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The FReeper Foxhole - Tragedy at Bari, Italy on December 2, 1943 - April 15th, 2008
see educational sources | various

Posted on 04/15/2008 5:47:52 PM PDT by snippy_about_it


Keep our Troops forever in Your care

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Bless those who mourn the lost.

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for all those serving their country at this time.

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Tragedy at Bari

Disaster in the Italian Campaign

Bari was an old city dating back to the Middle Ages, and located on the Adriatic with a population of about 200,000. It had become the main supply base for Montgomery's Eighth Army, plus the new Headquarters for the US 15th. Air Force.

On the 2nd. of December 1943, the port was crowded with 30 Allied ships. One of these, the Liberty ship John Harvey, carried a secret load of 100 tons of mustard gas bombs, a precaution in case Hitler decided to invoke the use of chemical warfare. The seeds of the ensuing disaster were planted, merely waiting to germinate.

Chaos at the port of Bari. The German raid closed the port for three weeks

The Port of Bari, all hustle and bustle.

Absorbed with the task of bringing the US 15th. Air Force into reality, with Major General James Doolittle in command, the Allies gave little thought to a German air raid on the bustling port of Bari. The harbour was crammed with shipping, stuffed with supplies, including aviation fuel for the US bombers crowding the Foggia air base 75 miles away.

Come sunset, on the evening of the 2nd. of December in 1943, with the urgent need to hasten the unloading of ships filling the port, the harbour was brilliantly lit so that cargo might be unloaded thoughout the night.


German reconnaissance flight during the afternoon of the 2nd. of December 1943.

1st. Lieutenant Werner Hahn had flown his Messerschmidt ME-210 over Bari at 23,000 feet on the afternoon of the 2nd. of December 1943. Unmolested by any AA fire, he made a second pass of the port, and turned North for home, to report that the proposed target was crowded with unloading ships, perhaps 30 plus.

Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, in command of Luftflotte 2, had suggested to his boss, Field Marshal Kesselring, that an attack on Bari could slow down the advancing 8th. Army, and retard attacks from the newly arrived US 15th. Air Force.

He thought he might manage to gather 150 JU 88's for the attack, in the event, 105 was all he could muster. His aircraft were ordered to fly east to the Adriatic, then turn and approach Bari to the west, the Allies no doubt would anticipate any German air raids to come in from the North. The aircraft would drop Duppel, thin strips of tin foil to confuse the defensive Radar. Parachute flares would be dropped to light up the targets in the harbour at about 1930 ( 7.30 PM , ) then the JU 88's, would attack at a low altitude, hoping to avoid Allied Radar installations.

Mustard gas in Liberty Ship SS John Harvey.

The Captain of John Harvey was not officially informed that his ship would carry a load of lethal mustard gas bombs. These were 4 feet long, 8 inches in diameter, and each held 60/70 pounds of the chemical.

Mustard gas forms blisters, irritates the respiratory system, leaving the skin burnt, with raw ulcers.

Post WW2, in the Royal Australian Navy, I was undertaking an Atomic, Biological, Chemical, Damage Control course at a Sydney NavalEstablishment, during which I was instructed how to combat the effects of mustard gas. Some of this deadly chemical was introduced onto the back of my hands, I was certainly pleased I had paid attention on how to nullify it working, as I diligently scrubbed it off my hands to negate any ill effects of this awful weapon of war. Fortunately I was successful.

On board John Harvey, 1st. Lieutenant Howard D. Beckstrom and his six man team from the 701st. Chemical Maintenance Company were on hand in case of trouble from this deadly cargo. The ship had crossed the Atlantic Ocean without running into any U-Boat problems, then had stopped at Oran in Algeria, thence to Augusta in Sicily, until it made it into Bari on the 26th. of November. Her cargo including 2,000 M47A1 gas bombs filled with mustard gas, which remained a secret, meant she was not given any priority to unload, she must wait her turn.

A flight of German JU 88's in the raid on Bari, December 1943

The German air attack.

Arriving on schedule at Bari, Flight Lieutenant Gustav Teuber, leading in the first wave of bombers could not believe his eyes, the scene below, brilliantly lit, cranes busily lifting cargo from ship's holds, the east jetty crowded with ships.

The attack was a complete suprise, Liberty Ship Joseph Wheeler exploded from a direct hit, John Motley was hit in No. 5 hold, John Bascom next to her, shattered by a rain of bombs, was abandoned.

John Harvey on fire, suddenly blew up, disappearing in a mighty fireball, casting pieces of ship and her deadly cargo of mustard gas all over the harbour. Mustard gas gives off a garlic odour, and now it combined with oil in the harbour, a deadly and volatile mixture. People were noticing a smell of garlic in the air, already doing its deadly work.

