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

Mustard gas tragedy: Liberty ship similar to "John Harvey"Mustard gas tragedy: 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 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 Mustard Gas Disaster and Allied Cover-Up