Bari Revisited; Part II 

Bari Revisited; Part II

The first commonly held belief behind the level of this secrecy associated with Bari is Allied fear of Axis retaliation. The Allies were concerned that should the Germans learn that the Americans had transported gas munitions to the European Theatre of Operations that the Germans might be more likely to either prepare chemical defenses, or use chemical weapons offensively themselves. On the surface, this makes a great deal of sense. After all, it seems plausible that the U.S. military would be sensitive about protecting American troops against the terror of gas warfare. There is a problem, however, with positing this premise as one of the primary reasons behind the secrecy; the United States military brought poison gas to the European Theatre of Operations to act as a deterrent. In order for a deterrent to work effectively, one’s enemy must be aware of its presence, or its purpose is lost. In fact it is mystifying as to why the Allies would not have wanted the Germans to be aware of its presence, yet, according to Infield, the Allied concern lay in preventing the Germans from knowing about the presence of gas at Bari, thus preventing a potential response. The historian John Lienhard was equally perplexed by this seemingly incomprehensible use of a deterrent as well, and stated as much in an article entitled “Engines of our Ingenuity.”

There were other potential reasons for keeping the events at Bari secret. Embarrassment of the President of the United States may well have been a second reason. Franklin D. Roosevelt said of chemical weapons in a public speech just prior to the events at Bari, “I have been loathe to believe that any nation, even our present enemies, would or would be willing to loose upon mankind such terrible and inhumane weapons. Use of such weapons has been outlawed by the general opinion of civilized mankind. This country has not used them. I categorically state that we shall under no circumstances resort to the use of such weapons unless they are used by our enemies.” To be sure, the Allies never did use chemical weapons against an enemy during World War II. But it could be argued that it would have been even more embarrassing should the world have learned that the Allies were perhaps more prepared to use poison gas than were the Nazis, especially after the American President described them as “outlawed by the general opinion of mankind.”

Another strong argument behind keeping the incident secret during the war, but not after, was public opinion in the United States. Certainly this would have been a major concern for the government and military, and was cited as such by Butcher in his book My Three Years with Eisenhower. Infield also acknowledges the importance of popular opinion, and suggested that the government lacked confidence in the American public, which caused it to become suspicious of its own people necessitating changes in the conduct of war.

Of the three commonly accepted reasons behind the secrecy attached to Bari, concern about public opinion seems to the most likely one. The Nazis were well aware of the fact that the Americans had gas munitions in the European Theatre of Operations, as revealed in the wake of the Bari incident when a German propagandist, “Axis Sally,” sarcastically commented on her radio broadcast, “I see you boys are getting gassed by your own poison gas.” If Axis Sally, a radio propagandist, was aware of the fact that poison gas was killing Allied soldiers in Bari, Italy in 1943, one can safely assume that the Nazi leadership was aware of it as well.

The cover-up could not have been exclusively related to concern about public opinion during the war, however, as the secrecy continued long afterward. Nor could it have been completely related to trepidation, and the fear of a Nazi retaliatory strike. It may have been more likely associated with a general inability to tell the truth, a sort of pathological fear that one truth might lead to another, and so on. There is no doubt that the Nazis were capable of retaliating in kind, should the Americans use gas. In fact, the Nazis possessed an extremely lethal, and then entirely new type of gas termed nerve agent, which the Allies were completely unfamiliar with, and ill equipped to defend against.

The disingenuous fear of Nazi retaliation

Skeptics might ask if there ever was a cover-up to begin with. The very fact that the air raid at Bari was second only to Pearl Harbor in severity for American shipping losses during World War II, and so very few people have even heard of it, is a significant clue. Infield’s book Disaster at Bari was essentially the American public’s first opportunity to learn the details associated with this major calamity, and it was published nearly three decades after the fact. Immediately following the war, hints of what took place there surfaced, but reports were not entirely forthcoming; in fact they were misleading. Efforts to cover-up the events at Bari might actually have gone so far as to include the intentional, albeit deceptive censorship of a high-ranking Nazi’s memoir.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander mentions the attack at Bari in his memoirs Crusade In Europe saying, “On December 2, 1943 a most regrettable and disturbing incident took place at the port of Bari…The port was subjected to a raid and we suffered the greatest single loss from air action inflicted upon us during the entire period of Allied campaigning in the Mediterranean and in Europe. We lost sixteen vessels, some of them loaded with extremely valuable cargo.” Eisenhower then proceeds to mention, almost as an afterthought, “One of the ships was loaded with a quantity of mustard gas, which we were always forced to carry with us because of uncertainty of German intentions in the use of this weapon.”

Captain Harry C. Butcher, Eisenhower’s Naval Aide, mentions the attack at Bari as well in his memoirs, My Three Years With Eisenhower, stating cryptically “The enemy aircraft found the harbor lighted, the ships closely packed together, and had the good fortune to hit an ammunition ship, and when it blew up a total of seventeen ships were destroyed.” Butcher, unlike Eisenhower, never even bothered to mention the mustard gas release, but this may have had more to do with the fact that his memoirs were published in 1946, two years prior to his commander’s belated admission of the gas present at Bari. Butcher does provide us with a glimpse into possibly one of the greatest reasons a cover-up was initiated concerning the events at Bari, when he hints that public opinion may have been the larger concern, rather than a Nazi response. When commenting on the embarrassing fact that twenty-three American planes were shot down during the Sicilian campaign by friendly fire, Bucher mentions that this fact “eventually reached the press,” adding “When this news broke, it added to the apprehension of the professional public relations people who think that because of this, the Bari disclosure, and the Patton incident, the public has lost confidence in the armed forces.” Butcher did state in his memoirs that if the Germans used gas, that the Allies would have no trouble responding as they had “lots on hand.”

The idea that the Allies were compelled to bury the truth for fear of Nazi retaliation, seems to be quite plausible, but it does not have a great deal of support in light of an array of evidence indicating Allied awareness of Nazi intentions with respect to chemical weapons and Butcher’s memoirs. Butcher’s comment about the Allies having no trouble in responding to a German gas attack, as they had “lots on hand,” indicates that fear of Nazi gas retaliation was not necessarily a major Allied concern, or at least not an unprepared for eventuality. Eisenhower’s admission that the United States carried gas along with them at all times being unaware of German intentions also rings false.