Another Liberty ship, Samuel Tilden was sunk.

In all, 17 ships were lost, 5 American, 5 British, 2 Italian, 3 Norwegian, and 2 Polish, another 7 were heavily damaged. Here is a list of the 17 ship losses and those damaged in the raid.


John Harvey (US Liberty, 7177 gt)
John L. Motley (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
John Bascom (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
Joseph Wheeler (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
Samuel J. Tilden (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
Fort Athabasca (British, 7132 gt)
Fort Lajoie ( British, 7134 gt )
Testbank (British, 5083 gt) ***
Lars Kruse (British, 1897 gt)
Devon Coast (British, 646 gt)
Bollsta (Norwegian, 1832 gt)
Norlom (Norwegian, 6412 gt)
Lom (Norwegian, 1268 gt)
Lwow (Polish, 1409 gt)
Puck (Polish, 1065 gt)
Frosinone (Italian, 5202 gt)
Barletta (Italian, 1975 gt)

*** SS Testbank collided with SS Ceramic off the coast of South West Africa, ( now Namibia ) on the 11th. of August in 1940, forcing Ceramic to seek repairs at Walvis Bay. Ceramic herself was later sunk by U-Boat U-515, in the Atlantic on the 7th. of December 1942, and now Testbank is sunk in this raid on Bari, indeed two ill fated ships.

Heavily damaged ship list.

Grace Abbott (American, 7191gt)
John M. Schoefield (American, 7191gt)
Crista (British, 2590 gt)
Brittanny Coast (British, 1389 gt)
Vest (Norwegian, 5074 gt)
Cassala (Italian, 1797 gt)
Odysseus (Dutch, 1057 gt)


There were over 1,000 military and merchant marine casualties, some 800 were admitted to local hospitals. 628 suffered from the mustard gas, of whom, 69 died within two weeks.

The port was closed for three weeks, it had been rendered into rubble.

Secrecy about the mustard gas.

Although US records did mention mustard gas, Winston Churchill insisted all British Medical records were purged and mustard gas deaths were merely listed as the result of: " Burns due to enemy action."

No doubt his insistence of secrecy could have caused more deaths, as victims, especially Italian civilians might have sought proper treatment for their injuries, had they known the real cause.


This Bari raid was a disaster on two fronts. It was a Second Pearl Harbor, with 17 ships totalling 75,936 tons sunk, and another 7 ships with a tonnage of 27,289 tons heavily damaged by this sneak air attack by German aircraft, one of the Luftwaffe's success stories.
The Bari raid produced the only poison gas incident associated with WW2, made worse by the perceived need for secrecy in wartime.

FReeper Foxhole Armed Services Links

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Naval Armed Guard Service: Tragedy at Bari, Italy on 2 December 1943

German JU 88, used in the raid on Bari

One of the most disastrous bombing attack against allied ships during the entire war took place at Bari, Italy, on December 2, 1943. This port was in the British theater of operations, but several American [merchant] ships with [U.S. Navy] Armed Guards aboard were at Bari on that fateful day [when a German air raid occurred]. When the last bomb had fallen, and the last ship exploded, and the large fires had run their course, 17 ships had been sunk and six damaged. There were five United States ships sunk and one damaged. One other United States ship came through unscathed.

The Joseph Wheeler had her starboard side blown out and was on her port side when her Armed Guard officer, who had been ashore arranging for the pay of his men, last saw her. The only Armed Guard survivors were the officer and twelve men who were taking a well-earned liberty in the town. There were 15 Armed Guards dead or missing and 26 of the merchant crew missing.

The Samuel J. Tilden was bombed and then sunk by two British torpedoes to prevent danger to other ships. A bomb crashed through to the engine room at about 1920 and an incendiary bomb hit forward of the bridge. The German pilot [of the attacking aircraft] strafed the deck [with machine gun fire]. Anti-aircraft fire from ashore also hit the ship. A searchlight was [shined] on the ship for seven minutes after the attack began, apparently because somebody ashore forgot to turn it off. All of the Armed Guards survived but the dead and missing among the merchant crew numbered 10 and there were also casualties to Army personnel [who were on board].

All of the Armed Guards were lost with the John Harvey [which was carrying mustard gas]. Most of the merchant crewmen were also missing. Apparently the only people who survived were those who were ashore.

The John L. Motley had grim luck on her trip to the Mediterranean. On August 8, calcium carbine had caused an explosion and fire [on board]. Then came her end at Bari. There were only five survivors from her Armed Guards, and 30 of the merchant crew were missing or dead. Four of her survivors were ashore. It was reported that three bombs hit the ship.

