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 in 1943 a squad­ron of Ger­man Junkers Ju 88 bombers flew over the port of Bari on Italy’s Adri­atic coast, newly liber­ated by the Allies, and sank 27 ships, among them the SS John Harvey. The ship, crewed nor­mally by 81 sea­men, carried explo­sive muni­tions and a secret con­sign­ment of 2,000 mus­tard gas shells. Hit amid­ships, the U.S. Liberty ship 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

Liberty ship similar to "John Harvey" Junkers Ju 88

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 air raid on Bari (population 250,000) by 105 Ger­man twin-engine Junkers Ju 88 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 air attack on 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 in the over­crowded Bari har­bor. It put the port out of action until February 1944 and was called the “Little Pearl Harbor.”

December 2, 1943, Bari Poison Gas Disaster and Allied Cover-Up