- Historic Sites
Disaster At Bari
It was the most devastating enemy surprise attack since Pearl Harbor—but what mysterious affliction were people dying of two days later?
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
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 .