After all, the Allies were in possession of a German Enigma machine, and had broken the German code. This fact had a profound effect on military operations throughout the entire war, and most likely provided the Allies with all the information necessary to deduce that gas would not be used during the war. An example of this can be found in what Eric Croddy refers to as an “intelligence report” that was intercepted in 1942 regarding the alleged German consideration of employing poison gas against the Soviets. The result of this “intelligence report,” was that Winston Churchill broadcast a message to the Reich stating that the British would “treat the unprovoked use of poison gas against our Russian ally exactly as if it were used against ourselves and, if we are satisfied that this new outrage has been committed by Hitler, we will use our growing air-superiority in the west to carry gas-warfare on the largest possible scale far and wide upon the towns and cities of Germany.”

The decryption of Enigma was perhaps the most significant advantage that the Anglo-Americans had over the Germans during the war. In fact a prominent American historian of cryptography called it “the greatest secret of World War II after the atom bomb.” The secrecy employed by the Allies to prevent the Germans from knowing that their code had been broken was unbelievable. It even went so far, according to William Stevenson, that Churchill allowed the English city of Coventry to be severely bombed at great loss of life, rather than evacuate the city prior to the expected bombing, and reveal to the Germans that their code had been compromised. David Kahn, in another book entitled Seizing the Enigma, reaffirms “Churchill’s anxiety about the secrecy of Ultra (the secret Allied decryption of the Enigma codes) was constant, rules in all of the armed forces forbade any action to be taken on the basis of Enigma intercepts unless some cover, such as air reconnaissance, was provided.” In other words, the armed forces were prevented from acting on information provided by intelligence intercepts because they might give away the fact that the British had successfully decoded the German codes, unless another plausible explanation, such as aerial reconnaissance could explain their early notification. Ultra was so effective, that often the Allies intercepted and translated secret German communications before German field commanders. Another strong indication that the Allies did not consider it likely that the Germans would employ gas weapons on the battlefield, could be interpreted from the fact that out of an entire chapter devoted to the Medical Service’s preparation for the Normandy landing, The Office of the Chief of Military History devoted only a single sentence to the Service’s preparation for chemical warfare.

One entry in Joseph Goebbels’ diary seems to hint that the Nazis may have been aware of the fact that the Americans were in some way involved with gas munitions. On 7 April 1945 Goebbels wrote,

Our werewolf activity is now being taken extraordinarily seriously in Anglo-American circles, so seriously that Eisenhower is said to be toying with the idea of using gas against werewolf detachments. That would be entirely in line with the Anglo-American conduct of war but it would not deter us in the slightest since we should then use appropriate counter measures against Anglo-American soldiers.

The above entry seems to hint at some precedent, possibly Bari. What in effect appears to be a benign comment by Goebbels in his diary may in fact be quite revealing in the sense that it brings to light awareness on the Nazis’ part that the Allies may have been more likely, or at least more prepared to initiate gas warfare than were the Germans, quite an uncomfortable thought. The entry also supports the idea of Allied readiness to use gas as a deterrent, undercutting any need for a cover-up at Bari.
Churchill and the Bari cover-up

Churchill was a remarkable individual, and complicated to a fault. He will be remembered by history for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he was an effective Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. He displayed strength when the country was questioning the timidity of their former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Churchill could be inspiring, but also extremely secretive. One could say that he was sensitive about his own image, and thought highly of himself, as evidenced in much of his prolific writing. Eisenhower noted this in Crusade in Europe when he “could not escape a feeling” that Churchill’s views were “unconsciously colored” by a desire to vindicate himself from the embarrassment and humiliation associated with the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and associated strategy of World War I, a campaign in which the Prime Minister had been a “principle exponent.”

In order to understand the British position as it related to Bari, and perhaps the Prime Minister’s as well, it is important to remember that the British were in command of Bari, harbor and that they knew what kind of cargo the Harvey was carrying, as evidenced by a British “Most Secret” report documenting the contents of the Harvey, and dated 24 November 1943. This is significant because the British consistently denied knowledge of the Harvey’s cargo and the lack of action in expediting the unloading of the deadly gas from that ship. After the war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill continued to deny that mustard gas was present at Bari. He ordered that “all British records be purged of any mention of mustard and refer to the burns (sustained by the victims of the attack) as dermatitis ‘due to enemy actions.’” Perhaps it was not the present that Churchill was concerned about, but the future, and how it would interpret the disaster at Bari, and those associated with it. There is no doubt that Churchill was aware of history, and its importance to future generations; the Prime Minister was a historian himself, having written many books on the subject, even before his tenure as the British Prime Minister.

When one considers the many instances of apparently deceptive statements made by the Prime Minister, one could conclude that Churchill was not above deceiving the public, or fabricating a specific image designed to enhance his historical legacy. After all Churchill is the man who apparently said, “truth is the first casualty of war.” Churchill, the man, was not adverse to stretching the truth when necessary, or at least when he felt it necessary. One must take these facts into consideration, when approaching the subject of Bari, and what actually happened on 2 December 1943. What is known for certain is that Allied soldiers and merchant marines died as a result of exposure to a toxic gas. Churchill, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting otherwise, refused to believe, or at least admit, that mustard gas had killed anyone in Bari.

When exactly Churchill became aware of the air raid on Bari and the toxic aftermath is not known for certain, but based upon correspondence between Brigadier Leslie C. Hollis and General Sir Ian Jacob, a member of Churchill’s personal staff, it was sometime before 29 December 1943. Jacob wired the following to Hollis:

On December 29 the Chiefs of Staff belatedly informed Churchill that one vessel hit during the Luftwaffe attack on Bari on December 2, had been carrying no less than 540 tons of mustard gas; the disaster had led to a number of casualties among British seamen; as it was not at first realized that poison gas had escaped, the casualties were greater than they might have been.

One inconsistency that leaps out of this document is simply the significant differences associated with the quantity of mustard gas on the John Harvey, one hundred tons versus five hundred-forty. In fact this source is the only one in which anything more than one hundred tons appears. In any case, another wire, which is in fact Hollis’ reply to Jacob states:
Churchill had already been informed of this by General Alexander, who shared his astonishment that a ship with such a cargo should have been sent to Bari…Churchill was now awaiting the results of the inquiry with the greatest interest.

