Texas Military Forces Museum


111th Reconnaissance Squadron
World War II Narrative History

Part IX:  Italy

The British and Canadians crossed the Straits of Messina into Italy on September 3, 1943, and the initial American landings were made on September 9, 1943, at Salerno. The enemy was prepared for the American landing and for several weeks it was touch-and-go as to whether we’d be able to hold what ground we had taken, let alone expand it. The announcement that Italy had surrendered and was now to be considered a co-belligerent was confoosin’ but amousin’.

The 111th’s first ground echelon landed south of Salerno on September 12, 1943. They could do little except set up a bivouac and wait for our planes to land. Being stalwart men, they first patrolled the roads running between our infantry and the enemy lines. Why sneak along on your belly when you can ride on top of a truck? Act Two in the Comedy of Errors came when they decided to have home-fried chicken just around the corner from an impending tank battle. A vote was hastily taken and the decision made to let the tanks have their own fun. The Boy Rangers advanced to the rear and broke out their mess kits in a mosquito redoubt on the Sele River. On September 16 the air echelon landed on the Sele air field in time to witness a game of tag between several B-25’s and ME-109’s high above the air field. The military situation in that area was still far from being settled. German 88’s were within easy range of the field and American naval vessels lay offshore just behind us pouring out salvoes at targets high on the hills a few miles inland. With characteristic Teutonic methodicalness German fighter planes made sweeps over the harbor at breakfast, dinner, and supper. We used to set our watches at their appearance. Generally five or six would come over and usually two or three would return. After a few days of this the Luftwaffe must have realized that there was no percentage in such goings on, and from then on their sorties in our area were limited to night raids and high-altitude reconnaissance. Our pilots, during this time, were doing yeoman’s work in directing artillery shots for the Navy in direct support of the Fifth Army - a fine example of the precise integration of three branches of service.

On October 3 our second ground echelon pulled into Italy near Paestum and on October 5 an advance party was sent to Pomigliano to look over our new base. Pomig’ is just ten miles inland from Naples, and if ever we were to have a "home" overseas it was at Pomigliano D’Arco. It was here that we underwent the transition from fox-hole soldiering to cot-and-mattress living. The town itself is just a colorless replica of all country communities in southern Italy, but in the many months of our stay there as a result of the bitter and long-fought battles of the foot soldiers along the Volturno and Garigliano Rivers, followed by the epic struggle at Cassino and the difficult capture of a beachhead at Anzio-Nettuno, we piled up many combat hours in the air, worked hard and long on the ground, and lived comfortably and strenuously in our off-duty hours. The enlisted men were housed in a school building and the officers hung their hats in a modern housing project which had been built for local aircraft workers. Once again we enjoyed the benefits of paved runways, and when we were issued cots to sleep on we weren’t sure but what the war had been won. The runway had been systematically demolished by the retreating Germans, as had all the buildings and installations on the field. Inasmuch as we could operate until the runway was made serviceable, we enjoyed a stand-down for more than a week. During the stand-down everyone had a chance to visit Naples - the largest enemy city yet captured - while others made trips to the new and ancient cities of Pompeii. The city of Naples had suffered Allied bombings, but it was soon apparent to all of us that it had suffered a great deal more from German occupation and Fascist misgovernment. The Germans, as usual, had mined many of the public buildings, destroyed the city power plant, and disrupted the water supply system. The average Neapolitan was badly clothed and poorly fed, although it was always possible to buy a black-market steak.

On September 27 the anniversary of our first year overseas was celebrated informally. The sudden appearance of highly toxic liquors in public bars led to the establishment of our own bars within our barracks. The liquor obtained for our bar was nonpoisonous, but still tasted like raw gasoline. A basketball court was laid out in one of the battered factory buildings on the field and a no-holds-barred inter-sectional tournament was staged with the Headquarters team copping their share of the bruises and also the title. A squadron team was hastily organized and entered in the Naples basketball tournament, where it surprised everyone by advancing to the quarter-finals before being eliminated. Arrangements were made for the hiring of a band and the lower "400" of Naples and Pomigliano were ably represented at our Christmas party. We attended regular movies at the GI-Operated local opera house and enjoyed the personal appearance of Humphrey Bogart and quite a few US0 shows.

