- On the afternoon of December 2, 1943, lst Lt. Werner
Hahn piloted his Messerschitt Me-210 reconnaissance plane over the port
of Bari, in southeastern Italy. Cruising at 23,000 feet, his aircraft made
a telltale contrail as he streaked across the sky, but Allied anti-aircraft
crews took little notice. Still unmolested, the German pilot made a second
pass over the city before turning north toward home. If Hahn's report was
promising, the Luftwaffe would launch a major airstrike against the port.
- Bari was a city of some 200,000 people, with an old section
of town that dated back to the Middle Ages. Old Bari, clustered on a fist
of land that jutted out into the Adriatic, boasted such famed landmarks
as the Castello Svevo, a brooding medieval fortress dating to Norman times,
and the Basilica San Nicola, which allegedly contained the bones of St.
- In contrast, new Bari had broad boulevards and modern
buildings. These new buildings included a sports facility nicknamed "Bambino
Stadium," which had been built by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini
as a reward to the citizens for producing the most babies in a specified
period of time. Bari--old and new--had been fortunate, suffering little
damage because the Allies had earmarked the city as a major supply port
from the start.
- As 1943 drew to a close, Bari's medieval torpor and somnolent
grace were shaken off by the influx of Allied shipping into its harbor.
Tons of supplies were offloaded almost around the clock, transforming the
once quiet town into a hive of activity. On December 2, at least 30 Allied
ships were crowded into the harbor, packed so tightly they almost touched.
- The port was under the jurisdiction of the British, in
part because Bari was the main supply base for General Bernard Law Montgomery's
Eighth Army. But the city was also the newly designated headquarters of
the American Fifteenth Air Force, which had been activated in November
of that year. The Fifteenth's primary mission was to bomb targets in the
Balkans, Italy and especially Germany. Fifteenth Air Force commander Maj.
Gen. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle had arrived in Bari on December
- The Americans had championed daylight precision bombing,
but the Eighth Air Force in England was suffering terrible casualties in
order to prove the theory valid. Luftwaffe strength was increasing, not
decreasing, over Germany. The Fifteenth Air Force was intended to take
some of the pressure off the beleaguered Eighth.
- In addition to the usual war materiel ships moored at
Bari carried aviation fuel for Doolittle's bombers and other much-needed
supplies. Selection of Bari as the Fifteenth Air Force headquarters--about
75 miles from the Fifteenth's primary airfields at Foggia--meant a large
infusion of staff personnel. About 200 officers, 52 civilian technicians
and several hundred enlisted men were being brought into the city.
- Totally absorbed by the task of getting the Fifteenth
Air Force off the ground, the Allies gave little thought to the possibility
of a German air raid on Bari. The Luftwaffe in Italy was relatively weak
and stretched so thin it could hardly mount a major effort. Or so Allied
- German reconnaissance flights over Bari were seen as
a nuisance. At first, British Anti-aircraft batteries fired a half-hearted
round or two, but eventually then ignored the German flights altogether.
Why waste ammunition?
- Responding to rumblings about lax security measures,
British Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham held a press conference on
the afternoon of December 2 and assured reproters that the Luftwaffe was
defeated in Italy. He was confident the Germans would never attack Bari.
"I would regard it as a personal affront and insult," the air
marshal haughtily declared, "if the Luftwaffe would attempt any significant
action in this area."
- Not everyone was so sure that the German air force was
a broken reed. British army Captain A.B. Jenks, who was responsible for
the port's defense, knew that preparations for an attack were woefully
inadequate. But his voice, as well as those of one or two others, was drowned
out by a chorus of complacent officers. When darkness came, Bari's docks
were brilliantly lit so unloading of cargo could continue. Little thought
was given to the need for a blackout.
- In the harbor, cargo ships and tankers waited their turn
to be unloaded. Captain Otto Heitmann, skipper of the Liberty ship SS John
Bascom, went ashore to see if the process could be speeded up. He was disappointed
in his quest, but he might have been even more concerned had he known what
was aboard SS John Harvey.
- John Harvey, commanded by Captain Elwin F. Knowles, was
a typical Liberty ship, scarcely different from the others moored in the
harbor. Much of her cargo was also conventional munitions, food and equipment.
But the ship had a deadly secret cargo. Approximately 100 tons of mustard
gas bombs were on board. The bombs were meant as a precaution, to be used
only if the Germans resorted to chemical warfare.
- In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just
might use poison gas. By that point in the war, the strategic initiative
had passed to the Allies, and Germany was on the defensive on all fronts.
