THE LIBERATOR – FELIX SPARKS, on far left, Naples. 1944.
In March 1944, Felix Sparks was finally able to take a break from war. A couple of weeks after losing his infantry company at Anzio, he visited Naples.
THE STREETS OF NAPLES bustled with an exotic mix of Allied troops looking for “I & I”— intercourse and intoxication. It was a surreal and frenetic city, covered in a thin film of volcanic ash from the recently erupted Mount Vesuvius, that Sparks visited that March for a few days of sorely needed rest and recuperation. Australians ambled in their wide-brimmed slouch hats; sinister Goums strutted in their brightly colored burnooses; and at every corner, it seemed, feral water-sellers in coats cut from stolen U.S. Army blankets offered a delicious and tangy lemonade, conjuring it up on the spot, wielding enormous iron lemon-squeezers, then adding a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to make the bitter juice fizz.
Even the hundreds of sadistic MPs in their bright white helmets, batons tucked under their arms, on the prowl for deserters and violent drunks, swore by the frothing limonata. It was the perfect hangover cure. “Biftek, spaghetti,” offered black marketers, profiting from the theft of an estimated third of all supplies landed at Naples, now the busiest port in Europe. “Verra cheap.” “Good brandy. Only five hundred lire.”
On busy streets like the Via Roma pimps and black marketers were almost as numerous as the beggars and emaciated whores. Naples was a vast open-air bordello, it seemed, where everyone and everything was for sale. “You want nice girl?” asked fathers. “Beautiful signorina.” Every few yards, olive-skinned men would tug on a GI’s sleeve, offering yet another temptation. For those with real money, not invasion currency, there were myriad brothels full of women of all ages and body types, dark circles under their eyes, most of them infected with gonorrhea if the warnings plastered on walls along all the approach roads to Naples were to be believed.
The Neapolitan strain of gonococcus was in fact so virulent that even the new wonder drug, penicillin, struggled to combat it. Every Thunderbird, it seemed, was determined not to die a virgin. None had an excuse, given that there were eighty thousand officially registered prostitutes in Naples by that March of 1944. No matter the rank, men fornicated with wild abandon, even if the bella signora was clearly middle-aged and pulled up her DDT-sprayed skirt to reveal a wooden leg.
In nearby Pompeii, they jumped off trucks dubbed “passion wagons” and headed straight past the famous ruins, along narrow cobblestoned lanes to a brothel reputed to be two thousand years old. “A massive plaster penis jutted into the street from above the entrance,” remembered one man. “A red rag was hung from it when the place was open for business.” Of the tens of thousands of Allied troops having sex in Naples that spring, the Thunderbirds in Sparks’s regiment were among the most enthusiastic, judging by the rate of infection with VD, which did not go unnoticed by the top brass, who were outraged that 15 percent of all American hospital beds were now occupied by “clapped-up” GIs. “We were taking more casualties through gonorrhea,” recalled the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, “than we were through enemy action on the whole front-line.” Sparks would soon receive an acerbic note from his division commander, forty-nine-year-old Major General William Eagles: “Congratulations Sparks, your men have the highest VD rate in the division.”
Kershaw, Alex. The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau (Kindle Locations 1595-1622). Crown/Archetype.