The Great German Assault On Bari, Italy
By James Donahue
A German Luftwaffe air assault on merchant
ships gathered at Bari, Italy, in the midst of World War II, was such a severe blow to allied forces it was kept secret for
the duration of the war. The attack killed over 1,000 people, left 17 ships sunk and six others damaged. It was referred to
by some as “the second Pearl Harbor.”
Among the ships that were bombed and sunk
on the night of Dec. 2, 1943, was the John Harvey, which was carrying a top-secret cargo of mustard gas that was intended
for use in retaliation if the Germans initiated gas warfare. The gas was held in solution in oil that floated on the water.
Of the more than 800 casualties hospitalized, 628 suffered from mustard gas exposure and 69 deaths were blamed.
The port of Bari was part of the British
theater of operations. While no naval vessels were there, 30 merchant vessels of American, British, Polish, Norwegian and
Dutch registry, laden with a wide variety of supplies for the war effort, were caught in the attack. A civilian population
of an estimated 250,000 occupied the city. Dock hands were working around the clock to unload the cargo in support of troops
engaged in a battle for Rome.
The attack led by Field Marshal Wolfram von
Richthofen involved 105 Junkers Ju-88 A4 bombers. In addition to the John Harvey, its on two ammunition ships caused massive
explosions that shattered windows up to sevenmiles away. A bulk fuel pipeline also was hit causing sheets of burning fuel
to spread over the harbor, engulfing many other ships.
The mustard gas, from bombs left over from
World War I, caused a cloud of the poison to pass over the city, but most of it spilled into the water where it mixed with
oil from the bombed ships. The men who jumped in the water developed chemical burns and blindness within hours. People from
the city came to the hospital for treatment of symptoms on the day after the bombing. Because the cargo of the Harvey was
a military secret, doctors did not know how to treat the mystery illness until tests confirmed it was sulfur mustard.