Bombing of Bari, Italy compared to Pearl Harbor, WWII

I’ve been doing research for my next novel, Software by the Kilo and have always had a strong interest in World War II. Part of the novel takes place in Italy in World War II, one scene in particular during the bombing of Bari, Italy. Few people are aware of this bombing, which at the time was referred to as “Little Pearl Harbor”. As with Pearl Harbor, the Allies were caught completely unawares, this time because they were certain their airforce owned the skies over Italy. There wasn’t a single German bomber shot down, and the pickings were easy because the Allies had lights on in the harbor to speed the unloading by working at night.

There was mustard gas on one of the US Merchant Marine ships, the John Harvey which was destroyed in the bombing. The gas was being transported to Europe to be kept if needed for retaliation in the event Hitler used chemical weapons. This fact was covered up by both the US and British governments for a while, and it contributed to the deaths of many civilians and servicemen.

The table below compares Pearl Harbor with the bombing at Bari. Obviously the global impact of Pearl Harbor (bring the United States into the war) is much larger. But the civilian deaths in the Bari bombing (over 1,000) were much higher. The goal for the Bari bombing was to slow the delivery of goods and aircraft to the Allied forces marching on Rome through Bari’s until then undamaged port. Both accomplished the enemies goals, although the duration of the outage of both facilities was certainly less than hoped for.

Bari is also interesting for other reasons, including that the commander of the newly created Fifteenth Air Force that was headquartered in Bari was Major General James H. Doolittle, the aviator who led the bombing mission of Japan in April of 1942.

Bari, Italy
Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i
DateDecember 2, 1943December 7, 1941
AttackerAxis (GermanyAxis (Japan)
DefenderAllies (US, British, others)Allies (US)
Ships sunk1718
Planes attacking105 bombers353
Planes shot down0!!27
Casualties1,000 military and merchant marine personnel killed,
1,000 civilians killed
2,345 military and 57 civilians killed
Length of port closureclosed 3 weeksport not full operational for 3 months
Allied mistakeMustard Gas on board John Harvey; lights on in port at night for unloading; main early warning dish brokenRadar warnings ignored
Axis mistakeNot launching third and last wave of attack
Length of attacklittle over one hourninety minutes

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34 Responses

  1. nick lepore says:

    I WAS 8 YEARS OLD AND I LIVED IN GIOVINAZZO 18 KILOMETER FROM BARI I SAW THE SMOKEFROM THE BALCONY ONE OF MY MOTHER COUSIN DIED.

  2. mary oliver says:

    I remember my dad saying that he felt the blast from the Bari bombing, but I can’t remember where he said he was. From postcards that I have found, that he sent my mum at the time, it seems he was in Syracuse, Sicily. Would that have been possible?

    • admin says:

      Thanks for commenting. I do not think the bombing of Bari was felt in Siracusa, Sicily, as it is over 500 kilometers away from Bari. I have read that the bombing “blew out windows 11-17 kilometers away”,

      There were quite a few shellings of Sicily during the invasion of that island from North Africa.

  3. Steve Baker says:

    My grandfather was aboard the SS John Bascom. She was hit by three bombs, and sank in a matter of minutes. My grandfather, Reginald Baker, swam beside the lifeboat to the jetty. The lifeboat was full of wounded crew. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Unfortunately, he died at age 35. My family believes he developed leukemia from the mustard gas he swallowed while swimming. The John Harvey, another liberty ship, had a secret cache of mustard gas within her hold, which was released into the harbor when she was struck.

    • admin says:

      Steve, thanks for the comment. I’ve looked for any statistics on how many of the servicemen and civilians did get sick after the release of the mustard gas but have found none. I assume it would be a high percentage, especially because the presence of the gas was kept quiet, so the doctors did not know what they were treating. It is tragic that your grandfather died so young, sounds like he was a brave sailor.

    • Brad Boyce says:

      My father was on the SS John Bascom also, I am sure he swam next to your grandfather beside the lifeboat. He was also awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. His Name was Robert Boyce

      • Robert Boyce says:

        Brad, do you have an email address? My grandfathers name is Robert Boyce, and he was at Pear Harbor.

      • Donna Nirton says:

        My father was also on the Bascom. My far
        Ther also received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His name was Donald Norton

  4. My book ‘Poisonous Inferno’ ipublished by Airlife Publishing Shrewsbury UK is to the best of my knowledge the only published book about the events at Bari written by a survivor/participant. Serving aboard the destroyer HMS Zetland, I spent the whole of the night from the first bomb being dropped until dawn next morning rescuing, fire fighting on abandoned ships and salvage operations on drifting abondoned ships, some on fire. Before that I was knocked unconcious by the mighty explosion.
    My book includes besides my own experiences, many more from UK, American and Italian survivors and witnesses who were there.
    George Southern BEM (Mil)

    • admin says:

      George, thanks for letting me know. Your book is now on my to be read list!

