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Disaster At Bari

June 2024
11min read

It was the most devastating enemy surprise attack since Pearl Harbor—but what mysterious affliction were people dying of two days later?

The port of Bari, Italy, was crowded on the afternoon of December 2, 1943, when Captain Otto Heitmann returned to his ship, the John Bascom , with the two thousand dollars he had drawn from the U.S. Army Finance Section to pay his crew. Bari was a pleasant, peaceful city on the heel of the peninsula, little changed by the war except that in 1943 American and British military personnel crowded Victor Emmanuel Street and Corso Cavour instead of the Germans, who had been forced to flee northward. Usually Heitmann enjoyed the time he had to spend at this port on the Adriatic Sea while his Liberty Ship was unloaded, but he was nervous this December day. There were too many ships in the harbor. Without even lifting his binoculars to his eyes he could see the Joseph Wheeler, Hadley F. Brown, Pumper, Aroostook, John L. Motley, Samuel J. Tilden , and Devon Coast , all jammed in the main section of the harbor or along the east jetty. He had been told there were at least twenty-nine ships at Bari waiting for aviation fuel, bombs, ammunition, hospital equipment, and other military supplies to be unloaded. The John Harvey , a Liberty Ship captained by his acquaintance Elwin P. Knowles, was anchored at pier 29. Heitmann idly wondered what she was carrying, unaware that the secret cargo aboard the John Harvey had already set the stage for tragedy at Bari.


Heitmann stared skyward in the direction his second officer, William Rudolph, was pointing. There, high in the sky where the last rays of the sun glinted on its wings, was a lone plane crossing directly over the crowded harbor.

High above Bari harbor in the plane, Oberleutnant Werner Hahn counted the Allied ships in port and knew the time had come. The Luftwaffe reconnaissance pilot banked his plane northward and hurried back toward his home base to report.

While Heitmann was standing on the deck of his ship in the harbor watching the plane high above him, General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle was busy in his Fifteenth Air Force headquarters building along the waterfront. The man who had become famous as leader of the raid on Tokyo in 1942 was struggling with the multitude of problems involved with a new organization. All day long he had heard C-47’s flying in men and supplies for his air force, and the sound of one more aircraft didn’t interest him. What did interest him was getting the B-17’s and B-24’s at the Foggia airfield complex, seventy miles to the north, into operation as soon as feasible. The possibility of a German air raid on Bari was out of the question. Hadn’t British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commanding officer of the British air forces in the area, assured everyone that very afternoon that the Luftwaffe did not have the resources to attack the city or the harbor? “I would regard it as a personal affront and insult if the Luftwaffe should attempt any significant action in this area,” Coningham had stated. So even when the lights were turned on along the harbor for the unloading that would continue through the night—positive proof that the British, who controlled the harbor, “knew” it was secure from enemy attack—Doolittle wasn’t apprehensive.

As the lights were turned on at Bari harbor, 105 Ju-88 bombers led by Oberleutnant Gustav Teuber swung west far out over the Adriatic Sea and headed straight for Bari. Teuber’s estimated time of arrival over the harbor was 7:30 P.M.

In the city many of the inhabitants were hurrying toward the Chiesa San Domenico opera house on Victor Emmanuel Street. The evening concerts were a part of Italian culture and were held regardless of which nation controlled the country. The fishermen and their families who lived in the old section of the city near the waterfront, however, seldom could afford the concerts. The younger members usually went to Bambino Stadium to watch the Americans play baseball or football. The older inhabitants often went to Mass in the Basilica of San Nicola, the church built to honor St. Nicholas, better known in many parts of the world as Santa Claus. The sick and disabled stayed at home among the narrow, winding streets bordered by one—and two-storied houses jammed close together. Old Bari had few escape routes from it … and those who lived there would soon need them all.

Fifty miles east of Bari, Oberleutnant Teuber looked at his watch. It was 7:15 P.M. He could not yet see the glow of the harbor through the cockpit window of his Ju-88, but he knew they were getting close to their target—the Allied ships in Bari harbor. He gently nosed his plane down to wave-top level, and the other aircraft followed. They were now below the radar defenses of the city.

As the German bombers roared in, ten minutes later, Teuber saw the ships lined up in Bari harbor and gasped. It was unbelievable. He did not have time to count them, but there were targets everywhere he looked. Selecting one of the ships, he called to his bombardier: “Prepare to drop bombs!” The ship he had selected was the John Harvey .

The first bomb explosions were off target and hit in the city, but as Captain Heitmann watched aboard the John Bascom , Teuber and his fellow pilots discovered their error and began “walking” the bombs out into the water toward the ships. Yard by yard the bombs came closer, working their way up the line of moored ships one by one. The Joseph Wheeler took a direct hit and burst into flames; moments later the John L. Motley , anchored next to Heitmann’s ship, took a bomb on its number-five hatch, and the deck cargo caught fire. It was too late to move the John Bascom . Suddenly a string of explosions ripped the ship from fore to aft, and Heitmann was lifted completely off his feet and slammed hard against the wheel-house door. The door broke off its hinges, and both the captain and the door hit the deck.