The Lyman Abbott was more fortunate, for she escaped with only moderate damage. Her report indicates that the harbor was crowded with some 30 ships plus one ship outside and that the harbor soon became an inferno of flames and smoke accompanied by violent explosions of the burning ships. The master ordered "abandon ship" at 2015 when several burning ships drifted close, but she was re-boarded [when the danger passed]. Her only damage from bombs was to her rudder, but the explosions added to her damage. One Armed Guard was killed and the Army Cargo Security Officer also died. Nearly all of the Armed Guards suffered burns and some of them were hit by fragments. All in all, it was a grim night for the Abbott, but she was able to leave on January 10 [1944].

The Louis Hennepin was the only ship carrying Armed Guards which escaped without material damage. But two bombs landed about 100 yards from the ship and two Armed Guards were wounded. Her Armed Guard officer reported that lights along the dock stayed on for 13 minutes after the first bomb dropped, and [he] declared that port facilities were inadequate and that there was a lack of coordination. This ship fired some 6,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition during the attack. She also fired on December 11.

The John Bascom was hit by three bombs at 1945. This fine ship was apparently the first in the harbor to open fire [on the attacking German aircraft]. An explosion on the John L. Motley caused the whole port side of the Bascom to cave in. The ship did not have a chance to survive. From this awful carnage emerged one of the finest heroes of the Armed Guard Service. Ensign Kay K. Vesole won the Navy Cross and later had a Navy ship named for him. But he lost his life in heroic service to his crew. Wounded in the shoulder and over the heart, he still went from gun to gun directing action and rendering aid to the wounded and dying. Weak from the loss of blood, he conducted a party of his men below decks and supervised the carrying of wounded to the boat deck. When the ship was in a burning and sinking condition he supervised the loading of the only lifeboat not destroyed. His crew had to force him into the lifeboat. He wanted to swim to make room for men with worse wounds than his. He insisted on rowing with his uninjured arm as he helped disembark the wounded. He helped carry wounded to the bomb shelter and had to be restrained from going back into the flames to rescue other wounded when an ammunition ship blew up. He dispatched a signalman to the end of the jetty to signal for help. He refused to embark in the first boat sent to rescue the Bascom survivors but was forced into the second. He appears to have sacrificed every chance to recover in his efforts to save others. He was in every sense one of the finest heroes of World War II and typified the finest in the traditions of the Navy and the Armed Guard Service. From this destruction of his ship nine of his Armed Guards perished with him. Nine men from that crew were awarded Bronze Star Medals.

Bari was one of those sudden blows which did great damage but did not long delay the victorious march of the allies in Italy. The blow was too sudden for Armed Guards to do much to defend their ships. It well illustrates the danger which was always just around the corner for all Armed Guard crews. Men who go through such actions have to be highly disciplined and trained, and to have superb courage.

Note: Among the ships sunk when German JU-88 bombers attacked the port of Bari on the night of 2 December 1943 was John Harvey, which was carrying mustard gas intended for use in retaliation by the Allies if German forces initiated gas warfare. Most of the released gas was carried out to sea by an offshore breeze, but many military and civilian personnel were temporarily incapacitated or killed by undetermined amounts of the gas which were held in solution in oil that was floating on the water. Of the more than 800 casualties hospitalized after the raid, 628 suffered from mustard gas exposure. Sixty-nine deaths were attributed in whole or in part to this cause.

Medical officers and aidmen treating the casualties were unaware of the presence of the gas, which was diluted sufficiently to be detected by odor. In the belief that casualties covered with oil but showing no physical damage were suffering from exposure and immersion, they were wrapped in blankets, still in their oil-soaked clothing, given hot tea, and left as they were for twelve to twenty-four hours while the more urgent blast injuries and surgical cases were treated.

Those with the energy and will to clean the oil from their own bodies suffered no serious damage, but the remainder suffered varying degrees of mustard burns. Eyes began to burn about 6 hours after exposure, and were so badly swollen in 24 hours that many of the patients thought themselves blind. The first deaths occurred without warning 18 hours after exposure.

About 90 percent of the gas casualties were American, the bulk of them merchant seamen. Since no U.S. hospital facilities were yet available in Bari - equipment for all but one of the U.S. hospitals scheduled for the area were destroyed in the bombing - casualties were hospitalized in British installations. [Adapted from: Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The Medical Department: Medical Service in the Mediterranean and Minor Theaters. (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. Of the Army): 350-351.]

For further information:

Infield, Glenn B. Disaster at Bari. New York: Macmillan, 1971.[contains a useful bibliography and reproductions of official reports].

Mahoney, Tom. "Comment and Discussion: The Bari Incident." United States Naval Institute Proceedings. 94, no.1 (Jan. 1968): 101-102. [comments regarding mustard gas casualties].

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Sicily - Salerno - Anzio, January 1943 - June 1944. vol.9 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little Brown, 1954. [On pages 319 and 322, Morison briefly describes the raid calling it "the most destructive enemy air raid on shipping since the attack on Pearl Harbor."].