Adolf Hitler's forces had sustained a major defeat at Stalingrad, and they
had lost North Africa as well. The Allies were now on the Continent, slowly
inching their way up the Italian peninsula. Hitler, it was said, was not
a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself
had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might
be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would refress the strategic balance
in his favor. [Or so the Allies believed, despite subsequent evidence that
there were never any such plans.--Ed.] Intelligence reports suggested that
the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent
- American President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a policy
statement condemning the use of gas by any civilized nation, but he pledged
that the United States would reply in kind if the enemy dared to use such
weapons first. John Harvey was selected to convey a shipment of poison
gas to Italy to be held in reserve should such a situaiton occur.
- When the mustard gas bombs were loaded aboard John Harvey,
they looked deceptively conventional. Each bomb was 4 feet long, 8 inches
in diameter and contained from 60 to 70 pounds of the chemical. Mustard
is a blister gas that irritates the respiratory system and produces burns
and raw ulcers on the skin. Victims exposed to the gas often suffer an
- The poison gas shipment was shrouded in official secrecy.
Even Knowles was not formally informed about the lethal cargo. Perceptive
members of the crew, however, must have guessed the voyage was out of the
ordinary. For one thing, 1st Lt. Howard D. Beckstrom of the 701st Chemical
Maintenance Company was on board, along with a detachment of six men. All
were expert in handling toxic materials and were obviously there for a
- John Harvey crossed the Atlantic without incident, succesfully
running the gantlet of German submarines that still infested the ocean.
After a stop at Oran, Algeria, the ship sailed to Augusta, Sicily, before
proceeding to Bari. Lieutenant Thomas H. Richardson, the ship's cargo security
officer. was one of the few people on board who offically knew about the
mustard gas. His manifest clearly listed 20,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs
in the hold.
- Richardson naturally wanted to unload the deadly cargo
as soon as possible, but when the ship reached Bari on November 26, his
hopes were dashed. The harbor was crammed with shipping, and another convoy
was due shortly. Dozens of vessels were stacked up along the piers and
jetties, each waiting its turn to be unloaded. Since the lethal gas was
not officially on board, John Harvey was not about to be given special
- For the next five nerve-racking days, John Harvey rode
peacefully at anchor at Pier 29 while Captain Knowles tried vainly to get
British port officials to speed things up. This was difficult, because
he was gagged by the secrecy that surrounded the gas shipment. How could
he get officials to act when he was not even supposed to know that he was
carrying the mustard gas in the first place?
- While Knowles fretted, German reconnaissance pilot Hahn
had returned to base. His positive report about conditions at Bari set
in motion a raid that had been discussed and planned some time before.
The Bari attack was the product of a planning session between Luftwaffe
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and his subordinates. The Allied airfields
at Foggia were discussed as possible targets, but Luftwaffe resources were
stretched too thin to permit the effective bombing of such a large complex
- It was Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, commander
of Luftflotte 2, who suggested Bari as an alternative. A cousin of famed
World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen, the field marshal was an experienced
officer who had served in Poland and the Soviet Union as well as in the
Battle of Britain. His advice, Kesselring knew, was sound. Richthofen believed
that if the port was crippled, the British Eighth Army's advance might
be slowed and the nascent Fifteenth Air Force's bomber offensive delayed.
Richthofen told Kesselring that the only planes available for such a task
were his Junkers Ju-88 A-4 bombers. With luck, he might scrape together
150 such planes for the raid.
- When the strike force was mustered, there were only 105
Ju-88s available for the mission. But the element of surprise, coupled
with an attack at dusk, might shift the odds in the Germans' favor. Most
of the planes would come from Italy, but Richthofen purposely wanted to
obfuscate matters by using a few Ju-88s from Yugoslavia. If the Allies
thought the entire mission originated from there, they just might misdirect
retaliatory strikes to the Balkans.
- The Ju-88 pilots were ordered to fly their twin-engine
bombers east to the Adriatic, then swing south and west. British anti-aircraft
would probably expect an attack--if any--to come from the north, not from
the west. The Ju-88s were also supplied with Duppel, thin strips of tinfoil
cut to various lengths. The tinfoil registered like aircraft on radar screens,
producing scores of phantom targets.
- The aim of the German pilots was to arrive over Bari
around 7:30 p.m. Parachute flares would be released first to light the
way for the attacking aircraft, and the Ju-88s would come in low, trying
to get under Allied radar that was already confused by the Duppel.
- The Germans' arrived at Bari on schedule. First Lieutenant
Gustav Teuber, leading the first wave, could hardly believe his eyes. The
docks were brilliantly lit; cranes stood out in sharp relief as they unloaded
cargo from the ships' gaping holds, and the east jetty was packed with
- Scores of Ju-88s descended on Bari like gigantic birds
of prey, their attack illuninated by the city's lights and German flares.
The first bombs hit the city proper, great geysers of smoke and flame marking
each detonation, but soon it was the harbor's turn. Some 30 vessels were
riding at anchor that night, and each ship's crew had to respond to the
emergency as best they could. Surprise was total, and some ships had to
function without a full complement, since many sailors were on shore leave.