What is not specifically mentioned in either of these letters is when exactly Churchill was first informed of the mustard gas release at Bari. In the first letter we are told that the Chiefs of Staff “belatedly” informed him, and then Hollis clarifies this by informing Jacob that the Prime Minister was already aware of it. What is known for certain is that Churchill denied the existence of any mustard gas at Bari. Additionally, not a single mention of Bari appears in Churchill’s postwar memoirs. Winston Churchill published a compilation of history related to World War II in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Historians consider them to be in many respects a definitive history of the British struggle during WW II. The late historian Sir John Plumb even said “Churchill the historian lies at the very heart of all historiography of the Second World War and will always remain there.” The volume that would have covered the period of 2 December 1943 is entitled Closing the Ring. There is absolutely no reference to Bari, Italy at all in the volume, and only one reference to poison gas. In it the Prime Minister suggests to General Ismay that because there was enough poison gas in reserve, personnel associated with it could be significantly reduced.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Churchill was aware of the release of poison gas at Bari immediately after it happened. Based upon U.S. Military documents, we can safely assume that Churchill knew about the presence of gas in the ETO prior to its release at Bari, and in fact may have contributed to the number of casualties through his repeated denials. In a report dated 24 March 1944 it was established that as early as October 1943 the British and Americans had determined that stockpiling chemical munitions in the ETO would be advantageous. The Port Commander at Bari was in fact British, not American and was well aware of the presence of mustard gas aboard the John Harvey; in fact, he warned military personnel of its presence within hours after the attack. R.C.T. Chichester Constable confirmed in a report that the Port Commandant and Dock Superintendent at Bari were both British. These facts support the conclusion that the Prime Minister of Great Britain was in all likelihood informed of the presence of gas at Bari earlier, rather than later.

It must be reemphasized that the documents obtained for the purposes of developing this thesis were headed by both the “Top Secret” label associated with Americans, and the “Most Secret” label associated with British documents, therefore, they were shared, and should have been available to Infield when he conducted his research at the British Archives. Instead the author was met by a “great deal of reluctance,” and little cooperation. In this respect, research experiences even today would seem to support an argument for a continued pathological inability to tell the truth.

The above information relating to the British decryption of German codes and Churchill’s concerted efforts to bury the facts associated with Bari should strengthen the argument that the Allies were not entirely unaware of German military intentions on the battlefield, nor were they ignorant of what actually happened at Bari. Rather, Allied actions reveal an obvious effort to conceal the facts, and for other reasons than trepidation of a German retaliatory gas attack. After all, there is no point in continuing the deception after the war, if Nazi retaliation was the greatest concern.

Embarrassment of Allied leadership

It is highly unlikely, in fact ridiculous, to accept the idea that embarrassment of either the president of the United States or the Prime Minister of Britain played a significant role in burying the event either. Despite the fact that Roosevelt was “loathe to believe” that America’s enemies would use poison gas, both he and Churchill were on record stating that either nation would not hesitate to use poison gas, if in fact they were first used by the Germans, or for that matter, by the Japanese. Churchill himself was actually quite an advocate of gas warfare during the First World War. In fact, Winston Churchill’s wife had at least on one occasion lovingly referred to him as her “mustard gas fiend.” Embarrassment of Allied leadership was of no concern at all to either Churchill or Roosevelt in respect to gas warfare. If it would have shortened the war by a single year, Churchill was more than willing to “drench German cities in poison gas,” as revealed by a recently discovered June 1944 memo from Churchill to General Hastings Ismay.

Poison gas, used on the German population in order to speed up the war, was not the only toxic agent taken into consideration either. Today we know that a bio-weapon facility named Vigo existed north of Terre Haute, Indiana. If Mathew Meselson, a professor of molecular biology at Harvard and American notable in the area of chemical and biological warfare, can be believed, the American government constructed the Vigo plant in order to begin developing 500,000 four-pound anthrax bombs monthly. The destination of these bombs was Germany, presumably German cities. The Vigo plant was scheduled to begin producing hundreds of thousands of four-pound anthrax bombs in 1945. Information on this plant is extraordinarily hard to obtain, even today. Requests for information about the Vigo plant submitted by this author to the National Archives and Department of Defense have resulted in submissions to declassification committees, and lengthy delays, despite the fact that it has not produced any weapons since 1945. In fact, as of this writing, no additional material other than the obligatory FOIA response has been received by this author.

The problem with this of course is that for the most part, people would tend to reject information like this out of hand, and deny that the American government would ever do such a thing. Unfortunately, this revealing information concerning the production of anthrax bombs was credited to a rather reputable individual; Mathew Meselson, a man the U.S. government itself considered an expert in the area and had relied on many times in the past to investigate various issues dealing with biological warfare. Corroborating Meselson’s 1999 disclosure, Robert Harris, a British television news producer, and later author of the best seller Fatherland, produced a BBC documentary in 1981 claiming that Churchill had indeed seriously considered using anthrax against the German civilian population. Amid howls of protest he defended himself in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, a well known British paper, stating in effect that he stood by what he had said, and referred doubters to the documentary evidence. Taking this information into consideration dispels the notion that either Roosevelt or Churchill were abhorred by the idea of using gas or biological weapons on a civilian population, in fact they, by their very actions, seemed to advocate it. The United States military did consider the use of gas against the Japanese and a number of polls were launched in 1944 in order to assess public opinion on the matter, but in the end, like the British, the United States decided against it. This is not to say that either man wanted their respective populations to be aware of their true feelings on the matter, and at least in the case of Churchill, who went to extraordinary measures to prevent it, were willing to covertly avoid any embarrassment related to Bari.
Weight of public opinion

