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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
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.