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Bari Disaster

I had not arrived at Bari on this terrible day.
The results of this day's events were felt by many people, including the 15th AF groups just arriving in Italy and countless civilians and military personnel at the port which was to become 15th AF HQ.
It all happened on the night of December 2nd, 1943. Thirty ships were at anchor in the harbor containing munitions and vital supplies destined for the arriving bomb groups from the US. If one had monitored the "Mailing List" on the B-24 Veterans Group on the Internet, they may have heard complaints from some of the newly arriving fly boys about the Spartan conditions and severe shortages they experienced. Mud was a severe problem on the airfields, compounded by the lack of Marston mats. GI's had to eat in pouring rain at some bomb groups, because of the lack of shelter. Many of the ships carried supplies destined for our troops stalled at Anzio.
Jerry had spotted the 30 ships nestled in the harbor and that night a successful raid destroyed most, if not all of the cargo vessels. The news of the raid and its' results were said to have been suppressed at Winston Churchill's insistence. Why was it not publicized? Churchill was of the highest level and had records suppressed. Of course our friend, Axix Sally reported the incident. It might be of interest that Jimmy Doolittle was present in Bari and watched as his long awaited supplies were destroyed before his eyes. Keep in mind that the suppression of the story was only to avoid giving the German's a wonderful propaganda weapon. The suppression evidently succeeded in that so few people are aware of the incident even at this late date.
Among the ships in the harbor was the merchant vessel, John Harvey. Unbeknownst to her skipper, she carried 100 tons of mustard gas!! The German raid had lasted only about 20 minutes, but the heroic crew of the John Harvey was last seen fighting the fires aboard their ship. Their battle was lost when the flames ignited tons of normal ammo, triggering an explosion that set off the mustard gas bombs! A chemical warfare specialist present had wanted to remove the poison gas from the ship, but the operation was so secret that he was not even permitted to warn the British port authorities! He alone, had known of the terrible danger facing both the civilian and military populations in the area.
Bari had only recently been taken from the Germans and the harbor waters were a mess of spilled oil and debris. The chemical warfare specialist and his crew had all died on the John Harvey. The smoke from the burning ships and the floating oil covered Bari for several days. With no one to warn the civilian and military population, the fires carried smoke and highly toxic mustard gas towards the town. Doctors in the Bari hospitals began to notice that the patients , now in the hundreds, had severe eye burns, their genitals became grossly swollen and painful, many had pneumonia like symptoms. Suspecting a chemical agent was responsible they enlisted the aid of Eisenhower's headquarters to assist them. A chemical specialist was sent to the stricken town and confirmed the garlic like odor was not garlic but the deadly mustard gas. He actually had to launch an investigation before the authorities would even admit the gas was there! How many lives were needlessly lost by this secrecy will not be known. Initially, it was thought by many, to have been dropped by the Germans.
Winston Churchill denied the gas presence and Secretary of War Stimson would not comment on the rumors. The Germans despite the coverup soon had Axis Sally on the air taunting the Americans saying, "I see you boys are getting gassed by your own poison gas." Looking back on poison gas use in WWI being so terrible, even Adolph didn't consider using it this time. Had the authorities admitted it was there "just in case" Adolph used it, many lives could have been saved. Of course German propaganda would have been made full use of that piece of info.
Altogether, there were 1000 military and merchant seamen that died and an estimated MINIMUM of 1000 civilian fatalities! Yet, I never felt any overt animosity from the civilian population in all the times I was there.
Bari's port was not restored for about three months. Diagnostic delays because of the secrecy was the contributing factor to the many fatalities. For the 15th Air Force, it was delayed for about three months in its' assigned tasks. In fact, the entire Italian campaign was delayed by the supply losses at Bari.

Submitted by: Al Saldarini, 1st CCU

Bari was hit a second time during the war. The following pictures show some of the devastation:

British troops rescue survivors

Casualties were high

Many died

Civilians run for their lives

Many ships were lost

Photographs submitted by: Al Saldarini, 1st CCU

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