It was 1944 and the Second World War was raging. In Italy, American airmen were stationed at Pompeii Airfield when the debris started falling, but this was no ordinary wartime air raid. The cinder and rock dropping from the sky were being sent forth by the volcano dominating the horizon: Mount Vesuvius. Overhead, bombers wheeled in the air, their pilots’ minds turning from the threat of flack to an altogether more pervasive menace – but the damage the planes would be dealt was on the ground.
It must have seemed like the earth’s own call to arms in the face of the devastation taking place all around, and to the drafted witnesses it was difficult to describe. Some servicemen likened the mountain’s earthshaking eruption to bombs going off – ironic given the chronic danger of real shells exploding – while others evoked thunder to express the tremendous roaring noise made by the ground quaking. All comparisons to acts of both man and nature seemed to fail.
The signs were there during the opening months of 1944. Small lava flows appeared at the rim of the great volcano, with small outflows of the molten rock. Still, the enlisted men would have little known what was coming, and the volcano fell quiet through the end of February and first half of March. Then, on March 18, following a battery of smaller explosions over several days, Vesuvius erupted.
From Pompeii Airfield, just a few miles from the east-facing foot of Vesuvius, the men watched, awestruck, with no little apprehension clouding their thoughts. Amazing though the photos of the time are, one aspect of the eruption they cannot convey is the vivid orange hues of the molten rock that spat from the crater and advanced down the mountain, a seething river destroying everything in its path.
A March 20 entry in a personal diary from the 489th Bomb Squadron Book reads:
“To look above the mountain tonight, one would think that the world was on fire… As the clouds pass from across the top of the mountain, the flame and lava can be seen shooting high into the sky to spill over the sides and run in red streams down the slopes.”
The personal diary entry continues:
“Today it was estimated that a path of molten lava one mile long, a quarter mile wide, and eight feet deep is rolling down the mountain. Towns on the slopes are preparing to evacuate… The rumblings are now growing louder and the flame and sparks are flying higher . . . The mountain is really angry tonight. This is a sight to be remembered. An ironically beautiful sight.”
As the ground continued to rumble over the ensuing days, Vesuvius belched dense, billowing smoke thousands of metres up into the air. The sustained ash plume, so brilliantly captured in the wartime photography of the time, was to prove one of the most destructive phases of the volcano’s bombardment, as all that Vesuvius had thrown up, came down – as if dropped from the clouds.
In a diary entry from March 29 1944, the author in the 489th Bomb Squadron Book recalls the events leading up to the evacuation on March 22:
“At 8 A.M. all hell broke loose. Black stones of all sizes, some as large as a football, fell in great quantity completely covering the ground, breaking branches from the trees, smashing through the tents to break up on their floors, tearing through metal, fabric and Plexi-glass of the aeroplanes. Soon all the tents were in tatters with much of their contents destroyed by direct hits.”
The diary entry continues:
“The storm of lava and rain continued through the morning piling up on the ground like snow and multiplying the damage. Soldiers who ventured from shelter wore steel helmets. Civilians covered their heads with pans, boxes or heavy baskets.”
Perhaps surprisingly, no US Air Force men based at Pompeii were killed or seriously injured as a result of the eruption, though the volcano wiped out as many as 88 of the 340th Bombardment Group’s aircraft – more than any single Luftwaffe air raid. The hot ash, cinder and volcanic ‘bombs’ that blanketed the B-25 Mitchell bombers lying prone in the airfield caused irreparable damage such as burnt fabric control surfaces and cracked or melted windshields and gun turrets.
All told, at least 26 people died and thousands were forced to flee their homes as the villages of San Sebastiano al Vesuvio, Massa di Somma and Ottaviano were obliterated; so too parts of San Giorgio a Cremano. Since then, Vesuvius has experienced its longest lull in activity in almost half a millennium. However, such a slumber will inevitably lead to a rude awakening – an eruption far more violent than 1944 – as the longer a volcano’s period of inactivity, the greater its magma build-up.
This begs the question: when might we expect to see the next show of force from Vesuvius? Scientists can but speculate – while continuing to closely monitor the lava cone for any sign of change – though an emergency evacuation plan is in place for the surrounding towns and villages.