What all of this would seem to suggest as a motivating factor behind the secrecy applied to Bari, is that public opinion, not only during the war, but after as well, was more than anything else responsible for the actions of the British and American governments. Without question the Allies were willing to go to great lengths to keep their respective publics ignorant of the events of 2 December 1943. These lengths included the intentional, and deceptive censorship through editing of the Nazi Reichsminister of Propaganda’s diary, something that would not be known today if not for the opening of the former Soviet Union’s archives. Without the work of historians Elke Frohlich and David Irving, who conducted research in the former Soviet Archives in Moscow, there is the distinct possibility that we would not be privy to the uncensored and unedited thoughts, ideas, and words of Dr. Joseph Goebbels today.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, carefully documented his activities as well as the German military situation on a daily basis in his memoirs, which were published in America in 1948 under the titles of The Goebbels Diaries and Final Entries. Both of these tomes conspicuously lack any mention of the air raid on Bari. In December 1943 Goebbels was desperate for a German victory of any kind whatsoever. He felt compelled to provide the German people with some kind of positive news from the Front. Many of his entries published in The Goebbels Diaries concern themselves with this need. Strangely, the incredibly successful attack on Bari, and its subsequent effects with respect to Allied losses goes entirely unmentioned in the propaganda minister’s memoirs. One would think that the air raid on Bari was exactly the kind of victory Goebbels was so desperate for. It is absurd to believe that such a significant event like Bari would have been unintentionally edited out of the final version of Goebbels’ diaries when the mundane, day-to-day activities of Goebbels were translated verbatim, and included. At the same time, it is fantasy to embrace the notion that Goebbels would have somehow missed the air raid or forgotten to mention it. Untranslated entries obtained by the Institut fur Zeitgeschichte from the recently opened Soviet Archives show that Goebbels did mention Bari on no less than three occasions. The obvious conclusion is that these entries were edited out to prevent people from finding out details about the air raid on Bari.

Goebbels’ diaries were first published in German in 1945 under the title of Tagebucher 1945, and later in 1948 when Louis Lochner, an American journalist translated earlier entries and compiled the book entitled The Goebbels Diaries. This edition carried the caveat, “No representative of the interested agencies of the United States Government has read the original manuscript or the translation of excerpts therefrom,” Lochner’s translation conspicuously lacks the entries for December first through the third, the time that the attack on Bari might have been initially planned, and prepared for. Louis P. Lochner, the editor/translator for the Goebbels diaries attempts to explain this discrepancy by saying only, “There is a gap of three days at this point in the diaries.” The diary begins again on 4 December 1943 but continues only until 9 December 1943, and then, if we are to believe contemporaneous accounts, all of the entries between the latter date, and 27 February 1945 were either lost, or recycled by German entrepreneurs following the defeat of Germany in May 1945.

For more than four decades the idea that Lochner may have intentionally edited out mention of Bari was pure conjecture, however in the early 1990s the Soviet Union opened its archives to the west, and a veritable goldmine of information resulted, including the entire unedited diaries of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, which today seem to support the notion that Lochner did exactly that. The unedited diaries do not correspond exactly with Louis Lochner’s 1948 translation. Any mention of the attack at Bari is absent in Lochner’s version, but present in the version acquired from the former Soviet archives. Irving himself did not seem particularly suspicious of Lochner, stating recently that he thought Lochner’s translation was “pretty good,” and that he was not provided with Goebbels’ diary in its entirety. David Irving’s opinion cannot be dismissed easily, although it seems to defy logic, as he is a recognized expert on the Third Reich.
It would seem reasonable to conclude that if Goebbels were to mention the Bari attack, he would have mentioned it on either 2 December or 3 December. In the Lochner version Goebbels’ diary picks up again on 4 December, but ends again on 9 December. At no point in the Lochner translation is Bari, Italy mentioned, which is ridiculous considering what a tremendous victory it was for the Germans, and as already mentioned the worst naval disaster for America second only to Pearl Harbor. As an example, the unedited 4 December 1943 entry acquired from the former Soviet Archives includes the following information in regards to the Luftwaffe attack on Bari:

Our Air Force undertook with almost one hundred fighter planes, a heavy attack on Bari that came to full effect because the city was illuminated. Two freighters were sunk, an ammunition ship and a tanker were exploded. Besides these, there were a total of twenty-seven hits on other ships.

The 1948 publication of Goebbels’ diaries included 4 December 1943, but conspicuously neglects to mention anything whatsoever about Bari, Italy. The same holds true with the entry dated 5 December 1943. The recently acquired unedited version from the Soviet Archives clearly has Goebbels documenting that:

According to the latest determinations, the attack on Bari had an even bigger success than it was originally thought…it is already certain that ten units were hit with 66,000 tons in total. Those sunk were a tanker of 10,500 tons, an ammunition ship of 4,500 tons, a cargo ship of 10,000 tons and one of 6000 tons. Badly damaged were five cargo ships of a total of 30,000 tons as well as a warship from about 5,500 tons. In addition extensive fires in the harbor area were achieved.

Once again, the 1948 publication fails to mention anything about Bari, despite the fact that the same date appears in the Lochner translation. In the complete and unedited version 18 December 1943, an entry completely absent from the Lochner translation, as there were no other entries after 9 December 1943, includes additional information related to Bari. According to Goebbels:

The American Secretary of War Stimson has issued a sensational explanation over our last air attack on Bari. He had to admit large losses of the Allied Merchant fleet. In all 17 ships were sunk there within a few minutes. The big success can largely be attributed to our new weapons. In any case the American and English public is very indignant about it.

The entire Bari episode caused a great deal of consternation among the Allies, when questioned about the events at Bari in 1943, Secretary of War Stimson angrily dismissed the reporter questioning him, verbally lashing out with, “No! I will not comment on this thing.” Infield’s account includes the fact that Stimson informed the American people about Bari, but excluded any details, saying only that “Damage was done. There were a number of casualties.” Presumably Goebbels’ entry followed the preceding statements after Stimson had some time to regain his composure. The new weapons mentioned in the last Goebbels entry, according to Irving, were the innovative glider bombs dropped from Luftwaffe aircraft and then guided toward their target with a joystick control.

What all of this information should indicate is that yes, there was some surreptitious editing of Goebbels’ diary, and that this editing in no way could possibly be construed as something necessary for the Allies to have done in order to maintain positive public opinion, at least not during the war itself, as the Lochner translation was published in 1948, three years after the end of World War II.

Army report inconsistencies

Thus far three primary reasons behind the secrecy involved with the attack on Bari have been introduced, investigated and dismissed for lack of evidence or credibility as being the true cause behind the continuation of secrecy. This is where another reason, not considered before in connection with Bari, might be considered. A pathological inability to tell the truth in regards to the British and American chemical warfare programs may have played the greatest role in burying the details associated with Bari. The poison gas accidentally released as a consequence of the air raid on Bari was positively identified at the time by Lt. Colonel Stewart Alexander as mustard gas, but it may in fact have been another toxin altogether, and one that had only been used in the past by the Japanese: Lewisite.