At pier 29 a small fire had started on board the John Harvey .

General Doolittle was leafing through a report on his desk when his office suddenly became much brighter. Before he could get to his feet, the windows on the side of the office facing the harbor shattered, and the glass flew across the room, narrowly missing him. Hurrying to the opening where the glass had been a minute before, Doolittle looked out at the harbor. One look was enough. His men, his supplies, his equipment for the Fifteenth Air Force were gone.

The citizens of Bari, unaccustomed to air attacks, were confused and frightened. Those who were in the opera house were unharmed, but many were panic-stricken. In the old city, people hurried from the Basilica of San Nicola where they had been attending Mass when the first explosions sounded. They had just reached the street when another stick of bombs hit nearby. Hundreds were now racing through the old section of Bari, trying to escape the narrow streets where flames made it nearly impossible to breathe. Their immediate concern was to get away, even if it meant drawing closer to the burning ships in the harbor. They dashed wildly, running into each other, knocking children to the street in their headlong rush to what they thought was safety. Many of them reached the edge of the harbor moments before the flames on the John Harvey reached the cargo the ship was carrying.

The explosion of the John Harvey shook the entire harbor. Clouds of smoke, tinted every color of the rainbow, shot thousands of feet into the air. Meteoric sheets of metal rocketed in all directions, carrying incendiary torches to other ships and setting off a series of explosions that made the harbor a holocaust. Jimmy Doolittle, still standing by the shattered window of his office, was staggered by the terrific blast. Huddled on the east jetty, Heitmann and other survivors from the ships in the harbor were bathed in the bright light momentarily and then bombarded by debris, oil, and dirty water. The inhabitants of old Bari who had rushed to the harbor to escape the flames within the walls of the ancient section were gathered along the shore when the John Harvey exploded. There was no time to run, no time to hide, no time for anything. One moment they were rejoicing in their good fortune in escaping from the flames of the old city; the next they were struck by the unbearable concussion of the blast. Some were blown upward, their broken bodies flying twenty-five to thirty feet high. Some were hurtled straight back the way they had come.

A short time after the John Harvey exploded, Deck Cadet James L. Cahill, a member of the ship’s crew who had been on shore leave, reached dockside. He looked around wildly.

“She’s gone!” he exclaimed. “The John Harvey is gone!”

A British major standing nearby looked at the distressed crewman. “A pity. What did she carry?”

“Ammunition, I think.” Cahill’s face clouded. “And … and …”


“I don’t know. Nobody knew. It was a big secret.”

The “secret” to which the deck cadet referred became vital within twenty-four hours at the various hospitals in the Bari area where the hundreds of victims were taken. At the Three New Zealand General Hospital, the Ninety-eight British General Hospital, and the American Twenty-six General Hospital, the horde of incoming patients filled all available beds, and many were placed in vacant rooms that were still not equipped for use. The nurses and doctors were overwhelmed but did their best to treat the victims for their injuries and the obvious shock most of them had suffered. At least they could be wrapped in blankets. Unfortunately, many of the survivors were still in their dirty wet clothes the next day when a striking variation from the normal symptons of shock was noticed by the medical personnel. Nearly all the patients had eye troubles. Weeping became very marked and was associated with spasms of the eyelids and a morbid fear of light. Many of the survivors complained that they were blind.

Other puzzling factors were the pulse and blood pressure readings of the patients supposedly in shock or suffering from immersion and exposure. The pulse beat was barely evident, and blood pressure was extremely low; yet the patients did not appear to be in what doctors call clinical shock. There was no worried or anxious expression or restlessness, no shallow breathing, and the heart action was only a moderately rapid 110–120.

On the morning following the German air raid, skin lesions were noticed on many of the survivors. The coloration of the lesion area was most striking: bronze, reddish brown, or tan on some victims, red on others. The distribution of the burns was varied, but a certain pattern began to emerge. It seemed to depend upon the degree of exposure to the slimy waters of the harbor. Those who had been completely immersed were burned all over, but those who had gotten only their feet or arms in the water were burned nowhere else. Survivors who had been splashed by the water had lesions where the water hit them. And those who had washed the slime from the harbor waters off their bodies and put on clean clothes had no burns at all.

The doctors and nurses did everything they could think of for the victims, but none of the normal treatments for burns or shock or exposure aided the survivors. They would improve temporarily, take a sudden turn for the worse, and then abruptly die for no apparent reason. By the end of the second day after the Bari attack it was clear that outside help was needed: the mysterious deaths among both military and civilian casualties were increasing.

Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers, under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was aware of the disastrous air strike made by the Luftwaffe at Bari. However, it wasn’t until General Fred Blesse, deputy surgeon for Allied Force Headquarters, received a “red light” call from Italy that anyone outside the Bari area was alerted to the mysterious malady that was causing so many deaths. He immediately dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Stewart F. Alexander to Italy to investigate.

Alexander, a graduate of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, had served as medical officer with General George S. Patton, Jr., had been one of the few medical officers present at the Casablanca conference, had later joined the staff of General Mark W. Clark, and had finally moved to Algiers and the Allied Force Headquarters after having been selected by Eisenhower for his staff. Alexander had also worked at the Medical Research Division of the Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, before going overseas. The knowledge gained there would be invaluable at Bari.

