Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


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(This is the fourth in a series of oral history narrativesabout 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.)


Entries for WW 2 oral history
1 2
3
HERE 5
6
7
8

entry Feb 2007                  
 
flag/vesuvius album cover)


Fred and wife, Maria Teresa, on their
honeymoon on Capri, February 1946.

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: Ooops. Here it is!] Fred reminisced about the Italian campaign, Naples, the area near Cassino and the ferocious fighting that took place there:

"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 riding.

"One POW suggested that I remove my shirt and wear his blue POW-lettered one. I then was in a position to stand up and be seen. In a few moments we caught up with the marching troops who had to move to the side of the road as we passed. When I finally spotted my company, I yelled a hearty "Fongu " and when my friends recognized me they returned the salute in kind.

"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.'

" 'But, sir,' I feebly replied, 'my feet were killing me and I didn't see one rescue truck to ride back to camp on.' The punishment, however, was not rescinded. All my friends rejoiced in my situation as they went to Oran for wine, women and women."

to:  Hellman, part II

(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.)


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