Alexander was dispatched to Bari in order to investigate what actually happened at Bari on 2 December 1943, something that was already known thanks to the British port commander’s warning a few hours after the attack, and days before Alexander appeared on scene. Despite this, Alexander conducted his investigation and concluded that the agent responsible at Bari was sulfur mustard:

The point should be clearly made that these exposures were to mustard and not to other agents. It was not a new agent, but a new, and rather unique, method of applying an old agent.

Although the above statement is not a smoking gun, one may wonder why the Lt. Colonel stressed the fact that mustard was the agent responsible and not a “new agent.” Without any doubt the agent responsible was a vesicant, as the symptoms strongly suggested. What is curious however is that the report highlights what would seem obvious; the finding is remarkable because it seems to overstep Alexander’s mission.

What is being argued here, simply, is that the report, one written specifically for the military leadership at the time, and possibly for historical posterity, was superfluous considering the Port Commander’s knowledge of the cargo, if in fact mustard was the cargo. It seems that there may have been another reason, perhaps one more concerned about the future rather than the present.

Inconsistencies in government and military reports about the transportation and disposal of chemical agents, as well as the essential differences in the physical properties of various forms of mustard gas, support the conclusion that a cover-up was intentionally conducted. Secrecy with respect to chemical and biological agents of warfare seems to be an inherent feature of the Chemical Warfare Service and the United States government.

The United States Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program’s report out of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland has a number of these inconsistencies relative to the time period under consideration. It concerns itself with the reporting of transportation of chemical agents in the United States and around the world. The Chemical Stockpile Disposal documents themselves are not entirely complete according to the admonition sent along with the report. The report states that this is primarily related to a general feeling that since the transportation of these agents had become so common, that they no longer warranted special attention. Fortunately, these omissions are more prevalent in the 1950s, than the years immediately following the war.

The U.S. Army’s Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program report names one specific unit responsible for the escort of all chemical weapons to and from production facilities and depots. This unit was known as the U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit, and according to the report had been in existence since 1943. But this unit is not mentioned at all in the Reminick and Infield texts. Both Disaster at Bari and Nightmare in Bari mention the Chemical Warfare Service specifically, but not any Technical Escort Unit related to transportation of chemical munitions. Infield identifies several individuals responsible for the transportation of the mustard gas aboard the John Harvey, including a Captain Knowles affiliated with the 701st Chemical Maintenance Company. This unit trained at Camp Sibert, Alabama, a facility solely established for the training of chemical troops. Captain Knowles was in fact specifically trained for escorting chemical munitions, but was not affiliated with the Technical Escort Unit specified as being responsible for monitoring all chemical munitions transportation since 1943 according to the Army’s Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program study. In fact, there is not a single mention of a Technical Escort Unit in three volumes of military history related to the Chemical Warfare Service provided by the Office of the Chief of Military History concerning World War II.

Despite this inconsistency the report itself is interesting and provides a great deal of information related to the transportation of chemical munitions. The transportation section of the report is entitled “moves” and lists several pertinent facts associated with the movements of these munitions, including origin, destination, dates, and types of transportation used, cargoes, and quantities. Unfortunately, the quantities are not documented in tonnage or specific munitions, but rather by indicating the ship used, or the number of rail cars employed to transport the agents. The vast majority of transportation is documented as occurring in 1946, immediately following the war.

What exactly was on the John Harvey is difficult to know with any certainty, because according to Reminick, “copies of the [John Harvey’s] manifest were received and signed for by the Docks Superintendent at Bari on November 25, but subsequently vanished without any evidence that it was distributed to anyone.” There is no evidence that the manifest was destroyed in the air raid, or that it was not, it just inexplicably vanished. A “Most Secret” British report reveals that a total of 2574 bombs described as “Bomb. Gas-HS, M47A2,” which is the proper nomenclature for mustard filled gravity bombs, were aboard the John Harvey. HS is the specific CWS symbol for Sulfur mustard or common mustard gas.

Despite the voluminous documentation provided by the Army concerning the transfers of chemical agents after World War II, inconsistencies abound. For example, despite the fact that HS was said to be the agent at Bari, the U.S. Military never moved any mustard gas, nitrogen or sulfur out of Italy. It does not seem realistic that the mustard gas lost aboard the John Harvey was the only mustard gas in theatre, yet out of more than one hundred-forty “moves” documented in 1946, only nine are listed as originating in Europe. Out of those nine “moves” only three are listed as transferring “American” chemical agents, while the other six are designated as “German.” This would tend to suggest that there was not a considerable amount of American chemical agents in the European theatre, which counters what Captain Butcher said about having “lots on hand.”

On 1 April 1946 the Army’s chemical disposal report documents an “unspecified” amount of Lewisite, not mustard, leaving the port in Auera, Italy and being dumped at sea. The Lewisite must have been of American origin, as the report did not specify that it was German or Italian. In the only other case of chemical munitions leaving Italy in 1946, a load of Phosgene was designated to leave for the U.S. from Bagnoli, Italy on 22 May 1946. This cargo was placed on the Merchant Marine vessel S.S. Francis Newlands. The U.S. Army’s report provided an explanation for the presence of phosgene, and the purpose of bringing it back to the United States. The Army brought the phosgene back to the United States to be sold to private industry, as it is essential component in the chemical industry in the production of plastic and fertilizers.

The Lewisite is another inconsistency associated with the report. Since the report excludes the amount of Lewisite dumped at sea, as well as the type of vessel used to carry it there, it is difficult to discern how much exactly left Auera, Italy on 1 April 1946. Reminick provides an incredibly detailed account of Allied dumping of toxics in several locations including the Baltic, Skagerrakk Strait, the North Sea, and the Adriatic. A recent study commissioned by the Italian government has unearthed evidence that there are at least 20,000 bombs off the Italian coast, and possibly as many as 200,000, leading Edo Ronchi, the Italian environmental minister to say in 2000 that he would be sending those countries responsible a bill for clean-up measures.
Reminick’s account corresponds nicely with the Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program report in that he also states that an unspecified amount of mustard and/or Lewisite was dumped off the Adriatic coast, on the same dates documented by the U.S. Army’s Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program’s report, but the Army’s report mentions only Lewisite, not mustard (Italics mine). This seemingly innocuous admission on the part of the military report may actually represent the smoking gun behind the secrecy at Bari. Perhaps the agent aboard the John Harvey was not mustard after all, but was in actuality Lewisite.

