- 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 British port authorities, when questioned, either did not know at that time or would not disclose for security reasons whether any of the ships carried poison gas. Alexander finally persuaded them to sketch the location of as many ships as they could recall, hoping that by correlating the deaths in the hospitals with the ship positions, he could narrow down his investigation to one or two of the Liberty vessels. He also alerted the military dock units to watch for any sign of chemical containers, had samples of the slimy harbor water analyzed, and ordered autopsies on the victims. His efforts paid off with dramatic suddenness when he received a telephone call from a British officer at the dock.
“We have just recovered a bomb casing from the floor of the harbor. It definitely contained mustard.”
Shortly afterward, the bomb casing was identified as an American-type M47A1 hundred-pound bomb. The sketch of the anchored ships indicated that most deaths occurred near ship No. 1, which was identified as the American merchant ship John Harvey . Finally—and reluctantly—the British port officials admitted that the manifest of the John Harvey listed a hundred tons of mustard bombs, intended for storage in Italy in case they were required for retaliation after an Axis poison-gas attack. It was obvious that when the ship exploded, the mustard in the bombs was released. Part of it mixed with the oily water of the harbor, part of it with the smoke clouds drifting toward the city.
There were 617 recorded mustard-gas casualties among the military and merchant-marine personnel at Bari on the night of December 2, 1943, and eighty-four victims died. The full count will never be known, nor will the number of civilians who died from the mustard ever be learned. When it is considered that of the 70,752 men hospitalized for poison gas in World War I, only 2 per cent died, the disaster at Bari is put in its true proportion. Seventeen ships were totally destroyed by the German bombers, and eight others were damaged—the worst shipping disaster suffered by the Allies during World War n with the exception of the Pearl Harbor attack.
The Bari mustard tragedy was kept secret long after the end of World War II and is little known even today. It had far-reaching consequences, however. One lesson learned was the absolute necessity that those involved with the shipping of chemical agents should notify the proper officials immediately in case of a mishap or danger of a mishap. Very few of the mustard casualties need have died if their exposure to the poison gas had been known immediately. If the warning had been given at once, not only would the casualties have been treated differently, but many of the rescue personnel, crew members of the ships not sunk, and hospital personnel would not have suffered chemical burns as they did.
In addition, the action of the British officials made the situation worse. The British controlled the port, and they were extremely reluctant to admit that any Allied ship carried poison gas. Even when Alexander had proved beyond a doubt that the casualties were suffering from mustard exposure, Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to permit any British medical reports to mention the mustard. The official reports, except for one or two preliminary reports issued before his ruling, stated that the burns should be listed as “ NYD ”—“not yet diagnosed.” This restriction prevented medical staffs in many of the outlying hospitals, where a large number of patients were taken, from knowing the victims’ true condition until too late, causing many unnecessary deaths.
Bari was the only major poison-gas incident of World War II. The tragedy was and is a grim reminder that all nations have secret stores of chemical agents ready for use against each other if the need arises. The victims of Bari, those who died and those who lived, learned the horrors of chemical warfare. Even in an age when the nuclear bomb is the ultimate in weapons, poison gas is still a fearful threat. Let the user beware.