When Mother Nature killed more aircraft than the enemy

I was doing some research for a forthcoming book today when I found something that reminded me of a little-known piece of history:  the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in 1944.  (Click any image except the last for a larger view.)

Among other damage, the eruption wiped out almost all the B-25 Mitchell bombers of the 340th Bombardment Group.  Here’s an eyewitness account.

[On March 22, 1944] At 2 A.M. the volcano seemed to explode, mighty roaring occurred and pieces of lava as large as golf balls began to fall around me – ten miles from the foot of the mountain. They beat upon the planes setting up a racket in the black of that eventful night like hail on tin roofs. This continued for about ten or fifteen minutes. Then the mountain became quiet to remain still until about 3 A.M., when the huffing, puffing and rumbling was repeated but in greater intensity. At 4 A.M. the stones (lava) began to fall again and continued for about twenty-five minutes. From 5 A.M. to 6 A.M. the same procedure was repeated. 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 airplanes. Soon all the tents were in tatters with much of their contents destroyed by direct hits. Radios, cots and many other effects were severely damaged. The storm of lava and rain continued throughout 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.

At about noon, March 22nd, it was decided to evacuate the entire camp. All personal belongings were gathered and amid much confusion my truck finally got off at 3 P.M. The storm still raged. Small stones fell in quantity and every fifteen minutes or so the heavens would open up with the big stuff. I say heavens instead of mountain because that is the way it seemed. The stones were not lobbed from the mountain but dropped from the clouds falling straight down with great force. As the clouds thinned out the rocks fell from them as their weight became too great to be supported. Large stones fell close to the mountain till at a great distance fine black dust was falling. We evacuated through this fine dust which was now over a foot deep.

Lava flow from the 1944 eruption of Vesuvius

About 1 A.M. on the 23rd after becoming lost several times we arrived at our new quarters. A tobacco warehouse on the field occupied by the 321st Bomb Group at Paestum, near Salerno. We unloaded our things and set up cots under the drying tobacco leaves. A colder night I never experienced and hope never to experience again. The next night was not quite so bad as I slept with all my clothes on, including a leather fur-lined cap with ear flaps pulled down. Upon arising I had only to put on my shoes to be completely dressed.

After breakfast on the 25th twenty of us were assigned to return to Poggiomarino (Pompeii Airport) to salvage what we could from the damaged aircraft.

Upon reaching the airport on the 26th we found almost complete devastation. Tents were torn to ribbons and 88 airplanes were a total loss. Eighty-eight B-25 Mitchells – $25,000,000 worth of aircraft. How Jerry gloated.

Axis Sally dedicated her program one evening to the survivors of the 340th Bomb Group. Actually a sprained wrist and a few minor cuts were the only casualties. The following night she cracked, “We got the Colonel, Vesuvius got the rest.” She explained how the 340th was no longer operational. How wrong she was. Within a week the 340th was again bombing Jerry in Northern Italy. We have bombed them every day since. Each of the four squadrons now (April 15, 1944) has fifteen or more of the finest bombers ever produced. Many of our B-25’s now carry thirteen cal. .50 machine guns.

. . .

Just a few words about Vesuvius and the vicinity as we found it upon our return. At Poggiomarino the lava had completely covered the ground to a depth of at least two feet. From the mountain dense smoke and a brown ash billowed profusely. We were unlucky enough to be to windward of the mountain so that the dust got into our eyes and covered our clothing. Most uncomfortable. After the dust a fine white ash fell completely covering the countryside with a snowy whiteness.

As we left the place a week later dense smoke was still billowing from the volcano. The mountain had become quiet and all danger of further eruption seemed to have passed.

So, on April 15, 1944, twenty-five days after the disaster, the 340th Bomb Group is again a complete fighting unit and still the best damned Group there is. Hitler, the self-styled ‘Great Rebuilder’, please note.

There’s more at the link.  A great many more photographs may be found here.

Here’s one of my favorite post-disaster pictures:  ‘nose art‘ from a replacement B-25 bomber named in honor of the eruption.

Here’s footage of the 1944 eruption from a contemporary newsreel.

As a footnote, the eruption of Vesuvius was one of two incidents (over and above normal operational losses) giving the 340th the dubious distinction of losing more aircraft than any other medium bombardment group during World War II.  The other was a devastating German air raid on its base at Alesani, Corsica on 13 May 1944, in which more than 60 aircraft were destroyed or damaged beyond repair.


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