Nowhere in the entire Army’s disposal report is there any documentation of dumping any agent except Lewisite at sea in either 1946 or 1947. The Army’s report failed to reveal a single transport of any American mustard gas leaving Italy after the war. This is very peculiar indeed, because the bombs aboard the John Harvey were said to be mustard, and not Lewisite! The Army’s report does however indicate that the Lewisite departing Auera Italy on 1 April 1946 to be dumped at sea was in the form of “bombs.” According to the definitive history of the Chemical Warfare Service provided by the Office of the Chief of Military History there were only a few bombs capable of delivering chemical weapons. It must be remembered that the Army’s report specifically cites the origin of the munitions, whether it be British, German or Italian. Omission of any of these three names indicates that the cargo is American. The CWS employed the M47 100-pound bomb, M47A1 100 pound-bomb, and later the M47A2 100 pound bomb for the delivery of toxics. Two thousand of the M47A2 100-pound bombs were aboard the Harvey on 2 December 1943.

In this respect the Army’s report along with the Office of the Chief of Military History’s biography of the CWS seem to corroborate that possibly the M47A2 100-pound bombs, which were nothing more than a slight improvement over the M47A1s, aboard the John Harvey may in fact have contained Lewisite, and not mustard, which would go a long way in explaining why the U.S. Military would have deployed a weapon system whose full potential could not be realized in cold weather.

Physical properties of Lewisite and sulfur mustard

A closer look at the distinctions between mustard and Lewisite is necessary at this juncture. Both agents are vesicants, or blister agents, and are persistent, in that they do not quickly evaporate once they have been employed in an area. Lewisite, however, has the distinct advantage of being effective in cold weather, whereas mustard freezes at the relatively high temperature of 58 degrees F, rendering it ineffective in colder weather.

This fact would have made Lewisite an extremely advantageous toxin in December 1943, so close to the coldest months in Italy. In fact the average Italian temperature generally falls below 58 degrees F in January, which incidentally was expected to be the time of year in which the Allies would be engaged in some of the heaviest fighting. A survey of the average temperatures of the Italian cities of Turin, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples reveal that none have an average temperature exceeding the freezing point of mustard in January. Although this study is not related to hydrography or oceanography, it must be noted here that the average annual temperature of the Adriatic Sea is 11 degrees Celsius or 51.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The average temperature of the Adriatic Sea in the winter is a chilly 7 degrees Celsius or 44.6 degrees Fahrenheit. These temperatures would indicate that possibly some of the efficacy of mustard gas would be lost because of the low water temperature, but not necessarily that of Lewisite. But the agent that blistered and killed those at Bari was dispersed in the cold harbor water, and did not seem to be rendered in the least bit ineffective. Considering this, one can see that Lewisite would have been the better choice for operations in Italy at that time of the year. It is irrational to believe that the military would not have been aware of this advantage Lewisite had over sulfur mustard.

The U.S. military had 20,000 tons, or forty million pounds of Lewisite on hand by the end of 1943. Taking this fact, and everything else covered within this chapter into consideration, is it possible that the Allies had other reasons for covering up the incident at Bari? Was it possible that the United States government was anxious to cover up the fact that they had introduced a chemical agent that had never previously been used in combat? The United States military rushed Lewisite to France during World War I in order to test its effectiveness on the battlefield, but undoubtedly to the chagrin of some in the CWS, were unable to employ it before the Armistice.

The casualties stemming from chemical exposure at Bari were enormous and according to Infield “unusually high,” especially when compared to the casualties associated with mustard during World War I. Infield suggests that this may have been related to the mustard-in-oil combination, and the prolonged periods of exposure the victims were subjected to. In the Final Report submitted by Alexander, he concludes that the victims at Bari suffered a significantly higher percentage of fatalities than had mustard victims during World War I. Additionally, Alexander affirms that systemic effects manifested by the victims were severe, and of greater significance that had been associated with mustard in the past. This would once again seem to spport the idea that perhaps what was aboard the Harvey was in fact Lewisite.

What Alexander is essentially acknowledging, is that the mustard gas casualties at Bari were not entirely what one would expect them to be, nor did they manifest the same signs and symptoms as mustard casualties had in the past. Alexander attempts to explain these discrepancies by suggesting that prolonged exposure to the agent in its oil-water mixture enhanced its effects. Is it possible that Alexander’s initial skepticism was justified? Perhaps Churchill was not being entirely dishonest when he stated that based upon the symptoms he had heard from witnesses caring for the victims in Bari, “The symptoms do not sound like mustard exposure.” The Prime Minister was in a position to know. After all he was very familiar with gas warfare from his experiences during World War I. He also was in a position to know exactly what was unleashed at Bari on 2 December 1943, and perhaps it was not mustard.

Eric Croddy, the author of Chemical and Biological Warfare, A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen, surmised that possibly the mustard at Bari may have been mixed with organic solvents like tetrachloroethane or chlorobenzene in order to reduce its freezing point and make it a viable weapon during the Italian Winter. Subsequent investigation revealed neither agent being documented as used by the U.S. Army in connection with lowering the freezing point of sulfur mustard.

Lewisite itself has the ability to actually bring the freezing point of mustard down to “- 24 F, or even less,” which is incredibly advantageous in an environment in which cold temperatures are prevalent. Unfortunately the Office of the Chief of Military History and the Chemical Warfare Service were not clear as to the compound employed by the United States Military in respect to reducing the freezing point of mustard, but did cite the agents used by the Germans and Japanese. The Japanese relied on a 50/50 mixture of mustard and Lewisite, while the Germans employed “Arsenol, a mixture of arsenic compounds, mainly diphenylchloroarsine.” Incidentally Lewisite, or dichloro (2-chlorovinyl) arsine is also an arsenical or arsenic compound, so essentially both the Germans and Japanese used arsenic compounds for reducing the freezing point of mustard. Therefore it seems plausible, even highly likely, that the United States did as well. The Chemical Warfare Service recognized the importance of adding a “thickening agent” to reduce the freezing point of mustard for use in cold weather, but allegedly sent unadulterated sulfur mustard to Italy in the cold of December to be used on the Italian front. It is safe to assume however, that the United States Military did take the need to decrease the freezing point of mustard seriously, and did make use of some compound, and Lewisite fits the bill.

