entry Jan 2005
(This is the second in a series of oral history narratives about WW2 in southern Italy. This edited narrative is the result of interviews with Herman Chanowitz, former captain in the 2nd Tactical Air Communications Squadron, and a veteran of the Allied campaigns in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He is a long-time resident of Naples.)
of the old town of San Pietro, overlooking
[ed. note: There is significant literature on the behavior of Moroccan troops in Italy. See this link.]
Basic Information on the Salerno Invasion
The Balvano Train Disaster -- Another Kind of War Story
I have placed this here, below Capt. Herman Chanowitz' account of the battles in the Liri valley for Mt. Cassino because they occur almost exactly at the same time and they are both part of same war, each in its own way, one pitting soldier against soldier, the other pitting civilians against an indifferent fate, incompetence, corruption -- it's hard to put a finger on it.
The disaster occurred between the stations of
Balvano-Rucigliano and Bella-Muro on the way up.
I won't bury the lead: the Balvano train disaster was the deadliest railway accident in Italian history and one of the worst railway disasters ever. It occurred on the night between 2-3 March, 1944 near Balvano (province of Potenza, region of Basilicata, 100 km/60 mi SE of Naples). Depending on sources, between 500-600 people illegally riding a steam-hauled freight train died of carbon monoxide poisoning when the train stalled on a steep gradient in the "Galleria delle Armi" tunnel (Armi tunnel). To put the time-line further in perspective, the Allies had already pushed the Germans north past Monte Cassino and were at the beginning of a stalemate on the approaches to the invasion site of Anzio which would finish in June, 1944 with the liberation of Rome. Back down in the south the newly reconstituted Italian army was now part of the Allied drive to the north. They were under the command of general Pietro Badoglio but politically, southern Italy was run by the Anglo-American forces of occupation.
What is noteworthy about the Balvano train disaster is, of course, the tragic loss of life. Perhaps just as remarkable is that today almost no one knows about it. I have lived here for decades and I don't recall ever hearing about it, not even from persons whose knowledge of local history I truly respect. I learned of it only last week from Selene Salvi, my go-to source of info for all things Neapolitan, but not because she, herself, knew of it earlier. She learned about it a week before I did, from a person who has written a book about it. I have no explanation to offer except that we expect soldiers to die in war. We honor and value their bravery and are justly moved by brilliant poetry that celebrates, for example, "those who in their lives fought for life/ Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre./ Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,/ And left the vivid air signed with their honour." [Stephen Spender] We honor even the civilians killed by enemy action -- at least they died in an air-raid! We pay countless tributes to innocent civilians, victims of the insanity of war's cruelty, such as Anne Frank or victims of the Holocaust. But the casual civilian deaths of weary, helpless people just trying to get home and be with or care for whatever families they have left? -- well, that's just the way it goes.
The locomotive series 740, one of the two
used to pull the train.
Economically, occupation script currency wasn't worth much. The non-combatant civilian population of the south had pretty much gone over to barter, the world's oldest money. In this transactional economy, there were goods that were prized not just for their immediate value, but for what could be "squirreled away" beyond immediate need and then be traded for something else when the time came. (There is a German expression, hamstern -- same thing, a rodent that stores stuff -- indeed, a "pack rat." Allied troops were a gold mine of such valuables -- cigarettes, chocolate, nylon stockings. You can always barter that stuff for fresh produce, for real food. And you could "squirrel away" the rest. In WWII, and even well beyond, any Allied (particularly US) exchange (PX) or commissary was a center of enormous black market activity.
The railway companies experienced shortages of good-quality coal. The burning of low-grade substitutes produced a large volume of carbon monoxide, an odorless, poisonous gas. This was a critical factor in the ensuing disaster. The train from Naples to Salerno was electric, but the electric engines had to be swapped out at Salerno for steam locomotives since the home stretch from Battipaglia to Potenza was not yet electrified.
One should note that this train, the Nr. 8017, was a freight train -- 47 freight cars, some closed, others flatbed -- pulled by two steam locomotives, one Austrian, the other Italian. (One had the controls on the left side, the other had them on the right side; thus, the engineers looked out opposite sides for signals. The engineers could not see each other directly face to face or communicate easily, (another possible factor in what was to come.) The 8017, was meant to haul wood to repair bridges that had been destroyed in the war. There were not supposed to be any passengers on board. Yet 500-600 people died. Who were they? Hitch-hikers. Stowaways. They were all those struggling men, women (and some children), bearing their goods to barter, just trying to get them back up to their families in the hills, all jumping aboard as the train progressed. They made it through the early part of the night and by 00:50 AM had reached and were now ready to leave the station of Balvano (425 meters elev.), the last one before the disaster. Under normal conditions, the trip up to the Bella Muro station (a line-of-sight distance of 6 km) might have been expected to take two hours.
The three photos here: above left - some of the passengers carried out of the tunnel and laid on the passenger platform of the Balvano train station; above right - victims strewn on the tracks; below, right - a truck prepares to carry a load of victims to their communal grave.
