"Touring the Sites and Sounds of Italy in Search of Forgotten Memories"
'My Return to Pantanella Italy" a Photo Essay Report

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The historic sites of Rome with the Vatican, the Forum and the Coliseum, Pompeii, Capri and others have not changed much since they were created centuries ago and since I last visited them back in 1945 as a member of the US Air Force.
The only difference being the hoards of tourists and the more rigid access to those sites.
As a US Airforce photographer in 44' and 45' I had access to almost anything or everything I wanted to record.
Shortly after Rome was liberated I went to the Vatican and brazenly informed the authorities that I had come to photograph the Pope. Within a short period of time the photo session was arranged and completed.
On this occasion in order to photograph the Pope my closest vantage point was almost a mile away elbowed and shoved amid the 40 or 50,000 other tourists.
The Italian countryside was beautiful at this time of the year (June). The many fortress towns at the top of the hills were surrounded by every thing lush and green, olive trees, vineyards, wheat and vegetation seem to be flourishing every where. From Rome, driving south on the Autostrade past Mt. Casino, the Abbey atop its hill, has been completely rebuilt and is an awesome site.
I continued to drive southeast in search of the small town of Laconia where a memorial plaque honoring the members of the US Air Force was placed in 1945.
Entering the town, I noticed a group of three or four men sitting next to the local bar. I had to blink my eyes in order to take a second look to make sure it was not the same group of men that I had photographed sitting there 50 years earlier.
I was informed by the group the Memorial Plaque was no longer there, surmising someone in a group of passing American tourists had taken it as a souvenir. My heart had been set on being photographed with the plaque and was disappointed to think that another American had robbed me of this Kodak moment.

Several minutes were spent conversing with the locals showing them old photos and maps of the old base as it used to be. Finally one of the locals thought that his 82 year old father might remember and motioned for me to follow him on his moped in order to talk with him. Unfortunately his feeble father could only tell me that the only thing he could still remember was that there were several bases scattered all over that part of Italy during the war and thousands of planes filled the sky overhead.

Motioning me to follow him, the farmer led me through his farm yard past an assortment of livestock consisting of two goats, chickens a horse and two dogs. Leading me around several out-buildings and past a tractor he finally confronted me with three or four pieces of Runway Matts piled against a building. The site of seeing those old rusted runway mats started my heart pounding with excitement and elation.

I had spent a lot of time laying those mats at Pantanella in order to make our field operational for flying. As much as I hated the sight and labor of laying those iron matts then, this moment was utter euphoria. He informed me he used them when his tractor gets stuck in the wet field.
Motioning me once again to follow him, he led me to the other side of the farmyard to another out-building. He pointed to several faded olive drab GI Wooden cases piled against the wall containing rusty one-quart cans of Aviation Lubricant. He said he had been using the lubricant on his farm implements for as long as he could remember. Standing there gazing at all those faded olive drab packing cases filled with cans of Aircraft Engine Oil I could almost hear the roar of the B24 engines.
Driving down a level roadway , I followed the crude map the farmer had drawn for me which led through neatly planted olive groves and vineyards. The road started to climb and gently turn through what suddenly became a wheat field between two hills. Steadily climbing, finaly reaching the summit, the roofless hulk of the former chapel came first into view followed by an assortment of old farm buildings.

Recognizing the old farm strucures which once housed the Group CO's living quarters and the Group Photo Lab started my heart pounding once again. It was like landing on the moon! Jumping out of the car I ran from one familiar landmark to the another almost expecting to run into an old familiar face or to hear the roar of the aircraft engines in the valley below.

The original farm buildings are all still there looking very much as they were the first day we pitched our tents among them over half century ago. They are still being used for the purpose for which they were originally built.
The only real evidence of anything GI is the former Chapel, its Bell Tower missing and roofless, exposing its steel trusses to the elements, so out of place with the surrounding architecture. The open roofed former church now serves as a collection point for odds and ends of farming utensils.
In a pile of rubble next to the building were three or four broken pieces of marble that were once a memorial to our Group. Piecing them together, I was unable to make out the complete inscription..
Looking down into the valley between the two hills towards the site of the former twin runways I found absolutely no hint that this very beautiful and extremely peaceful valley was ever a huge hustling Bomber Base. Home to thousands of US Airmen.created to reek death and destruction
on the Axis Enemy.
I tried hard to visualize the base as it once had been with it's assortment of hodgepodge structures and living quarters scattered randomly on the hills above.
Driving back I stopped to take one last lingering look. Several minutes were spent gazing up and down through the endless fields of golden wheat, olive trees and green vineyards planted so neatly in rows.
I tried to recall and visualize the old iron matted runways as they once were and maybe perhaps, just one more time, hear the roar of those B-24's.
Ingesting the area and sky around me all I could observe was a myriad of birds flinting over the lush green and golden vegetation. The entire Vista was capped by a spacious blue sky punctuated here and there by a scattering of white Cumulus clouds.
No steel runways, no tents, no tufa huts, and no 24's
There were no planes in the bright sky overhead.
None were on the horizon, none were in the pattern and none were on final.
And there were no B24's taking off and none were on the hard stands.
I yearned and strained hard trying to listen for the sound of engines. All I could hear was an awesome silence, punctuated now and then by the many chirping and flinting birds feasting on the
bounty Mother Nature was providing.
The runways are gone, the tents are all gone, the hodgepodge assortment of tufa structures are gone, the GI's are gone and the 24's are all gone.
Only a few older Italian locals can still remember the valley as 'Pantanella' and fewer
still remember it as a former Heavy Bomber Base.
'Pantanella' today is nothing more than a lush,quiet and peaceful valley situated between two gently rolling hills sown and covered with golden wheat and a multitude of Olive trees.
©Frank Ambrose/98