Dr. Henry Boyter, Jr. an expert in chemistry and director of environmental health and safety and analytical services at the Institute of Textile Technologies, affirmed the fact that both mustard and Lewisite are highly reactive in water. Neither can remain viable for long when exposed to it. Dr. Boyter stated that he would likely prefer, if given the option, to be dunked in a solution containing mustard rather than inhale it. This confirms that the mustard should have quickly hydrolyzed, or been rendered benign in water. The historically accepted view of why it was not is that the agent was mixed with oil in the harbor waters immediately after the attack, but this does not take into account the low temperature of the Adriatic waters in December. Lewisite, like mustard, is unstable in water, but unlike mustard it retains its potency in low temperatures.

Lt. Colonel Alexander’s assertion that sub-lethal blast injuries, in combination with minor amounts of mustard vapor, caused the disproportionate number of casualties at Bari is intriguing and worth closely considering. This does not explain the discrepancy in the greater percentage of soldiers dying from the effects of mustard gas at Bari as compared to World War I. During the First World War soldiers were exposed to artillery barrages of both high explosive and chemical varieties. One would think that studies conducted during the Great War would have taken into account the effects of sub-lethal blast injuries, and mustard exposure, as both examples would have been plentiful. Croddy emphasized that quickly differentiating between thermal and chemical burns is not necessarily a simple task. Quickly differentiating between chemical burns caused by Lewiste or mustard would be impossible.

Another possible argument favoring Lewisite rather than mustard as the agent present at Bari is that Lewisite has an LD50, or a lethal dose in half those exposed to it of 2.8 grams total. Mustard has an LD50 considerably higher than Lewisite, meaning that it requires a higher concentration to obtain the same effect. In the case of sulfur mustard, a lethal dose, in half the cases of those exposed to it is 100 mg/kg, or approximately 7 grams in an individual weighing 154 pounds. This may explain why the percentages of those that died as a result of exposure to the vesicant, assuming it was in fact Lewisite, were higher at Bari than in World War I. It also goes far in explaining how, considering the immense volume of water in the harbor, and its low ambient temperature, the agent responsible was so effective.

Although there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Lewisite rather than mustard was the suspect agent at Bari, concrete documentary evidence is lacking. Dr. Boyter dispels the idea that Lewisite would have been any more stable in water or oil than mustard itself and Croddy doubted that a Lewisite-mustard mixture was the culprit only because he had not heard that this combination was part of U.S. stockpiles at the time. However, neither man could say for certain that it was not. One can only point out that the Department of the Army’s Chemical Stockpile Disposal report on chemical munitions transportation does not list mustard as an agent transported out of Italy either to be relocated or dumped, but it does list Lewisite. Additionally, despite the depth of the Office of the Chief of Military History’s account of the Chemical Warfare Service and its activities, it does not specify what agent the U.S. military used to reduce the freezing point of mustard gas, although it does acknowledge that one was necessary, and one can safely assume that in fact some agent was utilized.

Mustard gas was a chemical weapon that had been employed by all belligerents during World War I. There was not much secret about it, or its effects. Lewisite however, had not been used in combat with the possible exception of some limited Japanese use in China. Had the agent released at Bari been mustard gas, the Germans could not condemn the Allies for that as the Germans were stockpiling it too. The extent of the secrecy surrounding the Bari incident raises too many questions. Deterrence cannot work if it is secret. Also, there was no need for secrecy concerning the incident since Axis Sally was taunting the Allied personnel at Bari during her daily broadcasts about becoming casualties of their own “poison gas.” Could it be that the Allies were more concerned about the potential repercussions that might be faced as a result of introducing a previously unused chemical weapon into Europe? Today, the preponderance of evidence seems to suggest so. The presence of Lewisite rather than mustard explains why there was so much secrecy behind the entire incident. The introduction of a poison gas that had not been used before in combat may have been enough to instigate a preemptive chemical strike by the Nazis; it certainly appeared to contradict President Roosevelt’s public position on chemical weapons.


During World War I physicians first became aware of the strange side effects of vesicant agents, specifically mustard gas. They noted when caring for mustard gas casualties that the patient’s blood specimens manifested lower white blood cell counts than what would be normally expected. The effects of mustard gas cause severe burns, which blister and rupture leaving an area open to the bacteria filled environment. Generally, under these circumstances the body reacts by producing white blood cells, or leukocytes, in large numbers to combat infection. This in fact is a necessary immunological response, and is generally manifested in all patients suffering from either a localized or a systemic infection with the exception of certain individuals suffering from diseases like lymphoma or leukemia. At the time this phenomenon was first noted, it did little more than pique the curiosity of a few physicians caring for gas casualties during the Great War. Later however, physicians began to study this phenomenon more closely and even treated some patients with vesicants experimentally prior to World War II.
The casualties arriving at the medical facilities immediately following the air raid at Bari began to manifest signs and symptoms of mustard exposure within hours of being admitted. As time passed the medical personnel noted changes in their patients’ blood chemistry similar to those associated with casualties from World War I. In the case of the casualties associated with Bari, the symptoms were excessively severe, so severe in fact that they were dissimilar to mustard gas exposure in some respects.

Lt. Colonel Alexander noted the earliest signs that something was amiss in his medical report:

The first indication of unusual proceedings that evening was noted in the resuscitation wards. Men were brought in supposedly suffering from shock, immersion and exposure. Pulse would be imperceptible or just barely palpable, blood pressure would be down in the realm of 40 – 60 mm hg. And yet the cases did not appear to be in clinical shock. There was no worried or anxious expression or restlessness, no shallow rapid respirations, and the heart action was only moderately rapid, 110-120, considering the condition of pulse and blood pressure, these cases did not complain chest pain, have altered respiration, injured ear drums, or blood tinged sputum as in typical blast injuries. They were rather apathetic. Upon being spoken to they would sit up in bed and would state that they felt rather well at a time when their pulse was barely perceptible and their systolic blood pressure perhaps 50.

