A piece of World War II history that is virtually unknown.
Engulfed in flames and poison.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is known to everyone and is one of the most pivotal moments of World War II. The German air raid on the Italian port of Bari, whose 75th anniversary is coming up this weekend, is much less known but in some ways even more tragic.
On September 11, 1943, with the Allies already pushing forward in Italy, the British 1st Airborne Division captured the Southern Italian port of Bari without a fight. The port was to receive ships carrying ammunition, supplies and provisions to fighting troops and to help establish the 15th Air Force in Italy, commanded by Jimmy Doolittle of Doolittle Raid fame. Despite its importance, Bari was almost completely undefended by the British troops in charge of its administration. It had no RAF squadrons based nearby, its anti-air defenses were minimal and it had no port or ground defenses. British leadership believed that the Luftwaffe was no longer capable of mounting a threat and decided that defenses were unnecessary.
The Luftwaffe, however, was far from toothless. At the suggestion of Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, fourth cousin of the famed World War I Red Baron Albert Kesselring, scrounged up 105 Junkers Ju 88 bombers to hit the port containing so much valuable materiel.
The force reached the unsuspecting town at 7:25 p.m. on December 2, 1943, with the first few planes confusing Allied radar by dropping clouds of Düppel tinfoil strips, an early form of chaff. They also dropped flares but those turned out to be unnecessary: the port was crowded with ships and floodlights were lit to help the all-night unloading jobs.
The first few bombs accidentally landed in the town proper, herding panicked civilians towards the waterfront. Once the bombers adjusted their aim, the true massacre began. Twenty-eight merchant ships laden with 31,000 tons of cargo were sunk or outright destroyed, while 12 others were damaged. Two of these were ammunition ships, which went up in huge explosions, sending hot shrapnel flying. A gasoline pipeline on the shore was severed and turned into a giant flaming torch. Oil from ships spilled into the water, covering seamen who fell overboard and catching on fire in some places, spreading the flames to other ships. The Germans only lost a single plane.
But the fire wasn’t even the worst. A Liberty ship called the John Harvey escaped the bombs but was ignited by other burning ships, sending its cargo flying in a massive detonation. Its cargo was mustard gas.
The John Harvey had a secret cargo, ordered personally by President Roosevelt, of 2,000 M47A1 bombs, each filled with 60 to 70 lbs of the lethal poison. The bombs weren’t supposed to be deployed: they were only there as retaliation should the German use their own poison gas. Some of the sulfur mustard went up with the explosion and was carried by the wind in an expanding cone toward the shore and the civilians crowded there. The rest got into the water and mixed with the sticky oil, impregnating the clothes of seamen.
The presence of mustard gas was a closely guarded secret and even the local military hospitals weren’t informed of it. As a result, priority was given to burn and explosion-related wounds, while the men fished out from the water were left unwashed, unattended and wearing their poisonous garments until the following day.
The symptoms of mustard poisoning started appearing in over 600 patients and medical staff over the next day. Burns, blindness and sudden death after feeling better suggested to some doctors that a chemical might be responsible, but they assumed it was deployed by the bombers. Almost all crewmen of the John Harvey died, including the seven men from a chemical maintenance company, leaving nobody to inform the medics of the ship’s secret cargo. By the end of the month, 86 military personnel died from mustard exposure, along with an unknown but definitely higher number of civilians, many of whom fled to the countryside right after the attack.
An American physician, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart F. Alexander, was sent to Bari to investigate the mysterious deaths. Alexander quickly recognized the signs of mustard gas. He made a careful map of where all afflicted people were standing during the attack and overlaid it on a sketch showing the layout of ships in harbor. It was clear that the epicenter of the mustard explosion was the John Harvey but the revelation came too late to save the dead. The recovery of a mustard gas bomb from the port served as positive confirmation.
Eisenhower approved Alexander’s report but Winston Churchill ordered all documents to be purged, both to avoid lowering morale and to prevent the Germans from learning about the mustard gas in Allied hands.
There was an unlikely silver lining to the tragedy. Dr. Alexander’s report on the case, and his description on how the poison killed white blood cells while leaving red ones alive, has become one of the important foundations for a new technology invented to fight cancer: chemotherapy.