    • Sheryl Simpson says:

      Thank you for writing this book. My grandfather was a cook on the John Harvey. Being able to read about what happened that night brings our family closer to a relative we never had the chance to know.

  5. My Dad, Robert Scarlett was a S3c on the Lyman Abbott and was in the bombing at Bari, Italy. He was awarded the purple heart and suffered with health problems, especially lung problems for the rest of his life. When I was a young child around 1951 doctors scraped a powdered substance of unknown origin from his lungs. He lived with horrible nightmares for years after the war. He died in 1998 of lung related issues and also was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease of unknown origins. From information I have read, it seems that the Lyman Abbott may have had mustard gas on board. I do know my Dad was in a life boat the night of the bombing with fellow shipmates. He put his arm around another crew member to hold him up and my Dad’s hand went completely up into the back of this sailor. He and another sailor spent a couple of nights under a bridge before being found and taken to a hospital. This was a horrible,life changing event for the people who lived it. I am proud of my Dad and all those who gave so much for our country.

  6. admin says:

    Christy, thank you for sharing this story. I am continuously surprised when I tell people about the Bombing of Bari; few people, even those with good historical knowledge of WWII, have ever heard of it. I am thankful for your father’s service, and sorry that it caused him so much pain; it sounds like he was an unsung hero.

    Larry

  7. Larry, thank you for your kind words. My Dad lived a full and wonderful life despite his WWII experiences. He didn’t talk about Bari much and never complained about his health issues. I too am surprised at how few people know about this part of WWII. Thanks for using it in your novel. I am looking forward to reading it. I have just read “Nightmare In Bari” by Gerald Reminick and it really opened my eyes as to what my Dad and all of the other servicemen endured that night. Thanks again. Christy

  8. Patrick Egger says:

    My Father (Sherman F. Egger) was an Armed Guard at Bari Italy, that fateful night, he was the gunnery capt. (As a Sailor), He shot at the bombers with the gun aboard their ship. He told me of the carnage and the screams from the men on the hot decks, the men hanging from the gun barrels, because the deck heat was to great, till they fell into the harbor, that was afire. His ship did not sink and he told me of the men he helped from the water, that later were found to have mustard gas on them. He said it was horrific. He was a man among men his entire life, humble, forthright, honest, a hard worker, and a great father. He is misted and we can only hope the generations to come will be half as good as his. Sincerely his son, Pat.

  9. Walter H. Williams says:

    I was at AFGD#5 about a1/4 of a mile from the dock unloading P38 belly tanks that had come in on one ships that was docked in Bari Harbor. You could see lights and crane booms at the dock I was expecting the Depot to get bombed too,we had 13 ware houses and about 200 acres of air craft supplies,We were the main supplier for the 15 Air Corp as we were called then. All we got was a lot of shrapnel from the antiacraft fire. Walter H.Williams
    P.S. I have 16 pictures of the Docks after the raid.

    • Ann Rubino says:

      Are any of those pictures available , hopefully to share? I’m writing a book on this for Italian-American Institute near Chicago.

  10. joan slavin says:

    My father, who died four years ago, was at bari harbor that night. My father was a medical administrative officer and his job was to supervise the unloading of medical supplies from a ship in the harbor. He was an officer with the 34th Army Field Hospital in Cerignola, Italy.

    That night, the men he brought with him to unload the ship , wanted to sleep on the ship…..they were due to begin unloading supplies the next morning. My father said no and made them dig foxholes to sleep in that night. They were all EXTREMELY annoyed at him, but he would not relent. One man refused to dig a foxhole and just slept on top of the ground. Needless to say, once the bombing began, they were all grateful for my father’s caution. The man who didn’t dig a foxhole, tried to jump in the one my father dug.

    My father was a new officer at this time. This was a new command for him. I think after this experience, his men had a new respect for him and I think of how many lives he saved that night. He always said in his letters how few problems he had as an officer with his enlisted men. I understand why!!

    My father never said anything else about that night except that one story. I am sure it must have been a terrible experience for him. I know at that time the american hospitals were not yet on their feet yet in that part of italy and there were only english hospitals. i wonder how they were able to get medical help and how my dad helped. I don’t think I will ever know what part he really played, but i am sure he did what he could.

