Mount Vesuvius near Naples, Italy is best known for its eruption in AD 79 which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae. More than 1,000 people are believed to have perished and the site of the natural disaster attracts thousands of tourists each year. However, many people forget that the volcano has erupted several times since then. In fact, it is the only volcano in mainland Europe to have erupted in the last hundred years.
In the fall of 1943, after the successful invasion of Sicily, the Allies invaded Italy. American and British forces established bridgeheads at Salerno and pushed north where they captured Naples and the surrounding countryside. Heavy resistance in the north hampered further progress, but the Allies were about to encounter another obstacle to their invasion.
On March 17, 1944, lava began to flow down the western slope of Vesuvius towards Naples. Smoke and ash rose from the mouth of the volcano and over the next few days caused rumbling and shaking on the ground as Mount Vesuvius erupted. On March 20, a New York Times writer noted that “the sound was exactly like artillery fire”. Two days later, he documented the advancing lava. “Crashing through San Sebastiano and Massa di Somma on a broadened, though generally slowed, front, the Vesuvian lava flow tonight had prompted the evacuation of this 7,000 km northwest city.”
As the Italian government crumbled under the Allied invasion, the U.S. military took charge of evacuating civilians from the lava path. Using available military resources, US forces safely evacuated nearly 12,000 displaced civilians. Unfortunately, 26 civilians lost their lives in the eruption. An analysis published in the Journal of Historical Geography in 2007 applauded the military’s disaster management noting that “despite all wartime problems, the Allied Control Commission’s emergency management was both impressive at the time and contains important lessons on how rashes can be treated in the future.
Although there were no military fatalities in the eruption, a United States Air Force unit suffered heavy aircraft losses on Mount Vesuvius. The 340th Bombardment Group and its B-25 Mitchell bombers were stationed at Pompeii airfield at Poggiomarino, on the east side of Vesuvius. With lava flowing from the opposite side of the volcano, it was decided the 340th did not need to evacuate and the bombers remained in place. However, on the evening of March 21, lava began to flow from the east side of Vesuvius towards Pompeii airfield.
The crews were quickly evacuated to a nearby airfield where they took shelter in a tobacco shed. With no evacuation preparations made, they were forced to abandon their aircraft at Pompeii airfield. After the eruption, the 340th returned to find its tents torn apart by falling debris and between 78 and 88 bombers destroyed. Volcanic rock and hot ash damaged control surfaces and engines and even melted windshields and gun turrets, resulting in damage estimated at $25 million.
Although some of the 340th’s bombers were later repaired and returned to service, German propaganda took advantage of the event by claiming that the 340th had been decimated by Vesuvius. In fact, the only casualties in the unit were a sprained wrist and a few minor cuts. Unfortunately, the 340th would suffer even more aircraft losses than any other medium bomber group in World War II. In addition to the Vesuvius losses, another 60 aircraft were lost on 13 May in a German air raid on their base in Corsica.