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

Related Resource: Naval Armed Guard Service During World War II

Source: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. "History of the Armed Guard Afloat, World War II." (Washington, 1946): 166-169. [This microfiche, identified as United States Naval Administrative History of World War II #173, is located in Navy Department Library, and can be purchased, or borrowed through interlibrary loan.]

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.].


08 August 2006