Observers said Vesuvius was dead! For days there had been no light brown haze above the cone, no visible fumes! Was one of the world’s worst villains lapsing, at last, into eternal slumber?
Perhaps—but Professor Imbo, Director of Mt. Vesuvius Observatory, thought otherwise. For several days his seismograph had recorded increased tremors within the historic mountain. Were these a death rattle or was the giant merely flexing his muscles again?
Neither Professor Imbo nor the peasants were to be kept in suspense, for the previous days of visual inactivity came to an abrupt end at 1630 hours on Saturday, March 18 when Vesuvius began a week-end celebration —with a hangover which lasted for ten days.
The eruption began with a belch of smoke and lava as the cone boiled over with molten lava—liquid basalt 2,300°F. hot. By the following Tuesday Vesuvius was in his best form—throwing lava, billowing smoke 22,000 feet into the air, spewing ash and cinders over the countryside. And no one knew when it would stop!
An eruption of this magnitude is a gigantic, awesome spectacle. Many things happen simultaneously, some continuously, others irregularly. There is the heavy smoking, the rain of ash, the toxic gases, the terrific eruptions which vary in intensity, the lava boiling over all around the edges of the cone, the deep thundering of the volcano and the roaring of flame, the sharper noises of the explosions, the lightning displays, the rush of the air, the fiery spouting of flame and red-hot lava above the crater. Perhaps such an awesome sight supports the common belief that hell is “down below” and that the roar of a volcano in full-throated activity is the voice of the devil in action.
The flow of the lava down the side of the mountain was clearly visible from all sides of the Bay of Naples. By day, the course was marked by the escaping white gases. At night the lava was a deep red and the huge volumes of smoke above the cone were tinted by the inferno below. In the vicinity of the volcano the darkness of night was turned into a reddish daylight.
Viewed from a safe distance, the volcano with its shooting column of flame, the towering clouds of thick smoke and falling curtains of ash, pumice, and black lapillus was an impressive display. By day, there was a high, grayish-brown cumulus cloud above the volcano which had a base of about a half mile across and towered into a cauliflower head with a 3-mile diameter. At night, during the violent stages, the cloud was filled with an array of lightning flashes as thickly spaced as anti-aircraft bursts over a defended city. At varying intervals, these small flashes were accompanied by large jagged streaks which sometimes took a circular path around the circumference of the cloud, or just as often shot from top to bottom along the outer edge. The magnitude of the lightning was in direct proportion to the intensity of the eruptions.
The lava, following the course of previous flows, poured down the side of the mountain in three great streams. The greatest flow was from the northwest side of the cone where the molten stream flowed on to lower levels over the lava path made by the eruptions of 1855 and 1872 through the gorge between Mt. Somma and Mt. Vesuvius. A secondary stream following the course of the 1906 lava flow, ploughed down the southwest side towards the Bay of Naples but finally ground to a stop over the old lava 2½ miles from the cone. For awhile, it was thought that this stream would endanger the 16,500 inhabitants of Torre del Greco. The third flow took a southerly course and solidified in the jack pines far above the village of Trecase.
The forward wall of fiery, clinkery material had an average depth of 25 feet, but where obstacles in the terrain blocked its passage, the mass piled up to 130 feet. The streams did not exceed a quarter of a mile in width but advanced at an irresistible rate of 600 to 800 feet an hour at the base of the cone and 180 feet an hour when it reached the villages below. After the first masses had overcome the surface friction and the unevenness of the terrain, the rest of the lava flowed in a molten stream with the smoothness of lubricating oil.
The moving volcanic mass was of dark gray color, hard though light in weight. It moved forward with a rustling sound and crushed everything in its path. Sometimes, when the leading edge was pushed up, the mass would break into flames, fumes, and smoke as the crest tumbled forward.
Vesuvius was bent on destruction again, for this was the largest lava flow in many years. In violence, this eruption even surpassed the performance of 1872, though the smashing of this 72-year record was no feat for old Vesuvius. He is a champion in his class!