The medical personnel could tell immediately that their patients were not responding well physiologically to the treatment they were receiving. These specific casualties did not reveal evidence associated with blast injuries that do not necessarily have outward physical signs. As Alexander noted, they did not have “ruptured eardrums” or “blood tinged sputum.” Yet they were definitely doing poorly, and appeared to be getting quickly worse. In his report Alexander mentions that signs and symptoms of mustard exposure began to manifest themselves within six hours after the attack. Gladys May Rees Aikens, the Q.A Reserve nurse, first noted signs a few hours after dawn the following day. Whenever the signs of mustard exposure initially developed is irrelevant, but it is worth noting that there was clearly something drastically wrong with these individuals within twenty-four hours of exposure. In fact according to Alexander’s report, “the first death occurred 18 hours after exposure. Several other deaths occurred at 24 hours. There were 14 deaths within the first 48 hours.” Alexander remarked on the highly unusual nature of the deaths associated with mustard exposure:

Individuals that appeared in rather good condition, save for hypotaia, conjunctivitis, and skin erythema, within a matter of minutes would become moribund and die. There was no respiratory distress, marked cyanosis, or restlessness associated with their deaths. Cases that were able to talk and say they felt well, would die within a few minutes after speaking, and there were no prognostic signs of this possibility noted. Some cases just rapidly went down hill, as for example: one case was pulseless but warm, and able to talk; though still with a clear sensorium- the next was pulseless but cold; and soon his heart stopped beating. Their hearts, lungs, abdomens, and CNS (Central Nervous Systems) showed no or very minimal findings at these times. They did not complain of chest pain or have any blood-tinged sputum.

Alexander was a trained Medical Doctor and undoubtedly received excellent training at both the university where he attended medical school and with the U.S. Military. Why he would write in his report that pulseless individuals spoke, or were warm is a mystery however, as both examples are a physical impossibility assuming that the pulse is in fact absent. A pulse is the heartbeat that can be palpably assessed, generally around the radial aspect of the wrist. If the heart is not beating then blood is not perfusing throughout the circulatory system. If blood is not being sent to the body’s cells, including the brain cells, then one would be unable to speak, or for that matter do anything, as they would for all intents and purposes be clinically dead. Without a pulse, or a heartbeat, blood would not get to the surface of the body, into the capillaries of the integument or skin. Therefore the blood, which maintains its temperature through circulation, part of the process of homeostasis, would not warm the skin.

Despite this curiosity Alexander’s report is both informative and relatively thorough. The Lt. Colonel plotted the deaths of fifty-four individuals and noted two distinct peaks in the death curve, or the time intervals in which the majority of victims died. Alexander noted that respiratory symptoms did not appear until the end of the first week, something unexpected considering the damage mustard gas is known to cause in human lungs. Alexander surmises that the best explanation for this fact is that the victims were exposed to the mustard while in the water/oil mixture of the port after the attack, in some cases for extended periods of time. So rather than breathing in the fumes of the mustard, which as previously noted would have had its efficacy reduced by the cold ambient temperature of an Italian November evening, the victims bathed in it, and absorbed the toxin through the skin, and as later determined through the mucus membranes of their mouth and throat.

A few of the burns were related to vapor only, as the individual had not been in the water. However, the vast majority was burned with the mustard-oil preparation. Mustard can form a true solution in crude oil up to 20%, but the strength of mustard in the oil must have been far less than this. The concentrations in different areas must have varied considerably but, on the whole, were very dilute. The burns sustained depended on the amount of mustard in the oil that contaminated the man and the length of time this oil remained in contact with the skin. As there was no thought of toxic agent in the oil, no attempt was made to wash or decontaminate the men. Many men in oil contaminated clothing were wrapped in blankets, given warm tea and allowed to lie with the oil on their skin all night. The opportunity for burn and absorption must have been tremendous.

This fact is significant in that during World War I, the vast majority of those exposed to mustard gas had breathed it in, rather than absorbed it through the skin, especially in minute and diluted amounts. Prior to Bari, it had been assumed that the systemic effects of mustard were insignificant in its usual battlefield concentrations. In the cases associated with Bari however, the individuals were dipped into a solution of mustard-in-oil, and then wrapped in blankets, given warm tea, and allowed to absorb the toxin over an extended period of time.

It is the systemic effects that Alexander concentrated on in his report and summary. He concluded that the systemic effects were far more significant than had been associated with mustard in the past. This he attributed to prolonged periods of exposure over a large body surface area.

Alexander’s observation in this respect was very perceptive. One of the systemic effects noted by Alexander in his report, and one which later would pique the interest of medical research, was the effect mustard gas had on the white blood count (WBC). It did not take researchers long to tie in the effect mustard had on the WBC before they realized the promise it might hold in treating cancer. They realized that sulfur mustard suppressed the body’s immune response. The body’s normal immune response actually works against the cancer patient, and must be suppressed, in much the same way that an organ recipient must take immuno-suppressant drugs in order that their bodies not reject their new organ. In regards to the blood samples Alexander noted that the WBC was initially high, but after a few days dramatically dropped to a level that could not be explained. In all of the cases involving a dramatic drop in the white blood count the patient soon died. By evaluating this type of information, physicians were able to extrapolate that by controlling a vesicant dose, one could suppress the body’s immune response to a level that would prevent the immune system from working against the cancer patient, but not so much to cause death.

Stewart determined that in all likelihood, those that experienced the dramatic drop in their white blood count died as a result of a massive systemic infection. This is in fact a virtual certainty, given the hospital environment. Many of the Bari victims had already been injured in the attack, and may have had open wounds. Compound this with the presence of serious burn injuries and their tendency to become easily infected. The hospital environment is always susceptible to nosocomial infections, or infections brought into the hospital, and then transmitted within that environment to the immuno-compromised patient.

Alexander’s report emphasized the systemic effects that mustard had on the victim’s bodies. He stressed the damage done to the patient’s liver, but this was contradicted by autopsy findings. One certainly would expect a vesicant agent like mustard, especially if ingested or absorbed into the circulatory system to have a dramatically negative effect on the liver. The liver is an organ that literally processes and detoxifies blood. Since sulfur mustard is a toxin, one would expect that the liver would be more severely affected than any other internal organ with the possible excepti

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