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How a WWII Disaster—and Cover-up—Led to a Cancer Treatment Breakthrough

August 12, 2020 in History

By Jennet Conant

The German attack at Bari, dubbed ‘little Pearl Harbor,’ unknowingly hit an Allied ship full of poisonous mustard gas bombs.

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 American and British servicemen and hundreds of civilians. Caught in the surprise

By dawn, the patients had developed red, inflamed skin and blisters on their bodies “the size of balloons.” Within 24 hours, the wards were full of men with eyes swollen shut. The doctors suspected some form of chemical irritant, but the patients did not present typical symptoms or respond to standard treatments. The staff’s unease only deepened when notification came from headquarters that the hundreds of burn patients with unusual symptomology would be classified “Dermatitis N.Y.D.“—not yet diagnosed.

Then without warning, patients in relatively good condition began dying. These sudden, mysterious deaths left the doctors baffled and at a loss as to how to proceed. Rumors spread that the Germans had used an unknown poison gas. With the daily death toll rising, British officials in Bari placed a “red light” call alerting Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ) in Algiers to the medical crisis. Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, a young chemical warfare specialist attached to Eisenhower’s staff, was dispatched immediately to the scene of the disaster.

The Investigator’s Findings Were Censored

Despite the British port authorities’ denials, Alexander quickly diagnosed mustard gas exposure. Convinced that preoccupation with military security had compounded the tragedy, he doggedly pursued 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 charts, he plotted the destroyed cargo ships’ positions relative to the gas victims and succeeded in pinpointing the John Harvey as the epicenter of the chemical explosion. When divers pulled up fragments of fractured gas shells, the casings were identified as being from 100-pound American mustard bombs.

On December 11, 1943, Alexander informed headquarters of his initial findings. Not only was the gas from the Allies’ own supply, but the victims labeled “Dermatitis N.Y.D.” 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 …read more