- The German flares gave sailors the first inkling of the
impending attack. Aboard John Bascom, the second officer, William Rudolf,
saw the flashes and alerted Captain Heitmann. John Bascom's gun crew sprang
into action, joining the barrage that shore batteries were now hurling
into the sky. Tracer bullets laced the air, but the anti-aircraft fire
was largely ineffective.
- There was not time to cut anchor cables and get underway;
crews along the east jetty watched helplessly while a creeping barrage
of German bombs came ever closer to their vulnerable vessels. Joseph Wheeler
took a direct hit and exploded into flames; John Motley took a bomb in
its No. 5 hold. John Bascom, anchored next to John Motley, was next in
line for punishment.
- John Bascom shuddered under a rain of bombs that hit
her from stem to stern. One of the explosions lifted Captain Heitmann off
his feet and slammed him against the wheelhouse door. Momentarily stunned,
his hands and face bloody, Heitmann saw the body of Nicholas Elgin sprawled
nearby, blood pumping from a head wound, his clothes torn off by the force
of the blast.
- The ship's bridge was partly destroyed, the decks were
buckled and debris was everywhere. There was nothing left to do but abandon
ship. Ignoring his own wounds, Heitmann ordered the crew into the single
undamaged lifeboat. By now, the entire harbor was a hell on earth, where
yellow-orange flames leaped into the air, producing dense columns of acrid
smoke. Ships were in various stages of burning or sinking. When flames
reached munitions-laden holds, some exploded. The surface of the water
was covered by a viscous scum of oil and fuel, blinding and choking those
unlucky enough to be in the water.
- Meanwhile, the crew of John Harvey was engaged in a heroic
battle to save their ship. The vessel still was intact and had sustained
no direct bomb damage. Nevertheless, she had caught fire, and the situation
was doubly dangerous with the mustard gas bombs aboard. Captain Knowles,
Lieutenant Beckstrom and others on board refused to leave their posts,
but their heroism was ultimately in vain.
- Without warning John Harvey blew up, disappearing in
a huge, mushroom-shaped fireball that hurled pieces of the ship and her
cargo hundreds of feet into the air. Everyone on board was killed instantly,
and all over the harbor the force of the concussion knocked men off their
feet. The blast sent out multihued fingers of smoke like a Fourth of July
fireworks celebration and made the harbor as bright as day.
- The men aboard USS Pumper, a tanker carrying aviation
fuel, were witnesses to John Harvey's last moments. Air initially rushed
into the vortex of the blast, then the concussion radiated out to the tanker
35 degrees to port.
- Meanwhile, Heitmann and his surviving crew managed to
reach the tip of the east jetty, around a lighthouse that was located at
its north end. He had about 50 men. Many were badly wounded, and some were
so badly burned that the slightest touch brought agony. At first the lighthouse
area seemed a refuge, but it soon became apparent it was more of a deathtrap.
A sea of flames cut Heitmann and his men off from following the jetty's
long spine into the city, where they might have been relatively safe.
- While the sailors waited to be rescued, Ensign K.K. Vesole,
commander of John Bascom's armed guard detachment, was having difficulty
breathing. Many of the other men were gasping, but it was Vesole who noted
something strange about the smoke. "I smell garlic," he said,
without realizing the implications of his remark. A garlic odor was a telltale
sign of mustard gas. The gas had become liberally intermixed with oil that
floated in the harbor and lurked in the smoke that permeated the area.
- Mustard gas-laced oil now coated the bodies of Allied
seamen as the struggled in the water, and many swallowed the noxious mixture.
Even those not in the water inhaled liberal does of gas, as did hundreds,
perhaps thousands, of Italian civilians. A launch dispatched from Pumper
rescured Captain Heitmann and the other John Bascom survivors from the
east jetty, but their troubles were just beginning.
- The German raid began at 7:30 p.m. and ended 20 minutes
later. German losses were very light, and they had succeeded beyond their
most sanguine expectations. Seventeen Allied ships were sunk and another
eight were damaged, causing Bari to be dubbed the "second Pearl Harbor."
The Americans sustained the highest losses, losing the Liberty ships John
Bascom, John L. Motley, Joseph Wheeler, Samuel J. Tilden and John Harvey.
The British lost four ships, the Italians three, the Norwegians three and
the Poles two.
- The next morning survivors woke to a scene of utter devastation.
Large parts of Bari had been reduced to rubble, particularly the medieval
old town. Portions of the city and the harbor were still burning, and a
thick pall of black smoke hung in the sky. There were more than 1,000 military
and merchant marine casualties; about 800 were admitted to local hospitals.
The full extent of civilian casualties may never be known. Conservative
estimates hover around 1,000, though there were probably more.
