I’ve been asked about the title of my novel, Secrets of Bari. What are its secrets? First, and most horrendous, is a true but little known episode in its history that resonates appallingly today.
Chemical weapons have headlined the news lately, with the United States in the forefront condemning their use. I’ve cringed to hear reporters and commentators declare that the US has never employed chemical agents in warfare. Though technically correct, this statement fails to acknowledge that the US is responsible for the largest chemical weapon disaster in history and the only known deaths due to chemical weapons in World War II. Today, few people are even aware of the German attack on Bari Harbor that exploded an American Liberty ship secretly carrying poisonous mustard gas. The Allied nations were transporting large quantities of the toxic chemical for use should the enemy use gas first.
The news about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons conjures up what I believe to be the most horrific of ways to destroy life. Of course, the idea of mass destruction (how blithely we use that term) is repugnant in any form, but there is something about the poisoning of the very air we breathe that is particularly chilling. Victims of Sarin, the nerve agent suspected of being used in Syria, die a ghastly death as organs shut down and they experience diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, and convulsions. The situation in Syria is complex—but one fact remains clear: it has been against international law to make, stockpile or use any chemical weapons since the Chemical Weapons Convention, effective 1997. The use of gas in WWII was banned by the Geneva Protocol, yet every warring nation produced stockpiles to have on hand in case they needed it. In Bari, that policy proved deadly.
Bari is a port city on the heel of the boot Italy forms on a map. On December 2, 1943, a few months after the Allied armistice with Italy, Bari Harbor was so crowded with supply ships that they were lined up perpendicular to the docks.The German air force had been depleted and was no longer considered a threat, so harbor security was lax. Lights blazed as personnel worked into the night to unload the trucks, Jeeps, bombs, weapons, ammunition and hospital supplies needed for the offensive operation into Northern Italy. The scene was set for disaster, and at 7:30 pm, disaster struck.
In the most destructive bombing of Allied shipping since Pearl Harbor, German planes swept across the port, destroying or severely damaging 40 of the approximately 50 ships waiting to unload and devastating the surrounding town. The worst was yet to come. As fires blazed across the oil and gas-covered harbor, ships, heavy-laden with tons of bombs and ammunition, exploded throughout the night. The contents of one ship, the SS John Harvey, vaporized in an explosion so catastrophic, it was felt 20 miles away. No one remaining alive in Bari knew that the ship had been carrying 200,000 lbs of mustard gas. The toxic chemical mixed with the muck in the harbor and hung heavily in the air over the port. An estimated 2000 military personnel and civilians died in the attack, but countless others suffered the terrible effects of the noxious mustard gas.
Why have so few people heard of this attack? The answer is nightmarish in its simplicity. It was covered up. As casualties streamed into hospitals and clinics, doctors and nurses struggled to treat them, without knowing what they were dealing with. Had they known, many lives might have been saved. But officers were sworn to secrecy about the attack, and information was not forthcoming. The word had come down from the top—from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt—Bari never happened.
Three enlightening non-fiction books tell the story of the bombing of Bari: Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick, Disaster at Bari by Glen Infield, and Poisonous Inferno by George Southern, all from the point of view of the occupying forces.
In one part of my novel, Secrets of Bari, I tell the story of the raid through the eyes of four friends who grew up in the section of the city known as the Old Town. The attack on Bari changed the direction of their lives in ways unimaginable only hours before.