The harbor at Naples was bombed often by the Nazis, but no night raids were directed against our field. Early one morning, while we were sweating out the breakfast chow line, a half dozen ME-109’s swept in low over the parked airplanes and dropped fragmentation bombs. Food and mess kits flew in one direction and men in another at the first detonation. Brockton’s pride and joy ran the command car, which he was driving, into a ditch in the excitement. Ack-Ack on the field opened up and downed one plane. Several of our ships had been hit, but none seriously. Men who had been on the line working at the time of the raid were unanimous in declaring that the whole business had been "too close for comfort."

Snow and rain affected, but did not halt, the ever-mounting number of missions and hours being flown by the squadron. In January of 1944 the beachhead at Anzio was established, which upped considerably the number of artillery missions being flown. In April a detachment of eighteen men and four airplanes was sent to the beachhead to operate from the Nettuno airfield. The nightly air raids and regular shelling made things rough, but, on the whole, those who represented the squadron at Anzio welcomed the change from routine which we had become accustomed to. The city of Naples had been declared off limits to Allied troops shortly after the beginning of the new year, because of a typhus epidemic. The Army’s new rotation policy sent Sergeant Millard McWhorter on his way home as the first enlisted man in the squadron to benefit from it, and early in March enlisted men and ground officers began to receive three-day passes to the Air Forces’ rest camp on the Isle of Capri.

On March 19 the volcano Vesuvius, which had been grumbling warningly for over a week, erupted, emitting billows of smoke thousands of feet in the air and spewing forth flames and ashes. We watched the spectacle from our barracks and were greatly impressed with the beauty of the scene at night when lightning flashed above the turbulent crater and huge chunks of molten rock could be seen arching through the air. Luckily for us, the prevailing wind continued to blow the volcanic ash and smoke away from our field. Areas to the south of Vesuvius were covered with a layer of ash several feet thick. The flow of lava down the volcano’s side engulfed entire villages, burning and crumbling everything within the path of its thirty-foot-high bed. For over a week we made trips to the scenes of its latest destruction, but soon it became apparent that little more damage would be done, and Vesuvius, after a few feeble heaves of protest, settled back into its customary role as sentinel of Naples harbor.

On May 6, 1944, the squadron moved northward to Santa Maria, not far from the Italian king’s palace at Caserta. We returned to living in pyramidal tents while here and laid out a ball diamond on which were played some mighty hot inter-sectional softball games. The stage show "This Is the Army" was seen by many of the squadron members at this time in the town of Santa Maria.

Shortly after the 1st of June the break-out from the beachhead at Anzio was achieved and on June 5 Rome fell to the Allies. This long-awaited triumph was dwarfed by the news of the Normandy invasion on June 6, but we all looked forward to seeing the Eternal City for the first time. We followed in the wake of the fast-moving ground troops who were close on the heels of the retreating Germans, and moved to Nettuno air field on June 6. From here we were given time off from our work to thumb rides into Rome, where we gathered blisters and bunions in an attempt to cover the entire city in one day. The Coliseum, the Vatican City, St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Forum ruins, Vitterio Emanuel’s impressive monument and the Roman signorina’s admirable legs were all viewed with equal interest.

On June 11 we again struck our tents, loaded up the trucks, and moved to the air field at Ponte Galera a few miles northwest of Rome. While here the mess section was able to scrounge fresh milk for us - the first that most of us had had to drink in over eighteen months. Here, too, we first began to deliver plain and fancy cussing-outs to "you all know who" as he made his first public disassembly and assembly of our newly acquired movie projector. The Cajun was in hog heaven.

The move from Ponte Galera was made on June 18. Our bivouac area was on the windswept crest of high ground overlooking the sea and the airfield was a bulldozed vineyard which constantly swirled with dust. We had no regret leaving here on July 2 for Follonica. As was characteristic of all our trips northward up the Italian peninsula, the towns through which we passed had been devastated by artillery fire and dive-bombings. Every bridge was blown out, the roads were pockmarked by shell-hits and lined up with burned-out Nazi and Allied tanks. Here, for a change, the fighting was being done on comparatively flat ground and the enemy was unable to stop the onrushing Allies as long as there were no mountains and protective ridges behind which they could defend. As usual, our new field was within a few miles of the sea. We pitched our tents in an olive grove, set up the bar in what had formerly been a hospital tent, and found a complete set of folding theater seats for our nightly movies. We operated from here for several weeks when a formation was called, at which we were told once again we would split into two echelons to operate separately from different airfields. Invasion-wise by this time, we had no doubt as to what was coming up. France!

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