Forgotten History: In 1943, America Gassed Its Own Troops With Deadly Results

Michael Peck

Key point: In the end, the mustard gas shipped to Bari proved unnecessary.

What a perfect night for a weapon of mass destruction.

It was December 2, 1943. And the Nazi bomber crews flying over the Italian port of Bari might have wondered whether they were actually in a war zone.

Gleaming below, despite the wartime blackout, was a harbor so brightly lit that it illuminated more than than thirty ships supplying the Allied armies advancing up the Italian peninsula. Aboard those transports were the usual necessities of modern warfare: ammunition, fuel, food, spare parts.

Except one ship was different: the American Liberty ship John Harvey. That blandly named vessel carried one hundred tons of mustard gas, contained in hundred-pound bombs, which the United States had sent to the Mediterranean in case Hitler unleashed chemical weapons in a last desperate bid to stave off the invasion of Fortress Europe.

Surely a ship packed with poison gas would have bristled with defenses against air attack? Yet by the end of 1943, the Allies had grown complacent: Hitler’s Luftwaffe was on the defensive, the wings of its once-vaunted bomber force clipped and its fighters withdrawn back to Germany to battle Allied strategic bombing offensive.

Yet underestimating the Germans was always a mistake. The Luftwaffe was actually far from finished. It had been conducting sporadic bomber raids since the Allies landed in Italy in September 1943, enough that any prudent planner would have ensured ample fighters and flak defended a vital supply port like Bari. Yet on that December night, Bari had neither.

The countdown to disaster began on the afternoon of December 2, when a German reconnaissance plane noticed the ships crowding the harbor. Unable to pass up such a juicy target, the Luftwaffe quickly mustered 105 Ju-88 twin-engined bombers capable of dropping up to three tons of explosives apiece.

At 7:25 p.m. that night, a few German aircraft dropped chaff (metal foil) to fool defensive radar, and flares to illuminate the target. Neither was needed.

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