- 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 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.