafed and dive bombed a road junction on a hill side. The stone buildings and part of the mountainside piled up on the road to create a choke point, which was the purpose of the mission. As we started back up I noticed on an adjacent mountain a road near the top and a little German jeep came around a curve into view at just about my altitude. I only had to roll left 15 or 20 degrees to line up. A short blip of the trigger -- the shortest burst possible -- and that jeep did a chandelle right out over the valley. Before I could blink in amazement a big truck came around the curve; another short burst and as in one, two, three I saw the radiator, the cab, and body lift off -- the truck was stripped right down to the chassis and wheels. It is no wonder that some wartime memoirs do not dim even after 40 years. Events like these could not be staged.

The Hitler Line was in considerable depth, the forward portion extending roughly on a line through Cassino to Gaeta Point on the Sea. In mountainous country, it was a tough defensive line for our ground troops to crack. Bypassing that line with an amphibious assault behind it was a much better solution than fighting inch by inch for those rugged hills. But that took time to set up and it was necessary to keep constant pressure on the Line. It was here that the Germans put up the most vigorous defense of any since Rommel's defeat in Africa. The town of Cassino was taken and lost by our troops a number of times. From the Monastery and hill above the town the Germans were looking down our G.I.'s throats.

The AF History's description of our attacks on the monastery is accurate except for the weather. We were able to sneak in under the heavy overcast and maneuver to dive bomb through cracks in the broken cloud cover below. Our mixed bomb loads, including phosphorus bombs contributed to our success. This was a "first light" mission. We were warned that our own troops would be infiltrating uphill to within 300 yards of the monastery. We set 250 yards for our limit and no bombs landed outside the target area. Monastery Hill was taken by the ground troops that morning and held. The 324th Group received a Presidential Citation for that mission.

While the Germans had our ground troops stalled, increasing numbers of interdiction missions were added to our close support, enemy gun emplacement, and strong point dive bombing. We hit rail yards and railroad bridges and split rails in places difficult to repair -- and killed any trains we could find. Pretty soon we had to range well north of Rome to find rolling stock, and road bed repair attempts ceased south of Rome. The highway system was more extensive and difficult to eliminate because bomb holes could be detoured. The Germans were pretty good at repairing or bypassing bombed out bridges and road junctions. When our primary targets were obscured by weather or after our attacks on them, we had considerable leeway regarding what to do under the armed recce requirement of most of our missions. We could patrol specified road networks and anything that moved or was capable of moving was fair game. We made daylight hours a pretty miserable time for the Germans.

A most cost effective tactic was to block mountain passes. Little towns were conveniently perched in the right places on the cliffs on either side on roads through the passes. We were told before these missions that adequate warnings had been given civilians. I hoped so every time, because it was awesome to see flights of four or eight P-40's with demolition bombs drop them on the road and watch the whole town turn into a rubble pile - effectively blocking that route for a long time.

If I ever have the opportunity to tour Italy again, there is one bridge I want to see. It was a fairly long one across a deep gully. We wondered if Caesar might not have had it built -- it was a very thick stone roadbed supported by many large thick arches. I don't know how many sorties we laid on that stubborn bridge. We dive-bombed and strafed, skip-bombed the supporting arches, and that medieval stone structure kept standing. B-25's tried it to no avail. The Germans stopped using the bridge itself because the approaches to it were impossible. I saw numerous direct hits on the bridge and its supports, completely obscuring it with smoke and debris. Any other bridge would have been demolished, but when the smoke cleared she'd still be standing. The last time I saw that bridge was late one afternoon. The railings were gone, the edges chipped off so it looked like a base fiddle, and the approaches and the creek below on both side were full of bomb craters. Downstream about a half-a-mile I spotted a new track with vehicles fording the stream. It was good to have a live target to destroy -- that indestructible bridge was beginning to have sentimental value.

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