Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published December 2, 2012
The Luftwaffe’s evening raid on the harbor at the Italian harbor of Bari caught the Allies by surprise. The planes, 105 in number and all Junkers Ju 88 A-4 bombers of Luftflotte 2, had come in from north, an unexpected direction. As German air attacks had all but ceased in Italy by that time, their arrival at low level on the night of December 2, 1943 came as a huge shock. Today in aviation history, on December 2, 1943, the Bari harbor was brightly lit as over 40 ships were anchored. The supply line feeding the march north through Italy, including much of the Mediterranean’s British submarine force, was moored along the docks and waiting just offshore for an open berth.
While the attack on Bari was extraordinary and would later be called the “Little Pearl Harbor”, it was what happened after the chaos of the attack that went down (or out) of history. Amidst the carnage, a strange vapor with a garlic smell slowly wafted over the harbor. Carried by the wind, it slowly crept into Bari itself as those exposed began to cough, their skin burning — some were blinded. By dawn, 628 men, women and children — and medical staff — were in serious condition at the hospital. Hundreds of Italian civilians fled to the country sickened — many would die, their passing left unrecorded in history. Within the next few weeks, 83 of those at the hospital had died.
Something terrible had happened at Bari — and nobody knew what it was.
The Damage in the Harbor
In the aftermath of the attack, no fewer than 30 large cargo vessels were sunk, of which only three could be raised and salvaged. A schooner was also sunk in the harbor. Additionally, another twelve large cargo ships were seriously damaged. Several of the ships were laden with ammunition and exploded, causing massive damage across the harbor area and to surrounding buildings. The explosions and sinkings continued into the next day. A fuel pipeline ruptured at the harbor from the blast. As thousands of gallons of fuel spilled into the harbor, it ignited into a massive sheet of flame. Hundreds died in the attack — the only ships spared damage were the submarines, whose strong hulls were low enough in the water to escape unscathed. Windows shattered seven miles away from the shocks of the exploding ammunition ships. For the German Luftwaffe, the raid had been one of its greatest successes in the entire war.
A Secret Investigation
With concerns that the Nazis had used chemical weapons on Bari, Italy, the US Army’s Deputy Surgeon General, Fred Blesse, ordered a physician and chemical warfare expert, Lt. Col. Dr. Stewart Francis Alexander, MD, to Bari. His mission was to uncover just what had happened. What he found was entirely unexpected and it would shock the leadership of the US Military. Even today, the story of the Bari disaster remains one of the least told and darkest chapters in the history of World War II.
With few traces left of whatever it was that had spread across the harbor, Lt. Col. Alexander began his investigation by logging where all of those affected had been when the bombs had begun to fall. Soon, a pattern emerged. The affected civilians of Bari were spread in a cone that extended from the harbor and widened as it moved inland. Ominously, the cone was aligned with prevailing winds. Many of the seamen who had jumped from their burning and bombed vessels into the harbor water were among the victims — but only in one area. They had been soaked in an oily residue of fuel and some sort of chemical compound. In fact, the medical personnel who were affected had all been involved at the hospital treating men from the harbor. Everything pointed to a chemical weapons attack.
At the epicenter of the casualty pattern was one of the ships that had been sunk by a German bomb — the American Liberty Ship, SS John Harvey.
Investigating the SS John Harvey
Most of the men who had served on the John Harvey were killed in the attack. The ship had sunk not from several well-targeted bombs but rather had caught fire from flaming debris that had rained down on it from nearby ships. It had then exploded and sank as a result. Those who had survived could add nothing to solve the mystery. With little else to go on, Lt. Col. Alexander began to examine the wreckage in the harbor for clues. He wondered if he might find the shattered shells from Luftwaffe chemical bombs.
Several days later, however, he found something else — the thin shell casing of a US Army M47A1 bomb, a type of specialized munition that was designed for mustard gas. Stunned, he wondered why American mustard gas was in Europe in the cargo of a Liberty Ship. Immediately, he undertook further research. It didn’t take long for the War Department to confirm his worst fears. The SS John Harvey had not carried a normal cargo, but rather had been loaded with mustard gas — 2,000 of the bombs, each loaded with 60 to 70 lbs of sulfur mustard. Much of it had been released into the water and air when the ship exploded and sank into the harbor. Now, it would need to be salvaged and removed from the harbor. The mustard gas into the water and into Bari.
