Bari, Italy • December 2, 1943
World War I combatants had used a variety of poison gases on each other ranging from incapacitating and temporarily blinding the enemy to gases that burned the body, destroyed the lungs, and liquefied tissues. Sometimes their use had unintended consequences, as when the gases inflicted casualties on the users themselves—something we today might associate with “friendly fire.” Every nation had stockpiles of poison gas artillery shells ready for use in the Great War, this despite the Hague Convention of 1899, which outlawed their use.
On this date, November 2, 1943, a squadron of German Junkers Ju 88 twin-engine bombers flew over the unprotected port of Bari on Italy’s Adriatic coast, newly liberated by the Allies, and sank 27 cargo and transport ships, among them the U.S. Liberty ship John Harvey. The cargo ship, crewed normally by 81 seamen, carried explosive munitions and a secret consignment of 2,000 poisonous mustard gas shells. Hit amidships, the SS John Harvey was destroyed in a huge explosion, causing liquid sulfur mustard to spill into the water and a toxic cloud of mustard vapor to blow over the city. It was the only (and unintentional) release of chemical weapons in the course of the World War II by the Allies. (Japan used poison gas in combat operations in China.)
So secret was the transport of this poison gas—President Franklin D. Roosevelt had approved its shipment the previous August—that ignorance reigned supreme during the catastrophe. British harbor authorities did not know of the deadly nature of the cargo—all in the know on the John Harvey had been killed. Doctors, medical staff, and rescuers who attended the dying—more than one thousand Allied servicemen and more than one thousand civilians—were baffled by the mysterious symptoms, which only became evident a day after the event. Tragically, sailors who tried rescuing themselves by jumping into the water became covered with fuel oil leaking from damaged and sinking ships, and this poisonous mixture of oil and sulfur mustard provided an ideal solvent for penetrating the victims’ skin and causing chemical burns and temporary blindness. Among U.S. servicemen alone, over 80 died of the effects of the gas before the end of the year. Although the Germans experimented with poison gas hundreds of times on prisoners and concentration camp inmates, Adolf Hitler, himself a victim of a gas attack in World War I, never ordered its use in combat.
Chemical Disaster at Bari, Italy, 1943
Left: Capable of carrying 504 soldiers, the SS John Harvey instead carried a top-secret cargo of 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60–70 lb of toxic sulfur mustard. The bombs were to have been stockpiled in Italy and used in case the enemy used poison gas first. (There was never any evidence that Germany intended to use poison gas in combat, but President Roosevelt decided to prepare for the worst.) During the evening air raid the ship, which took a direct hit, went down with all hands, contaminating the harbor’s water and Bari’s air. In the aftermath, thousands of people who lacked external wounds died mysteriously—they died of massive infections—because the cause of their symptoms was unknown and the rendered treatment was inappropriate. The Allies covered up the chemical disaster, not wanting the Germans to learn that they were stockpiling war gas for potential use, so the Bari tragedy is not well known.
Right: The German air raid on Bari (population 250,000) by 105 Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers, flying in from the Adriatic Sea instead of over land from the north, achieved complete surprise. Targeted were shipping and personnel operating in support of the British Eighth Army following the September 1943 Allied-Italian armistice. The bomb and target-seeking torpedo attack on ships from six nations in the brightly lit harbor, which lasted a little more than one hour, sank 27 cargo, transport, and naval vessels, plus a schooner, and damaged a dozen more ships (including two modern British escort destroyers) in the overcrowded Bari harbor. It put the important logistics hub for the Allies’ Italian Campaign out of action until February 1944 and was called the “Little Pearl Harbor.”
December 2, 1943, Bari Poison Gas Disaster and Allied Cover-Up