- Fortunately, Bari was the site of several Allied military
hospitals and related support facilites. Some were housed at the Bari Polyclinic,
built by Mussolini as a showcase of Fascist health care. The Polyclinic
was home to the 98th British General Hospital and the 3rd New Zealand Hospital,
among others. Those facilities received many of the mustard gas victims
that began to appear.
- Casualties from the raid began pouring in until the hospitals
were filled to overflowing. Almost immediately some of the wounded began
to complain of "gritty" eyes, and their condition worsened in
spite of conventional treatment. Their eyes were swollen, and skin lesions
began to appear. Swamped with wounded of all descriptions and still not
realizing they were dealing with poison gas, hospital staffers allowed
victims to remain in their oil-and-gas-soaked clothes for long periods.
- Not only were the victims severely burned and blistered
from prolonged exposure, but their respiratory systems were also badly
irritated. The mustard gas casualties were wracked with coughs and had
real difficulty breathing, but the hospital staff seemed helpless in the
face of this unknown ailment. Men started to die, and even those who did
recover faced a long and painful convalescence. Temporary blindness, the
agony of burns and a terrible swelling of the genitals produced both physical
and mental anguish.
- As the victims began to die, the doctors started to suspect
that some kind of chemical agent was involved. Some physicians pointed
fingers at the Germans, speculating that they had resorted to chemical
warfare after all. A message was sent to Allied headquarters in Algiers
informing Deputy Surgeon General Fred Blesse that patients were dying of
a "mysterious malady." To solve the mystery, Blesse dispatched
Lt. Col. Stewart Francis Alexander, an expert on chemical warfare medicine,
- Alexander examined the patients and interviewed them
when appropriate. It was beginning to look like mustard gas exposure, but
the doctor was not sure. His suspicions were confirmed when a bomb-casing
fragment was recovered from the bottom of the harbor. The fragment was
identified as an American M47A1 bomb, which was designated for possible
delivery of mustard gas. The Germans could be eliminated as suspects; in
this case, the Allies were to blame.
- Alexander still did not know where the mustard bombs
had originated. The doctor tallied the number of mustard deaths in each
ship, then plotted the position of the ships in the harbor. Most of the
victims came from ships anchored near John Harvey. British port authorities
finally admitted off the record that they knew John Harvey was carrying
poison gas. Alexander drew up a report detailing his findings, which were
approved by Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
- Secrecy still dogged the whole affair, however. Eventually,
the British and American people were told of the devastating Bari raid,
but the part played by mustard gas was kept from them. British Prime Minister
Winston S. Churchill was partiularly adamant that this aspect of the tragedy
remain a secret. It was embarrassing enough that the raid occurred at a
port under British jurisdiction. Churchill believed that publicizing the
fiasco would hand the Germans a propaganda coup.
- Although the gas was mentioned in official American records,
Churchill insisted British medical records be purged and mustard gas deaths
listed as the result of "burns due to enemy action." Churchill's
attempts at secrecy may have caused more deaths, because had the word gone
out, more victims, especially Italian civilians, might have sought proper
treatment. Axis Sally, the infamous propaganda broadcaster, learned the
truth and taunted the Allies. "I see you boys are getting gassed by
your own poison gas," she sneered.
- There were 628 mustard gas casualties among Allied military
and merchant marine personnel. Of these, 69 died within two weeks. Most
victims, however, like Captain Heitmann of John Bascom, fully recovered.
But the figures do not include the uncounted Italian civilians who must
have been exposed to the deadly chemical. There was a mass exodus of civilians
out of the city after the raid. Some were probably gas victims who died
for want of proper treatment.
- The deaths and injuries were terrible tragedies, but
Bari was a strategic disaster as well. The port was completely closed for
three full weeks after the terrible incident. On January 12, 1944, General
Mark Clark's Fifth Army launched an offensive, part of an overall push
that included the Anglo-American landings at Anzio some days later. Elements
of the Fifth Army crossed the Rapido River and established a bridgehead,
only to be forced to withdraw due to lack of supplies. Bad weather was
the official cause of the supply problems, but the closing of Bari was
probably a major factor.
- The Fifteenth Air Force suffered setbacks as well because
of the German success at Bari. Just two days after the raid, the Fifteenth
had been scheduled to act in concert with the Eighth Aier Force in a combined
offensive against Germany. The Bari raid sharply curtailed the Fifteenth's
participation in that offensive. In fact, the Fifteenth Air Force did not
make a major contribution to the war until after February 1944.
- The Bari raid was a twofold disaster. On one hand, it
was truly a second Pearl Harbor, one of the most notable Luftwaffe exploits
of the war. But it was also the only poison gas incident of World War II,
a tragdy made worse by the perceived exigencies of wartime secrecy.
Site Served by TheHostPros