The Cover Up that Followed
Armed with the knowledge that American mustard gas had caused a disaster that had only added to the deadly than the Luftwaffe attack, Lt. Col. Alexander briefed the matter up the chain of command with a detailed. Soon, the report was on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s desk, to his attention as the Supreme Allied Commander. After careful review, Eisenhower approved the report and brought the matter up with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had administration over Italy. It was learned too that none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had order the mustard gas to Europe, first to Oran, Algeria, and later shipped to Italy.
The matter came to a head. Fearing that the news of the mistake would cause problems in Italy as well as alert the Germans that the Allies were prepared for possible chemical warfare, Churchill ordered that the matter sealed. Further, he demanded that all British records of the report and details of the attack be removed from British records and destroyed. It was a cover up of the first order. Those affected were told that they had been burned by the German attack.
Respecting Churchill’s wishes and recognizing that it was Britain, not the USA, that was responsible for the administration of those areas of Italy that had been liberated, Eisenhower too kept the matter secret, though with concern. Due to the decision of the British to not release any information — even to medical authorities — many of those afflicted were not properly treated and either died or suffered worse injuries from their exposure to mustard gas.
The Final Word
In the end, the cover up of the mustard gas disaster at Bari might never have seen the light of day, had it not been for the Americans. In fact, not a word of it would leak out for the next 16 years. It was only in his last year as President of the United States that President Eisenhower ordered the files be approved for release to the public. The time had come to let the public know the truth. Even so, it wasn’t until yet another decade passed before word of the disaster finally was covered by the press.
From the horror of Bari, however, there was another development — Lt. Col. Alexander, in studying the effects of the chemical which he later identified as mustard gas, had noted that among the effects he was observing was that the chemical killed white blood cells, but not red ones. As white blood cells are produced rapidly in the body, he considered the linkage. He wondered if it would have the same effect on cancer cells, which also reproduce rapidly. These considerations went into his report which was then picked up by two medical researchers at Yale who, on applying it, pioneered the treatment programs now known worldwide as chemotherapy — a discovery that was drawn from the disaster at Bari.
Although whatever residual deadly cargo of the SS John Harvey was safeguarded and the ship was one of those raised, there remains a chance, however small and unlikely, that somewhere on the bottom of the harbor there might still be something left behind — an errant shell that still rests on the seabed, perhaps? We can only hope not.
On first look, it might seem horrific that the US Army had shipped mustard gas to Italy along with munitions for its combat employment. The M47A1 bomb was designed either for white phosphorous bombs or for mustard gas — and those two compounds only. As the munitions were loaded with mustard gas, there was no doubt of their intended use. But why were they there in the first place? There are some who claim that Churchill had considered the use of chemical weapons to break German resistance that had stalemated the drive north through Italy — was this related?
In fact, it appears that it was a US decision. Hitler had stated that the Germans would use chemical weapons in Italy if they were to withdraw. With the invasion of Sicily and the move onto the mainland of Italy, the Allies wondered (quite rightly) if Hitler would make good on his promise. If he did, the Army and the White House felt that the US would need to instantly retaliate with chemical weapons of its own. And thus, as a safeguard, the munitions were loaded and sent to Italy — just in case. When the bombs dropped that evening at Bari, the Luftwaffe had no idea that one of the ships below carried chemical weapons.
In the weeks afterward, despite Churchill’s cover-up, the Germans figured it out anyway. The crowning insult was when Axis Sally broadcast a message to the Allied troops over the radio that now they were being subjected to chemical weapons attacks by their own side! The message fell on deaf ears as almost nobody knew anything about Bari.
In the end, it was a tragedy, but it was also war.
Mustard gas, like a host of other chemical weapons, is considered a “Weapon of Mass Destruction” (WMD). When and where was the most recent use of air dropped mustard gas in the world?