Viewed from the shaking observatory, which is on a knoll 1½ miles from the base of the volcano, the top of the Bunsen-burner- shaped column of flame seemed almost overhead. From this vantage point, it was estimated that at times molten matter was flung 5,000 feet into the air and that the flame flared up fully as far. During the most intense explosions in the early stages of the eruption, millions of chunks of molten lava rained down the sides and in the vicinity of the base of the cone. Some were estimated to be 20-25 feet long, 6-8 feet in diameter. Others were huge misshapen balls which bounced and crashed as they tumbled to rest. And from the lip of the crater, numerous fiery rivulets of lava increased progressively until the sides of the cone near the top were virtually covered with running red liquid.
The weather of the following week-end was affected markedly. Naples had the first March snow in the memory of Neapolitans. There were frequent thunderstorms and sharp lightning. Precipitation mixed with falling ash produced the phenomena of black rain in some cities south of Naples and the searing heat above the lava flows created miniature cyclones which sent smoke whirling high into the air.
The eruption did not begin with a bang and then taper off. There were a series of eruptions. The initial blowup was followed, three days later, by a more violent eruption which threw boiling liquid lava 3 thousand feet or more above the crater and greatly increased the flow into the streams down the outside of the crater. Then, about 24 hours later, Vesuvius cleared his throat again and belched forth a great cloud of smoke and ash thousands of feet above the crater. There was little flame in this eruption but in addition to huge clouds of ash and smoke, it threw up, at irregular intervals, red-hot lava in a spiral path two or three thousand feet into the air. These later eruptions were probably caused by the vent in the crater being temporarily restricted. As long as the forces within the volcano could be released freely, the violence of the eruption would be minimized. This depended upon the vent remaining open.
Before the eruption, Vesuvius was a cone within a cone, for inside the crater of the great cone there was a smaller cone which rose about 150 feet above the level of the crater floor. This was the vent of Vesuvius, the throat through which the gases were released. On March 13, some observers, who had gone up to the rim of the large crater, returned with the news that a sizable portion of the small crater had caved in and that the vent was probably plugged up. This of course accounted for the smokeless days and the reports that Vesuvius had expired.
At the time of the eruption, the floor of the crater was about 20 feet below the rim of the large cone and the top of the crater was about one third of a mile in diameter. After the eruptive explosions, which blasted out the small cone entirely and even reamed out the old crater, the floor dropped to 900 feet below the rim.
It is estimated that at the peak of the violence, Vesuvius spewed a million cubic yards of volcanic matter an hour, and this rate of emission continued for six days. Gray ash darkened the sky as far as Bari on the Adriatic, 120 miles to the east across the Italian peninsula. Slate gray volcanic dust was deposited over hundreds of square miles to the south and west of the volcano and soldiers in the Salerno area wore the inside of their tin hats for protection and comfort. San Giuseppe, a city of 17,000 inhabitants to the east of Vesuvius, was covered with 3 feet of the discharge and the cities of Terzigno and Poggiomarino were covered to a greater depth. In places, the wind had drifted the sandy gray material as high as rooftops. The Autostrada, the express highway between Naples and Pompeii, was closed until bulldozers cleared the road, for volcanic dust is most hazardous to vehicular traffic as it drifts with the wind and stalls vehicles more readily than sand. Thousands of Italians were forced to shovel ash from their housetops to keep the roofs from collapsing under the weight of the volcanic deposits.
The wind direction was the governing factor in the spread of the ash. For the first week a prevailing west to north-northwest wind scattered the volcanic matter to the east and south of Vesuvius. Towards the end of the eruption, on March 25 and 26, a north wind deposited a large portion of the ash into the Bay of Naples. And this summer the bathers on the beaches of Castellammare, Sorrento, Amalfi, and Salerno are recreating on sands of dirty black lapilli.
Vesuvius has a villainous record. Once, in the days before human history, a volcano in the Vesuvius-Mt. Somma area is supposed to have blown its top with such violence that the entire upper part of the cone was blasted off and ash deposited over most of central Italy. Then there was a long period of quiescence, terminated by the historic eruption of A.D. 79, which buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae—the site of the present city of Castellammare. Herculaneum was destroyed by liquid lava but Pompeii, fortunately for posterity, was buried under easily excavated pumice and ash.
Vesuvius is not a tall volcano, rising only 3,668 feet above the Bay of Naples. It is a dwarf even among Italian peaks. But the fame of Vesuvius rests upon a long record of unscheduled outbursts since the destruction of Pompeii. Eruptions occurred in 202, 472, 512, 685, 992, 1036, 1094, 1139. The blast in 512 must have been a catastrophe for the King exempted those caught in the disaster from paying taxes that year. Then there was the disastrous blast on December 16, 1631, which occurred so suddenly that 18,000 people were killed. Vesuvius was active frequently thereafter, for there were three more eruptions in the seventeenth century and five in the eighteenth. In 1794 the town of Torre del Greco was destroyed.
