March 18, 1944 – The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy kills 26 people and causes thousands to flee their homes.
Mount Vesuvius is best known for its eruption in CE 79 that led to the burying and destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and several other settlements. That eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ash, and fumes to a height of 33 km (20.5 mi), spewing molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, ultimately releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima bombing. An estimated 16,000 people died due to hydrothermal pyroclastic flows. The only surviving eyewitness account of the event consists of two letters by Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus.
Vesuvius has erupted many times since and is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the population of 3,000,000 people living nearby and its tendency towards explosive (Plinian) eruptions. It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.
The last major eruption was in March 1944. It destroyed the villages of Sebastiano al Vesuvio, Massa di Somma, Ottaviano, and part of San Giorgio a Cremano. From March 18 to 23, 1944, lava flows appeared within the rim. There were outflows. Small explosions then occurred until the major explosion took place on March 18, 1944.
At the time of the eruption, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) 340th Bombardment Group was based at Pompeii Airfield near Terzigno, Italy, just a few kilometers from the eastern base of the mountain. The tephra and hot ash damaged the fabric control surfaces, the engines, the Plexiglas windshields and the gun turrets of the 340th’s B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. Estimates ranged from 78 to 88 aircraft destroyed.