(This is the fourth in a series of oral history narratives about WW2 in southern Italy. This edited narrative is the result of messages from Fred Hellman of Glen Cove, New York.
Also, see this link for another item from Fred as well as parts 6, 7 & 8, below.)
entry Feb 2007
Hanging around with Herman Chanowitz, my WW2 veteran buddy, now has me on the lookout for more "oral history" from members of the "greatest generation." Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a message from Fred Hellman of Glen Cove, New York, who asked me a simple question:
"During WW-2 I spent two months
in the 17th General Hospital (US Army which I believe
was in the Vomero Section of Naples, set high
overlooking the bay with an exquisite view of Vesuvius.
Is the hospital still there?" I'm still working on that
one. I can't find anyone who seems to know anything
except that the hospital is not now where it used to be.
[update: Yes, it is. Here !]
Fred reminisced about the Italian campaign, Naples, the
area near Cassino and the ferocious fighting that took
"I am 82 now and I went through many of the towns mentioned in Herman's recollections. I was a late comer to Cassino, arriving there in February of 1944 and joining the 1FOB (First Field Artillery Observation Battery ) at Aquafondata and sat there until May 11th when the Allies finally broke through. From Monte d'Oro (about 800 meters high) we saw Vesuvius erupt and were given passes to visit Naples and Pompeii and rode through lava-covered olive-tree farms. The countryside was colorless, brown, brown, brown. Civilians were on their roofs shoveling lava dust onto the streets. We were assigned to a French division and went up the Peninsula to Leghorn where I was assigned to an Intelligence Company as a cryptanalyst near Caserta where I met my wife, a daughter of an Italian Army Colonel, and married 60 years ago
"My time in the front lines was limited to about 6 months observing enemy gun fire flashes looking for German Artillery fire (flashes) and directing 155mm. howitzer fire on the targets. The most memorable event was spotting German soldiers exiting and entering a farmhouse for an extended period. Three of us triangulated the exact location and reported it to our headquarters. They ordered the artillery to fire and they seemed to hit the building with the first round. Subsequent rounds missed the target but we saw women and men running for their lives into what appeared to be woods behind the farmhouse. I went through San Pietro in 1944 and it was nothing but a hill of rubble and stone, without the human touch.
"On the night of our Cassino
breakout, May 11, 1944, I went to find a small farmhouse
that was dark to develop some film in the field and at
11 pm all hell broke loose. I raced back to our
observation post to look out at what Herman calls "Death
Valley" and saw really nothing but artillery shells
exploding; I listened to the BBC for information about
what was unfolding before us.
"And this episode is slightly embarrassing. It's a story about a 19-year-old soldier in December of '43. I recount this incident of 63 years ago:
"We were in Camp Canastel, Oran, training for assignment to an artillery outfit, most likely in Italy. The usual regimen included a daily 10-mile march and a weekly 26-mile march. We usually walked along the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, and on this Saturday I decided to wear a pair of civilian oxfords instead of regulation Army boots. Probably the stupidest idea a soldier could have. At about the 5-mile mark I began to feel pain in my feet. Obviously blisters had formed and the rest of the march would be torture. At the 13-mile mark we rested for 10 minutes and the entire column turned towards home. There must have been several thousand men in long columns marching that day and the Army provided trucks to pick up those who could not complete the march.
"I decided to rest. I waited
until the last of the men disappeared from view. Sitting
there alone I became concerned for my safety and elected
to follow the troops. I was in great pain as I made my
way back. After about a mile of extreme suffering I saw
ahead an Army truck with Italian POWs at the side of the
road. When I reached them I asked the American G.I.
driver if I could get a lift back to camp. He said that
it was against regulations. So I continued my walk in
agony for another half mile or so when I heard the truck
behind me. I moved to the side of the road to allow him
to pass. He slowed down and motioned me to get in the
open back where some five or six Italian POWs were
"Within a very short time we
returned to an empty camp and I immediately lay down on
my cot. It was eerily silent. Several hours later I
heard the first sounds of the returning troops. When my
companions came to my tent they playfully chided me for
my indiscretion. The next morning found me responding to
sick call. My feet were so blistered that I asked to see
a physician. When I stepped out of line to join the sick
call line, my commanding officer confronted me and said:
'Think you're a wise guy, Hellman, don't you? Well, I saw you on the back of
that truck and I have a good mind to have you
court-martialed. Instead I'm going to limit your weekend
passes for a month.'
(Photo credits: I have been unable to trace credit/copyright information for the record album graphic of the stylized Mt. Vesuvius/US flag. If anyone has accurate information, I would be happy to list the appropriate credit.)