The record for the nineteenth century is imposing. There were at least 13 active years well distributed throughout that century. A particularly violent eruption occurred in 1872 and much of the flow from the March, 1944, upheaval followed the path of the lava streams of 72 years ago.
The twentieth century shows some slackening of the pace, 1900,1903,1906,1929, and now—1944. A blast in 1906 was so violent that 613 feet were blown off the top of the cone and the appearance of the volcano was altered considerably. However, that eruption did not cause as much damage as the recent one.
Vesuvius was active last in 1929 when streams of lava poured down the sides of the mountain, causing considerable damage to the agricultural country below. Since recorded history, Vesuvius has erupted 51 times—usually with destructive effect. Fortunately the loss of life in the eruption of March, 1944, was small. The Allied Military Government reported 24 dead, 21 having lost their lives in houses crushed by the weight of the ashes.
When Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and then Admiral in command of the Roman fleet at Miseno, 9 miles west-southwest of Naples, proceeded with his galleys to assist in the rescue work at Herculaneum, but the falling ash, heat, and fumes made landings impossible. Pliny then sent his fleet back across the bay, and embarking in a small boat reached Stabiae where he perished by volcanic fumes three days later. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, although known for the inaccuracies in his writings, has given posterity, in letters describing the death of his uncle, a vivid description of that historic eruption.
Any general discussion of Vesuvius would be incomplete without some mention of Pompeii. Every schoolboy remembers Vesuvius and Pompeii as classical examples of cause and effect. And there are some interesting facts about Pompeii that are not always stressed to students.
Pompeii was not a large city either in size or number of inhabitants. It occupied a small area, slightly less than one third of a square mile, and the population probably never exceeded 20,000. The houses were all packed tightly together behind a high wall, for the less area a city occupied, the easier the defense. Founded in the eighth century B.C., it grew rich in art and culture. The Romans lived there in lavish splendor amidst great wealth, attended by many hundreds of slaves. As Pompeii was the commercial center for the rich surrounding agricultural area and also the residence of the wealthy because of the salubrious climate, it had an enviable position in the land of the Oscans. Many racial groups, including the Greeks, fought for and occupied the city long enough to leave their separate cultural influence for posterity.
To impress travelers with their knowledge, Italian guides usually stress the point that it was Mt. Somma and not Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii. Mt. Somma, now only a ridge adjacent to Vesuvius on the north, has long been extinct but in the days of 79 it was the reigning power. Vesuvius then was just an upstart.
Fortunately for students of the arts, Pompeii was not destroyed by a fiery stream of lava. The 18 feet of pumice and ash which buried the city preserved, for many centuries, a record of the way of life in the first century of the Christian era.
When Vesuvius erupted, most of the people of Pompeii streamed out of the city to the south towards the present site of Castellammare where, suffocated by the volcanic gases, they perished on the roads. The slave servants, left behind to guard the homes, attempted to escape the fumes by seeking refuge in the cellars. Many of them, preserved in the attitude of death by pouring plaster of Paris into the mold of their bodies, are now in the museums of Pompeii and Naples.
The ruins of Pompeii were discovered in the sixteenth century by surveyors laying drainage lines for land reclamation operations. The first explorations were not begun, however, until 1748, and after years of digging about one third still remains to be disinterred. As modern excavation methods are slow and methodical, it is probable that complete excavation will require centuries yet.
The bombings of Italy during this war and the recent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius added modern touches to the ruins of Pompeii. Several inches of ash were deposited again over the ancient city and inaccurate bomb dropping pockmarked the excavations with craters, damaging several buildings within the ruins.
The area around Naples is a volcanologist’s studio. To the east of the city is Vesuvius and to the west are several large craters. Of these, Vulcano Solfatara, on the northern edge of the Gulf of Pozzuoli, is the most interesting phenomenon. Observers can walk across that crater which consists now of a thin crust above boiling lava. The guide calls this to your attention by tossing a piece of lava in the air, so you may note the hollow reverberations when it hits the ground. In places, the crust is broken by areas of black, bubbling, steaming lava. As the solfatara has a large flat crater, it is possible to walk within inches of these infernos without danger of being overcome by their fumes.
