The Italian military parachuting remembers the November 9 as one of the most tragic days of its entire history. On that dreadful day a Royal Air Force’s Hercules C-130 crashed at the sandbanks of Meloria, a few kilometers from Livorno, bringing with them the lives of six british Airmen and 46 paratroopers of Folgore Brigade.
In the 1970s the Folgore Parachute Brigade was in full revitalization. Years before, the Italian Army General Staff, always distrustful about the paratroopers, finally realized that the only elite force at his disposal were the Folgore guys, the only ones who can be deployed alongside the other allied NATO troops without inferiority complex. Italian Air Force planes were obsolete, and on several occasions the Italian soldiers took advantage of the Allied aircraft: for the 1971 annual exercise “Cold Stream” the British RAF provided some Hercules C-130, certainly much more modern than Italian’s Fairchild C-119. Onboard british C-130 – marked by the radio code “Gesso 4” – boarded the Maroon Berets of 6th company Draghi (today Grifi).
After a brief on the runway taxiing, the RAF’s Lieutenant Colin G. Harrison pointing his bow towards Sardinia. A few minutes later the plane did not respond to mission commander’s calls: something had happened. The air-crew of another military plane had noticed smoke and fire not far from Livorno and soon it became clear that the C-130 “Gesso 4” was rushed. The first rescuers squad were immediately alerted and Folgore Operations Officer boarded a helicopter AB-205 and heads for the point of impact that everyone had identified on the Meloria’s sandbanks. Law enforcement, ambulances, fire department, together with the Army and Navy boats conveyed in that sector where floated backpacks, parachutes, equipment, and several paratroopers’ bodies, but not all. Most of the victims were, in fact, entombed on the seabed and retrieve them would not be easy. Weather conditions were prohibitive and diving into the deep grey sea in those conditions really took great courage.
Along with civilian and military rescuers arrived on sea site a small boat, the “Buscaglia” sailed from Army Saboteur’s base (now Base Addestramento Incursori – Raiders Training Base). The vessel was conducted by Giuseppe Vit, a veteran saboteur, together with Lt. Enrico Persi Paoli and Sergeant Major Giannino Caria. The saboteurs, then Incursori of 9th “Col Moschin,” were the army’s élite even though not yet well known. They conducted mysterious training and missions were always classified. Their expertise in aquatic environment was of a high standard, strengthened by courses that any saboteur attended at the Navy’s COMSUBIN (Navy Commandos).
The crash site was crowded by boats that kept coming and going from Livorno’s docks, carrying what they could recover: the dead were all young conscripts and their families began the macabre ritual of recognition of remains.
Aboard the Buscaglia all were in a bad mood and despite the weather Sergeant Caria was ready to dive. The day before, as Staff Sergeant Paolo Frediani said, Caria wasn’t quiet, he wouldn’t want to see the torment of those young lifeless paratroopers at the bottom of the sea. To facilitate relief efforts and increase the chances to retrieve all the bodies, civilian divers were attached to the military but their experience – in some cases – was very questionable. Lt. Enrico Persi Paoli didn’t take the news too well: he knew that the risks were very serious and the presence of unprepared divers could cause some complications.
The two divers dived into the rough sea, tied to a rope directly linked with the boat: If anything went wrong Caria would do “Campana” (in Navy terms “pull the cord”) alerting Giuseppe Vit and Persi Paoli. After a few minutes the Saboteur’s Lieutenant attempted to invoke aboard Caria, but it had no response signal. At that point Lt. Persi Paoli decided to pull on the rope, but only the Caria’s lead belt came out. What happened to him? What had become of the other diver? Nobody knows what happened and the reasons for the young Caria’s death still remain unknown. Some Veterans say that it was a very difficult diving and it is likely that the Saboteur collapsed. The other diver was pulled further away, in obvious shock.
Giannino Caria died in the line of duty and another victim was added to the Meloria’s tragedy. The saboteurs, as often happened, paid such a tribute of blood. Those who met Caria knew of his courage and generosity: “Was always the first to put on his chute – remembers Frediani – or the wetsuit. Joking with colleagues and was a first-class saboteur.” Giannino Caria was awarded with the Gold Medal for Civil Valor. The days after the tragedy another saboteur – Francesco Miglioranza – gave proof of great courage. Thanks to him more bodies were recovered. The tragedy shocked the Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and Queen Elizabeth II who sent a message of condolence to the Italians and British victims.
The C-130 “Gesso 4” crashed into the sea for causes yet unknown. Further investigations have suggested that the tragedy was a consequence of the aircraft’s low altitude: the pilots didn’t really have time and space to react.
Even today, Caria’s death remains a symbol of saboteurs battalion courage and heroism. An esprit de corps that, over the years, has never disappeared. In the 1970s, the saboteurs battalion evolved into an even more specialized military unit becoming the world famous “Ninth” Col Moschin Raiders.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.
A. Falciglia, Gesso quattro non risponde. La sciagura alle secche della Meloria, in Folgore Review, nº 11-12, Associazione Nazionale Paracadutisti d’Italia, 2011.
P. Palumbo, Il Reparto. Passato e Presente del 9° Reggimento d’Assalto Paracadutisti “Col Moschin”, Oristano, ed. Il Maglio, 2016.
A special thanks to saboteur Paolo Frediani (ret.)