On the night of December 2, 1943, the Germans bombed a key Allied port in Bari, Italy, sinking 17 ships and killing more than 1,000 US and British servicemen and hundreds of civilians. Caught in the surprise air raid of World War II was the John harvey, an American Liberty ship carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 mustard bombs to be used in retaliation if Hitler resorted to gas warfare.
The Luftwaffe’s lucky strike, which released a poisonous cloud of sulfur mustard vapor over the harbor – and liquid mustard in the water – prompted the Allies to cover up the chemical weapons disaster. But it also led to the fortuitous discovery by an Army doctor of a new cancer treatment.
Eisenhower and Churchill coordinated an immediate cover-up, preventing treatment of victims
In the aftermath of the devastating attack, which the press dubbed a “little Pearl Harbor,” US General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill attempted to cover up the truth about the poison gas being sent out of fear. let Germany use it as an excuse to launch all-out chemical warfare. Due to military secrecy, medical personnel were not alerted to the danger of contamination by liquid mustard which crept insidiously into the port, mixing with tons of fuel oil from damaged ships.
In the casualty crash that first night, hundreds of survivors, who had jumped or been thrown overboard and swam to safety, were mistakenly suspected of suffering only shock and submersion. They were given morphine, wrapped in warm blankets and allowed to sit in their oil-soaked uniforms for as long as 12 or even 24 hours, while the seriously injured were the first to be treated. It was like marinating in mustard gas. But all remained ignorant of the danger.
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By dawn, the patients had developed red, inflamed skin and blisters on their bodies “the size of a balloon”. Within 24 hours the halls were full of men with closed eyes. Doctors suspected some form of chemical irritant, but patients did not have typical symptoms or did not respond to standard treatments. Staff unease only worsened when headquarters were informed that the hundreds of burn victims with unusual symptoms would be classified as “Dermatitis NYD” – yet to be diagnosed.
Then, without warning, patients in relatively good condition began to die. These sudden and mysterious deaths have left doctors puzzled and puzzled as to how to proceed. Rumors spread that the Germans used an unknown poison gas. As the daily death toll rises, British officials in Bari have called for a “red light” alerting Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) in Algiers to the medical crisis. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, a young chemical warfare specialist attached to Eisenhower’s staff, was immediately dispatched to the scene of the disaster.
Investigator’s findings were censored
Despite denials from British port authorities, Alexander was quickly diagnosed with mustard gas exposure. Convinced that concern for military security had compounded the tragedy, he doggedly continued his own investigation to identify the source of the chemical agent and determine how it had poisoned so many men.
After carefully studying the medical records, he traced the positions of the destroyed freighters in relation to the gas victims and succeeded in locating the John harvey as the epicenter of the chemical explosion. When the divers removed fragments of fractured gas shells, the casings were identified as coming from US 100-pound mustard bombs.
On December 11, 1943, Alexander informed headquarters of his first findings. Not only did the gas come from the Allies’ own supply, the victims labeled “Dermatitis NYD” had suffered prolonged exposure as a result of being immersed in a toxic solution of mustard and oil floating on the surface of the harbor.
The response Alexander received was shocking. While Eisenhower accepted his diagnosis, Churchill refused to acknowledge the presence of mustard gas in Bari. With the war in Europe entering a critical phase, the Allies agreed to impose a strict censorship policy on the chemical disaster: all mention of mustard gas was struck from the official record and Alexander’s diagnosis removed from medical records.
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Bari disaster led to epiphany on chemical’s effect on white blood cells
Alexander’s “Bari Mustard Victims Final Report” was immediately filed, but not before his startling discovery of toxic effects on white blood cells caught the attention of his Chemical Warfare Service boss (CWS ), Colonel Cornelius P. “Dusty” Rhoads. In civilian life, Rhoads served as head of Memorial Hospital in New York for the treatment of cancer and related illnesses.
Of the more than 617 victims who suffered from gas exposure in Bari, 83 died, all demonstrating the suppressive effect of mustard on cell division – suggesting that it could be used to inhibit white blood cells rapidly multiplying malignancies that can invade and destroy healthy tissue. Alexander had pulled invaluable data from the morgue filled with case studies, pointing to a chemical that could potentially be used as a weapon in the fight against certain types of cancer.
Based on Alexander’s landmark report in Bari and a top-secret Yale University clinical trial that demonstrated nitrogen mustard (a more stable cousin of sulfur mustard) can shrink tumors Rhoads was convinced that the harmful substance – in tiny, carefully calibrated doses – could be used for healing. In 1945, he persuaded General Motors tycoons Alfred P. Sloane and Charles F. Kettering to fund the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (SKI), to establish a state-of-the-art laboratory, made up of war scientists, to to synthesize new mustard derivatives and to develop the first cancer drug, known today as chemotherapy.
In 1949, Mustargen (mechlorethamine) became the first investigational chemotherapeutic drug approved by the FDA and was used successfully to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This triumph galvanized the search for other chemical agents specifically targeting malignant cells but sparing normal cells, leading the American Cancer Society to credit the Bari disaster as the start of the “era of cancer chemotherapy.” .
Jennet Conant is the bestselling author of The big secret: the classified chemical weapons disaster that started the war on cancer. Check out his other books on World II on his website JennetConant.com.