On reaching Bari, Alexander immediately toured the area military hospitals, consulting with the medical staffs and examining the casualties. As he stepped into the first hospital, he turned to the British officer accompanying him and asked one question: “What is that odor? Garlic?”

“No, it’s from the patients. ,W& haven’t had time to disinfect the wards since their arrival from the harbor.”

Alexander remembered the long hours of research at Edgewood Arsenal: the same odor had permeated his laboratory there. Yet he couldn’t believe that the odor in the hospital came from the same source. Surely not.

As he examined the small blisters on the patients, however, Alexander saw more evidence that fitted in with the strange odor. The fluid accumulations of the blisters in the superficial layers of the skin were diffused, and in many cases it was difficult to determine where the edges of the blisters were located. He checked x rays taken of the victims and discovered that very few of the patients with the mysterious symptoms had suffered blast damage to their lungs, yet they had lower-respiratory-tract symptoms. He watched one patient, who appeared to be in marked shock but was remarkably clear mentally, tell a nurse he was feeling much better—and then die seconds later without any indication of distress at the time of death. Alexander was now convinced that his initial theory was correct.

“I feel that these men may have been exposed to mustard in some manner,” he explained to the shocked hospital officials. “Do you have any idea of how this might have occurred?”

Those who heard Alexander’s statement that December day were stunned. After their initial reaction, however, they remembered a statement Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made in August, 1943, after he had been alarmed by reports of the imminent use of chemical agents by the Axis. In part the statement said: “As President of the United States … I want to make clear beyond all doubt … [that] any use of poison gas by any Axis power … will immediately be followed by the fullest retaliation …”

Was it possible that poison gas had been aboard one of the bombed Liberty Ships, brought to Italy for stockpiling in case it was needed? Alexander was determined to find out. If he was to save any of the victims still alive, he had to find out, and fast.

The British port authorities, when questioned, either did not know at that time or would not disclose for security reasons whether any of the ships carried poison gas. Alexander finally persuaded them to sketch the location of as many ships as they could recall, hoping that by correlating the deaths in the hospitals with the ship positions, he could narrow down his investigation to one or two of the Liberty vessels. He also alerted the military dock units to watch for any sign of chemical containers, had samples of the slimy harbor water analyzed, and ordered autopsies on the victims. His efforts paid off with dramatic suddenness when he received a telephone call from a British officer at the dock.

“We have just recovered a bomb casing from the floor of the harbor. It definitely contained mustard.”

Shortly afterward, the bomb casing was identified as an American-type M47A1 hundred-pound bomb. The sketch of the anchored ships indicated that most deaths occurred near ship No. 1, which was identified as the American merchant ship John Harvey . Finally—and reluctantly—the British port officials admitted that the manifest of the John Harvey listed a hundred tons of mustard bombs, intended for storage in Italy in case they were required for retaliation after an Axis poison-gas attack. It was obvious that when the ship exploded, the mustard in the bombs was released. Part of it mixed with the oily water of the harbor, part of it with the smoke clouds drifting toward the city.

There were 617 recorded mustard-gas casualties among the military and merchant-marine personnel at Bari on the night of December 2, 1943, and eighty-four victims died. The full count will never be known, nor will the number of civilians who died from the mustard ever be learned. When it is considered that of the 70,752 men hospitalized for poison gas in World War I, only 2 per cent died, the disaster at Bari is put in its true proportion. Seventeen ships were totally destroyed by the German bombers, and eight others were damaged—the worst shipping disaster suffered by the Allies during World War n with the exception of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Bari mustard tragedy was kept secret long after the end of World War II and is little known even today. It had far-reaching consequences, however. One lesson learned was the absolute necessity that those involved with the shipping of chemical agents should notify the proper officials immediately in case of a mishap or danger of a mishap. Very few of the mustard casualties need have died if their exposure to the poison gas had been known immediately. If the warning had been given at once, not only would the casualties have been treated differently, but many of the rescue personnel, crew members of the ships not sunk, and hospital personnel would not have suffered chemical burns as they did.


In addition, the action of the British officials made the situation worse. The British controlled the port, and they were extremely reluctant to admit that any Allied ship carried poison gas. Even when Alexander had proved beyond a doubt that the casualties were suffering from mustard exposure, Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to permit any British medical reports to mention the mustard. The official reports, except for one or two preliminary reports issued before his ruling, stated that the burns should be listed as “ NYD ”—“not yet diagnosed.” This restriction prevented medical staffs in many of the outlying hospitals, where a large number of patients were taken, from knowing the victims’ true condition until too late, causing many unnecessary deaths.

Bari was the only major poison-gas incident of World War II. The tragedy was and is a grim reminder that all nations have secret stores of chemical agents ready for use against each other if the need arises. The victims of Bari, those who died and those who lived, learned the horrors of chemical warfare. Even in an age when the nuclear bomb is the ultimate in weapons, poison gas is still a fearful threat. Let the user beware.


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