The former Commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Mediterranean in 1944 repliles.
Editor's Note: Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker was Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in 1944; consequently the mission against the abbey of Monte Cassino was carried out by his bombers. One of America’s most distinguished airmen, General Eaker was chief pilot of the famous Army Air Force plane Question Mark, which in 1929 set an endurance record of over six days and nights; in 1936 he made the first transcontinental “blind” flight, using instruments only. Soon after America’s entry into World War II he became commander of the Eighth Air Force, in England; from 1945 until his retirement in 1947, he was Deputy Chief of Staff of the United States Army Air Forces. Co-author with General Henry H. Arnold of several books on air power, he currently writes a syndicated newspaper column on aviation and military matters.
AMERICAN HERITAGE asked General Eaker to comment on Mr. Blumenson’s article, "The Bombing of Monte Cassino," and he has replied as follows:
“Whether the Germans were actually inside the Monte Cassino monastery is immaterial, since they did in fact occupy and fortify the mountain surrounding the monastery. Any serious attempt to deny them this vital observation and communications high ground, either with bombs or artillery, would have been impossible without severe damage to the abbey.
“When General Devers and I flew over Monte Cassino we clearly identified German soldiers and their radio masts. I could have dropped my binoculars into machine-gun nests less than fifty feet from the walls of the ancient building.
“If Mr. Blumenson means to imply that I opposed the bombing of Monte Cassino, he is only partly right. I did recommend against the use of medium and heavy bombers, believing fighter bombers with light bombs and smoke could achieve the military purpose. I believed then as now that it is the duty of every commander to reduce his casualties to the minimum, and I fully agreed that failure to deny Monte Cassino to the enemy would mean increased Allied casualties. Under my proposal, the abbey undoubtedly would have been damaged, but not reduced to rubble.
“It should be added that Monte Cassino did not prove that strategic bombers could never be usefully employed in support of ground troops. It is true that the destruction of the abbey failed to break the German line on February 15. Nor was a similar aerial bombardment of the town of Cassino itself, at the foot of the mountain, successful in providing a break-through for the ground forces a month later. But the lessons we learned from those two attacks provided invaluable guidance for the invasion of Normandy in June, when such saturation bombings of enemy front-line positions proved highly effective.
“The author has overdrawn considerably, I believe, the propaganda effect of our Monte Cassino bombing. At any rate, the Germans did not deliberately induce us to bomb the abbey in order to obtain a propaganda advantage. They needed the mountaintop for military reasons, since we had gained complete air superiority and they could not use observation planes.
“Soon after Allied troops occupied Rome, our Vatican representative, Mr. Myron Taylor, suggested and arranged an audience for me with Pope Pius XII. When I expressed regret about the bombing of Monte Cassino, but explained its significance as a military target, the pontiff seemed to understand fully. He commended the obvious effort our air forces had made to avoid destruction of historical and religious monuments elsewhere, and referred particularly to our bombing of Rome’s railway yards without inflicting civilian casualties or damaging Roman antiquities.
“Italy is the world’s greatest jewel box of art and architectural treasures. To me, it is a miracle of the Italian campaign—and a great tribute to the carefulness of the Allied commanders —that there was so little damage. Had there been more damage to historic places, perhaps the story of the Cassino abbey would not stand out so prominently.”