Sanders, D.M. "The Bari Incident." United States Naval Institute Proceedings 93, no.9 (Sep. 1967): 35-39.

Southern, George. Poisonous Inferno: World War II Tragedy at Bari Harbour. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife Publishing, 2002. [Includes a chart on pp. 14-15 of ship berthing at port of Bari, with locations of ships indicated.].

Nightmare in Bari: The World War II Liberty Ship Poison Gas Disaster and Coverup (Paperback) by Gerald Reminick

1 posted on 04/15/2008 5:47:53 PM PDT by snippy_about_it
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To: PROCON; Berlin_Freeper; DieHard the Hunter; James Ewell Brown Stuart; alfa6; Allen H; ...

SARGE Says...
I Dug the Hole Now "FALL IN" to the FReeper Foxhole!

Good Evening Everyone.

If you want to be added to our occasional ping list, let us know.

2 posted on 04/15/2008 5:49:18 PM PDT by snippy_about_it (The FReeper Foxhole. America's history, America's soul.)
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To: snippy_about_it

Just finished my taxes and was clicking on FR before taking my wife to dinner.

A new Foxhole. I’ll read it after dinner.

3 posted on 04/15/2008 5:59:00 PM PDT by PAR35
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To: snippy_about_it

Destruction of harbor facilities at Bari

Allied shipping burning at Bari, 3 December 1943

Thanks for another little known story from WWII.

4 posted on 04/15/2008 6:02:06 PM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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To: PAR35

Hey Par35!!!

5 posted on 04/15/2008 6:02:51 PM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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To: snippy_about_it; SAMWolf; Professional Engineer; alfa6; Peanut Gallery; Samwise; All

6 posted on 04/15/2008 6:03:51 PM PDT by Soaring Feather (I soar- 'cause I can...)
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To: SAMWolf; snippy_about_it

I look a little bit like Sarge

7 posted on 04/15/2008 6:06:45 PM PDT by Soaring Feather (I soar- 'cause I can...)
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To: Soaring Feather

Hey Feather!! Close but Sarge is “better looking” ;-)

8 posted on 04/15/2008 6:07:56 PM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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To: SAMWolf

LOL, I gotta agree with you on that!

9 posted on 04/15/2008 6:09:37 PM PDT by Soaring Feather (I soar- 'cause I can...)
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To: SAMWolf; snippy_about_it; Soaring Feather; Samwise; The Mayor; Professional Engineer; All
Bump for the #1 Freeper Foxhole

1st Field Artillery Brigade from around WW-1


alfa6 ;>}

10 posted on 04/15/2008 6:12:55 PM PDT by alfa6 (One mans magic is another mans engineering... L.L.)
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To: snippy_about_it

Howdy folks.

11 posted on 04/15/2008 6:16:12 PM PDT by U S Army EOD (Say Cheese.)
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To: snippy_about_it

Great read, and so ironic that it took place in December.

Thanks for the ping.

12 posted on 04/15/2008 6:28:25 PM PDT by jtill (Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.)
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To: SAMWolf

Long time no see. How are you all doing? Still using dialup?

13 posted on 04/15/2008 7:32:25 PM PDT by PAR35
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To: snippy_about_it; sam

Good evening, Snippy & Sam. It’s good to hear from you again.

14 posted on 04/15/2008 8:31:17 PM PDT by Humal
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To: snippy_about_it
Lucky for us Adolf didn't get wind [no pun intended] of the mustard gas. The Germans had invented Sarin and Tabun nerve gasses, which were a lot deadlier than anything we had.

Hitler, having been temporarily blinded by gas in the last months of WWI, seems to have decided against chemical warfare based on that experience. Knowing about Bari might have changed his mind [He also forbade German ground units to use ‘false flag’ tactics for some reason].

15 posted on 04/15/2008 9:29:29 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: snippy_about_it

((HUGS))Good morning, Snippy and everyone at the Freeper Foxhole.

16 posted on 04/16/2008 2:56:40 AM PDT by E.G.C.
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To: alfa6

Morning alfa6. If you’re gonna be one, might as well be a Big Red One. :-)

17 posted on 04/16/2008 3:19:01 AM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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To: U S Army EOD


18 posted on 04/16/2008 3:19:49 AM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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To: PAR35

Morning PAR35.

Finally got real Internet access again!! YAH!! We’ve been busy with real life.

19 posted on 04/16/2008 3:21:27 AM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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To: jtill

Morning jtill. December was not a good month for the US during WWII. Pearl harbor, Bari, the bulge.

20 posted on 04/16/2008 3:23:10 AM PDT by SAMWolf (Huckabee & McCain say -- Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.)
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