It was a difficult stretch through various tunnels, one of which was almost two km long on a steep gradient of almost 13 degrees. That's where the train stalled, about 800 meters past the entrance and heading up. Except for the last two cars sticking out the end of the beginning of the tunnel, all the rest were in the tunnel, stalled in what had essentially become a chamber rapidly filling with carbon monoxide. The track conditions were slippery and the locomotive wheels were spinning and slipping. There is evidence that at a certain point one locomotive was still trying to make the climb while the other was trying to reverse the train (!) back down and out of the tunnel. The engineers were overcome by carbon monoxide as were at least 500 people still asleep when they died. Most of the victims were buried without a religious service at the Balvano cemetery, in four common graves. Throughout the Neapolitan area one still finds small commemorative plaques to local townspeople who "died at Balvano."
A committee formed to figure it all out issued this statement that said there were:(Image, left, the common grave in Balvano)
...material causes, such as dense fog, atmospheric haze, complete lack of wind, which did not keep the natural ventilation of the tunnel, wet rails, etc., causes that unfortunately occurred all at once and in rapid succession. The train stopped because of the fact that it slid on the rails and the staff of the engines had been overwhelmed by the gas produced, before they could act to move the train out of the tunnel. Due to the presence of carbon monoxide, extraordinarily poisonous, it produced the asphyxiation of stowaways. The action of this gas is so rapid, that the tragedy occurred before any aid could be brought from the outside.
The episode did not go unnoticed at the time, at least in major Italian newspapers. Corriere della Sera published accounts in various issues from the month of March. 1944. But as "greatest disasters" go, it has remained under the radar of public consciousness ever since.
There have been a number of relatively recent books in Italian published about Balvano. This is a partial list:
- Gianluca Barneschi, Balvano 1944: I segreti di un disastro ferroviario ignorato, Milano, Mursia, 2005, ISBN 88-425-3350-5.
- Gianluca Barneschi, Balvano 1944. Indagine su un disastro rimosso, Gorizia, LEG Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2014, pp. 340, ISBN 978-88-6102-151-8.
- Salvio Esposito, Galleria delle Armi, Napoli, Marotta & Cafiero, 2012, pp. 148, ISBN 978-88-88234-99-1.
- Vincenzo Esposito, 3 marzo'44. Storia orale e corale di una comunità affettiva del ricordo, Salerno/Milano, Oèdipus edizioni, 2014, ISBN 978-88-7341-210-6.
- Gennaro Francione, Calabuscia, Roma, Aetas Internazionale, 1994.
- Gordon Gaskill, "La misteriosa catastrofe del treno 8017", in Le 33 storie che hanno commosso il mondo, XXIX, n. 166, Selezione dal Reader’s Digest, July 1962 (XV), pp. 11-16.
- Alessandro Perissinotto, Treno 8017, Palermo, Sellerio Editore, 2003, ISBN 88-389-1878-3.
- Patrizia Reso, Senza ritorno. Balvano '44, le vittime del treno della speranza, Maiori, Terra del Sole, 2013, ISBN 978-88-903277-6-6.
- Mario Restaino, Un treno, un'epoca: storia dell'8017, Melfi, Arti grafiche Vultur, 2004, SBN IT\ICCU\BAS\0180024.
The first author in the bibliography, Gianluca Barneschi, was the principal narrator of a RAI History (Italian TV) documentary on the disaster, called Balvano, il titanic ferroviario (the railway Titanic); it was well-done with emphasis on the fighting still very much going on in Italy and making extensive use of model trains to demonstrate the dynamics of the incident. The program ran on March 3 (the anniversary of the disaster), 2015. The incident was noted abroad, as well. An issue of Time Magazine from the period ran a story: "Italy - Death Train" - that led, "At the mountain whistle-stop of Balvano, 60 miles southwest of Naples, special train 8017 stopped for water. Then it struggled off into the rainy night -- two locomotives tugging 45 freight cars jammed with some 700 passengers. In a damp, narrow, two-mile long tunnel, train 8017 stopped again." And it goes on to unfold the tragedy. So, the event was world news, at least at one time. Today it is forgotten.
More recently there was an episode called "Final Destination" about the Balvano train disaster from the documentary Disasters of the Century that ran in (2000) on the Canadian history network. I have not seen it.
There is also a song called "Galleria dele [sic - should be delle] Armi" - by American "outlaw country" singer Terry Allen from the album Human Remains (1996). He has little doubt.
This is just my opinion, but that strikes me as grossly oversimplified, but it is what you might expect an "outlaw country" singer to say. I'm not even sure what an "outlaw country" singer is. It might just be a guy with a guitar and a song who illegally double parks his limo outside the recording studio.
During the time of the second world war,
a small town in Italy...
train number 8017...
wasn't strafing or bombing
or clandestine derailing...
It was just bad coal, the stockyard was the villain...