World War II

The guns of Civitavecchia

... and one that got away

By Jerry Norton

Recently while watching an old "MASH" rerun on television I was reminded of an incident from my own distant past. This episode was about a harmless North Korean aircraft which appeared over the Mash encampment at the same time every evening....but may I digress to offer an account of events which preceded the main thrust of this yarn.

The time was June, 1944 and my ship (a Liberty ship) was off-loading supplies for our Army in the bombed-out harbor of Civitavecchia, Italy. I was a signalman, a member of the Navy Armed Guard crew serving on board.

The tides of war had washed heavily over this little town on Italy's west coast. It had suffered both naval bombardment and attacks from the air. Our arrival found a largely uninhabited shell, its people having fled to parts unknown to escape the carnage. Our Army engineers had just completed clearing the streets of rubble in order that our supplies might be carried out of the city to the troops in the field. Otherwise there was only a minimal presence of our military in the area.
We had been off-loading materiel into our Navy LCT's and Army "ducks" [amphibious crafts] for a day or two before liberty was granted. We were free to roam this ghostlike place and it was an eerie experience peeking into and entering abandoned homes where people had lived only a short while before. My most vivid memory was of a church with the roof over its sanctuary blown open to the sky and, in the vestry, priestly garments strewn in haste. Not even the clergy was exempt from the ravages of war.
      My Ship, Liberty ship, SS Isaac Sharpless

The exposed cellar of this church revealed a macabre sight; the mummified bodies of long-deceased priests and nuns who had served the parish over the years, standing like silent sentinels in their clerical vestments, guardians of their church history. I have since learned that in Europe this had been a common practice for several centuries.

The next day twelve-hour liberty was granted and we were allowed to hitchhike rides in Army vehicles going down to Rome. The ride revealed many bombed and burned out pieces of German military equipment pushed off to the sides of the road in their hasty retreat northward.

My arrival in Rome was a learning experience to say the least. What before were only images seen in my Melrose High School Latin book now became real and immediate. As a callow youth of twenty my mind was numbed to be standing in the presence of such historical grandeur.

Later that day while visiting in St. Peter's we learned of our good fortune, the Pope [Pius XII] was  holding an audience for Allied servicemen. Memory dims as to details but I recall being ushered into a  hall where the Pope addressed a reverent group in heavily accented English. It was, of course, the highlight of our day in Rome.

Now I return to the main story. At about midnight on the day of the Rome visit every gun in our shore batteries guarding the port of Civitavecchia opened up with a thunderous barrage. Our supply ships in the harbor were forbidden to fire their anti-aircraft weapons lest we give away our positions. The barrage lasted for about five minutes, some of the shrapnel falling back onto ships' decks. For the next three nights at approximately the same time the firing began and a good deal of ammunition was expended with no discernible results. We later learned that one  small enemy plane, probably on reconnaissance, had overflown the harbor and had made good its escape on each occasion. In warfare this is an excellent example of what, in economics, would be called diminishing return. However, as any true patriot would agree, you can't conduct a good war on the cheap.

A few days later my ship had completed discharging its supplies but we had one more task remaining, that of boarding 500 Wehrmacht [German army] prisoners for transport down to Naples where they would be processed. During our wanderings through town I had seen them huddled in a compound guarded by our soldiers. They were a bedraggled and disillusioned looking lot but probably happy to be out of the war with their lives. I supposed the better informed among them knew that they would eventually be transported to the United States [The Land Of The Big PX] where they would enjoy creature comforts far better than they had known while serving the Third Reich.
Time heals all wounds and the times have changed. Today's cruise ship passengers will now visit Civitavecchia on a one-day stopover for Rome. The sights and sounds they experience during their stay will bear little resemblance to those your writer knew so many years ago.

September 2, 2005

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