While the guide is remarking that new areas break and bubble out at irregular intervals, he will light a newspaper and pass it slowly back and forth near one edge of the boiling mass. In a few seconds, the boiling lava will take on renewed activity, steam will rise in greatly increased volumes, and from many other cracks and holes in the crust which showed no visible signs of life before the paper was ignited, steam will spurt out. Even vents far up the sides of the steep walls inside the crater will blow steam in response to the lighted newspaper. Said the guide, “Dat-sa forr you to hax-plaina!”
Two things about Vulcano Solfatara are interesting even to a layman. When Vesuvius is active, Solfatara is quiet, and whenever one of these boiling areas in the crater becomes quiescent it never regains activity again.
A survey of both the Allied and Axis campaigns in Europe reveals that, thus far, the weather has been preponderantly in favor of the Axis. It might be concluded that Vesuvius too was pro-Axis, for the eruption was well- timed to obstruct our war effort in Italy. One hundred and seventy-two army trucks were diverted from the job of getting on with the fighting to evacuate the 6,000 residents of the town of San Sebastiano and another 6,000 from Cercola. Bulldozers were released from the operations of war to clear the roads. Soup kitchens had to be set up in the streets to feed those temporarily homeless. Food for the farm animals had to be procured and transported, for their forage was buried by the volcanic ash. In this work, the Allied Military Government had the assistance of Royal Air Force, Mediterranean Army Air Force, and Peninsular Base Section equipment, part of which was in readiness to evacuate 30,000 people from Torre del Greco and Torre Annunziato. Fortunately, the lava flow did not get down that far.
During the month of March, in the fertile areas around Vesuvius, the gardens are planted and the fruit trees and vineyards begin to leaf. The Allied Military Government officials knew that our supply load would be lightened as soon as the teeming thousands in the Bay of Naples area could raise their own foodstuffs again. With a harvest of vegetables, grapes, cherries, apricots, plums, oranges, peaches, olives, figs, almonds, lemons, and pomegranates, all of which grow abundantly in that area, our food transportation problems would be eased considerably. It looked for awhile as though the early vegetables and all the fruit crops would be destroyed, but Vesuvius, after ruining about 9 square miles of spring gardens, called off his dogs and settled back for another rest. The old villain should have blown his top the year before when the Germans were there—but perhaps he too was Fascisti.
Like the rising of the Nile, every eruption of Mt. Vesuvius deposits a rich black layer of mineralized lapillus over the surrounding agricultural regions. Richer vegetables, more abundant fruits, and bountiful grape years are to follow. This, with the terrific pressure of population, is the reason why the people are moving back to San Sebastiano and to Cercola—just as inhabitants of that area have done after every other eruption. And they are not forgetting that subsequent years will produce a superior Lacrima Christi, the wine for which the Vesuvius region is famous.
The eruption of March, 1944, was properly timed for a few American naval officers to observe the spectacle. Allied convoys had turned Naples into the busiest port in the world. Troops and supplies were being pushed in for the spring offensive. Ships were moored alongside the upturned bottoms of bombed and burned out luxury liners, where posts stuck through ports served as bollards. Vesuvius might have been a serious problem then had hard earthquakes preceded this eruption, for these might have interfered with our heavy unloading schedules. If the wind had been from the east at any time during the eruption, Naples would have been showered with volcanic ash which would have interrupted the berthing of ships, the discharge of cargo; made city streets and highways impassable, started fires, crushed roofs, and increased the death toll. An east wind would have put sand in the gears of our southern line of communications but, fortunately, Aeolus, the God of the Winds, was on the side of the United Nations.
The eruption of Vesuvius in 1944 may have been just an outburst of bad volcanic temper. Perhaps the old villain blew up because he was no longer the center of attraction, for the war then was the whole show in the area around the Bay of Naples. No one came to see Vesuvius in those days, for Naples, the tourist “Honeymoon Port-of-the- World,” had become an important military focal point.
But now that the volcano is quiet once more, men are wondering, just as they have done in the past—wondering whether the villainous Vesuvian gods are ever repentant for having committed so much ruin. And they wonder, too, when it will happen again.