On or around this day in history, Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, having the terminally bad manners to interrupt the progress of World War II, destroy several Italian villages, and inspire a wedding proposal.

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The volcano is, of course, most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii, an event recorded by Pliny the Younger. But it has erupted periodically since then, with the eruptions coming more frequently in the modern era. The 65 years since the 1944 eruption is the longest time in three hundred years that Mount Vesuvius has gone without an eruption.

The 1944 eruption ranked a 3 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, one below the AD 79 eruption. It came as Allied forces were fighting their way up the Italian boot, having landed at Salerno, just to the south, in late 1943. The front line had passed Mount Vesuvius, but not by much, as this map makes clear:

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The week before had been marked by increased rumblings, gas venting, and other signs that an eruption was imminent. Lava actually started flowing from Vesuvius late on the 18th with the rate increasing on the 19th and followed by explosions and lava plumes on the 21st. American forces, which had responsibility for the area, started to evacuate local residents before the lava flows reached inhabited areas. A New York Times reporter on the site, Milton Bracker, was able to get within fifty feet of the lava flows and wrote that “the lower reaches of the valley, already pitted and lumpy from the lava blankets of long ago, were studded with awed spectators who, thanks to a favorable wind direction, had a marvelous opportunity to witness one of nature’s most remarkable shows at close range.” He quoted one of the spectators, a “weathered” peasant: “‘Guerra, fame, distruzione,’–War, hunger destruction.”[1]

The lava flows destroyed the nearby villages of San Sebastian and Massa and made thousands of Italians homeless. Some 26 were killed, mostly by roofs that collapsed under the weight of ash and stone buildup, while hot ashes destroyed or damaged more than 80 U.S. planes at a nearby air base. The sky over Naples was so darkened that car lights were required even for daytime driving.

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And the volcano inspired Lieut. Robert W. Bussmann of St. Louis to propose marriage to his Italian girlfriend, Tina Scafora, a school-teacher. He “had not thought of marriage until today,” the Associated Press reported, “[but] when he found himself working beside her…helping her pupils, their families and other homeless persons” he was convinced. [2]

By the 25th, the volcano had subsided, and the Italians began the process of rebuilding their villages. The American Army fed and housed them until they could reconstruct and thus the eruption resulted in substantially less long-term damage than it might otherwise have. It did give one political cartoonist an idea several months later, however:

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*Bobby Jindal related snark courtesy of Ari Kelman.

[1] Times 21 March 1944.
[2] Times 23 March 1944.

First eruption photograph and lava flow photograph courtesy of SMU Digital Collections Library, the Melvin C. Shaffer Collection