Published December 2, 2012
By Thomas Van Hare
The Luftwaffe’s evening raid on the Italian harbor of Bari caught the Allies by surprise. The planes, 105 in number. were Junkers Ju 88 A-4 bombers of Luftflotte 2. They struck from the north, an unexpected direction. Further, German air attacks had all but ceased in Italy by that time, and therefore their arrival at low level on the night of December 2, 1943, came as a huge shock. It wasn’t the raid itself, however, that did the most damage — it was the aftermath. One of the American ships in the harbor that night had carried a cargo of deadly chemical weapons.
Today in aviation history, on December 2, 1943, the Bari harbor was brightly lit. Safely at anchor and along the docks were over 40 ships. The ships formed the backbone of the critical supply line that fed the march of Allied forces north through Italy. Additionally, much of the Mediterranean’s British submarine force was moored along the docks or 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 makes it one of the darkest tales of the war. Amidst the carnage of burning ships left in the wake of the bombing raid came a strange vapor with a garlic smell. It slowly wafted over the harbor and was carried by the wind into Bari itself. Those exposed began to cough. Their skin began to feel like it was burning. Some were blinded and walked around aimlessly, inhaling more of the vapor.
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 of those who fled would die, but their passing was left unrecorded in history. Within the next few weeks, 83 of those 628 who had checked into the hospital had died.
Something terrible had happened at Bari — and at the time only a few knew what it was and they were sworn to secrecy.
The Damage in the Harbor
In the aftermath of the attack, records show that no fewer than 30 large cargo vessels had been sunk. Of those, only three could be raised and salvaged. A private schooner was also sunk in the harbor, an unintentional victim in the bombing. 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. More explosions followed and additional ships sank during the following day. A fuel pipeline ruptured at the harbor from the blast and thousands of gallons of fuel spilled into the harbor. The fuel 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 somehow escape unscathed. Windows were shattered seven miles away from the shocks of the exploding ammunition ships. For the German Luftwaffe, the raid on Bari was 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 the town to take samples and record evidence. Expecting to document a Nazi atrocity, what he found was entirely unexpected. It would shock the leadership of the US Military — the weapons were American. Even today, the story of how American chemical weapons poisoned the town and people of Bari remains one of the least told and darkest chapters in the history of World War II.
However, none of that was known when Lt. Col Alexander arrived in Bari. Finding 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. As he expected, a pattern emerged. The affected civilians of Bari were spread in a cone that extended from the harbor and widened as it moved inland. The cone was aligned with prevailing winds.
Additionally, he learned that many of the seamen who had jumped from their burning and bombed vessels into the harbor water were among the victims. When he mapped where they had jumped into the water, he discovered that they were all in the same area. They had been soaked in an oily residue of fuel and something else — a sort of chemical compound that was floating in the water. Further, all of the medical personnel who were affected had all been involved at the hospital treating those same men pulled from the harbor. All of the evidence he gathered 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
Lt. Col. Alexander also uncovered that 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. In fact, it had not been struck by a bomb at all. Rather, the SS John Harvey had caught fire from flaming debris that had rained down on it from nearby ships that were hit in the raid. With fires raging on the ship’s deck soon expanding and spreading out of control, the ship exploded and sank. Those few who had survived were interviewed. However, they 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. Instead, several days later, he found something else in the harbor wreckage — 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. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, he undertook further research and sent classified messages up the chain of command to Washington asking for answers. 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 M47A1 bombs in all. Each was loaded with 60 to 70 lbs of sulfur mustard.
In the aftermath of the explosion of the SS John Harvey, much of the ship’s cargo of bombs had detonated or split open, releasing the chemicals into the water and air. As Lt. Col. Alexander surveyed the harbor, he realized that the ship would need to be salvaged and removed from the harbor, with as much of its unexploded cargo recovered and handled properly. He worried too about additional releases of mustard gas into the water and into Bari itself.
The Cover Up that Followed
Armed with the knowledge that American mustard gas had caused an even greater disaster than the German raid, Lt. Col. Alexander sent detailed reports up the chain of command. Given the gravity of the situation, it didn’t take long for his report to arrive on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s desk. The matter was that delicate that it was brought to the attention of the Supreme Allied Commander himself. After careful review, Eisenhower approved the report. Further, he brought the matter up with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had official responsibility for the administration of Italy. A further inquiry revealed that none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself had ordered the mustard gas to be shipped to Europe — first to Oran, Algeria, and later shipped to Bari, 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 the matter sealed. He demanded that all British records of the report and details of the attack be removed from British records and instantly destroyed. What followed 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 agreed to keep kept the matter secret. Nonetheless, he expressed concern about Churchill’s decision. The British had decided against the release of any information about the chemical weapons — even to medical authorities — as part of the cover up. Many of those afflicted were not properly treated as a result. They either died or suffered worse injuries from their exposure to mustard gas, since it was left untreated.
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. Even so, not a word of it leaked out for the next 16 years. In his last year as President of the United States, President Eisenhower ordered the files about the disaster at Bari 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 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. His considerations went into his report. The report, in turn, was later read by two medical researchers at Yale. On careful consideration, the two men pioneered a set of new treatment programs for cancer — they called their treatment “chemotherapy” and, despite its harsh effects on the bodies of those treated, it would save thousands of lives each decade since.
The residual deadly cargo of the SS John Harvey was safeguarded and the ship was raised. However, there remains a chance that even to this day that somewhere on the bottom of the harbor in Bari, there might still be something left behind. Someday, an errant shell that was somehow left behind, buried in the mud, may finally rust through, releasing its contents into the harbor.
We can only hope that the salvage effort was complete, but there is no way to know for sure.
One More Bit of Aviation History
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 the intense German resistance that had stalemated the Allied drive north through Italy — was this related?
Although this question has been asked repeatedly over the years, the evidence indicates that the chemical weapons shipment to Bari was based on a decision taken entirely within the White House, by President Roosevelt himself. His rationale seems reasonable enough in hindsight — Hitler had stated that the Germans would use chemical weapons in Italy if they had no other choice but to withdraw. Thus, President Roosevelt had shipped the chemical munitions to Italy to use in retaliation if the Nazis made good on their promise.
As a safeguard against Nazi chemical weapons attack, the munitions were loaded onto the SS John Harvey 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, it is interesting to note that the Germans figured it out anyway. The crowning insult to Churchill’s cover up came when Axis Sally broadcast a message to the Allied troops over the radio. She claimed that they were being subjected to chemical weapons by their own side! The message fell on deaf ears, however, as most soldiers knew nothing about what had actually happened at Bari. Truth, it seemed, was stranger than fiction after all.
In the end, the disaster at Bari was a tragedy. It was also part of a wider war that had no small measure of tragedy.
Today’s Aviation History Question
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?