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Disaster In Bari

March 2023
1min read

A personal tragedy in the mid-1950’s led to my discovery of the Bari disaster. When my mother’s illness was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer that originates in the body’s lymph tissues, a local doctor told me that a new drug treatment was being used in a few hospitals in the nation, nitrogen mustard.

I made contact with the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City and promptly received from Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads a reprint of a speech he had given to a medical society. “Dusty” Rhoads had been chief of the Medical Division, Chemical Warfare Service, U.S. Army, at the time of the Bari disaster, and the incident was mentioned as the ultimate source of the nitrogen mustard treatment for Hodgkin’s disease and leukemia. My curiosity as a writer was aroused, and I immediately set out to learn more about it. Meanwhile, my mother was given the nitrogen mustard, and according to medical experts, the drug prolonged her life for approximately a year.

I soon discovered that even in the late 1950’s the military were exceptionally reluctant to release any details about the poison-gas episode at Bari in 1943. I was rebuffed at the National Archives, where most of the available material was still classified. A letter to President Eisenhower, whose book Crusade in Europe mentioned the incident, brought a polite note from his military aide, but no more information.

I decided that to get the necessary facts I would have to go to the individuals involved. Dr. Stewart Alexander, the brilliant medical officer who determined that the mysterious deaths at Bari were caused by exposure to mustard, turned over his files on the incident to me and helped me locate other materials as well as people who knew about the event. Over a long period hundreds of men and women who had been at Bari sent me their stories of the tragedy.

In Europe I learned that even some of the “facts” that had been released about the incident were mistaken. For example, General Eisenhower’s book indicated that the wind blew the mustard vapor away from the city, while citizens of Bari and military personnel who were there vowed that clouds of smoke covered the city like a blanket.

Through sources I cannot now reveal, I received the final official medical reports of the Bari incident, and these, together with a great mass of other materials gathered over years of research, enabled me to write my book.

The episode at Bari was a tragedy, but at least the medical knowledge gained from it is in use. That is some consolation.

—G. I.

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