  11. Debra Palmer says:

    My father (AAC, 340th Group Communications) spent the previous night at Bari Harbor during WWII in transit to Foggia. While there, he went to a fine opera house and enjoyed walking around the charming town. He left the morning of the raid while still dark out, raining so hard it was like pouring water out of a boot. When he reconnected with his Group, he was informed about the raid and that they had feared for his life. A fully-loaded British munitions ship had been hit , which set off a chain reaction of explosions nearly blowing the town off the map. I hope to soon retrace a large part of his WWII travels, and Bari Harbor is a must. Good luck with your novel! My father recounted his WWII experiences in LUCK OF THE ALBATROSS: AN AMERICAN SOLDER’S EPIC OF WORLD WAR II (hardback, PO Box 972,, Tellico Plains, TN 37385). Now to check out all you’ve written!

  12. dianna haack says:

    My father was on board the USS John Harvey, the day he died I was 11 months old. In my teen years I tried to find information on how he died but to no avail. Since then I read Nightmare in Bari, which gave me alot of insite to what happened. Glad to know that is more writen on this. I was told by a woman who was from that area that there is a memorial for those who lost their lives there. Does anyone know of this?
    Thank you, Dianna

    • Sheryl Simpson says:

      My grandfather, Jasper Fulton, was a cook on the USS John Harvey. My mother never had a chance to know him and always thought that his ship was sunk in the Atlantic by a U-boat attack. When I started researching our family tree I found out what really happened.

    • John White says:

      My grandfather must have know your father as he was the Chief Engineer of the Harvey, John J White, my fathers research, which resulted in the freedom of information act request that revealed the mustard gas cargo, was quoted in Disaster at Bari. From what I understand only the Captain and my grandfather were onboard when it sank, so your father must have surcome to the gas cloud that resulted from the explosion. Try an FOA request they should open up to you, his daughter.

  13. Anonimo Italiano says:

    I was raised in a town close to Bari. My aunts used to talk about WW2 all the times, but never clearly mentioned the massacre of December 2. They told me that people used to look at the bombings from their balconies and that only a few “bombette” were unloaded on Bari (nothing compared to the bombings on other Italian cities!). Bombette means “little bombs”.

    Not even in Bari, people are aware of the massive bombing of that day. Just WW2 buffs. One thing that people seem to remember is a miracle that occured on that day. Saint Nicholas was seen on the top of the main cathedral pushing away the deadly wind of Mustard gas from the city back to the sea.

    Also, I woud like to share with you that, up until a few years ago, it was not unusual for fishing boats to find bombs at the botton of the ocean. Some bombs were also found in the water of Molfetta (up North from Bari).

  14. Frank says:

    My parents and family grew up and still live in Grumo appula Bari… About 15 minutes from Bari city My mothers whole side immigrated to the USA in the early 60s….My grandparents a few aunts and my mom all died from cancer!!!!! My cousin is thinking our family could be getting these cancers from eating olives and fruits from the olive trees in Bari….Is there any connection or other complaints from other people about cancers from the pesticides???? Grumese Americano

  15. Noelle Wall says:

    Thanks for your comments regarding the bombing of Bari. I too have been researching this little-known incident for a novel, titled “Secrets of Bari.” Anyone interested may want to look at my blog as well. http://www.noellewall.com

  16. Charlotte Cisarik says:

    Just found out today that my father (Navy Armed Guard) was serving on one of the ships in Bari the night of the bombing.
    He only spoke of it once to my mother and told of the poor men who were in the water where all the chemicals and oil were melting the skin from their bodies as they were being pulled from the water. There are so many events that are not know by the general public about WW II.

  17. John White says:

    Hello all,
    My grandfather, John J White, was the Chief Engineer on the SS John Harvey, and died onboard that day. It is said that only two men where onboard that day, my grandfather and the Captain. This was a pivotal moment in my fathers life. My father used the freedom of information act to find out why there was so much secrecy surrounding his fathers death, which revealed the Harvey’s cargo of mustard gas. He wrote a book for the family cronicaling his fathers wartime service which included three trips to Murmansk including the infamous Convoy 13 that lost most of the ships that set out. I saw a video of the explosion that sunk the Harvey once has anyone else? I plan on visiting Bari to fufill a promise I made to my Aunt to drop a rose at the site, does anyone know where in the Bari harbor that the Harvey went down?

  18. Noelle Wall says:

    Thank you for the comparison between the bombings of Bari and Pearl Harbor. However, the official numbers don’t take into account a couple of factors–most importantly, it is impossible to count the many deaths, both civilian and military, that occurred weeks, months and years later from the long-term effects of the mustard gas. Also, I have read “official” estimates of the ships sunk at Bari to be as many as 30. Perhaps these count non-military vessels.

  1. December 2, 2009

    […] that the book is released on December 2, the anniversary of “Little Pearl Harbor”, the bombing of Bari, Italy in 1943, which ends up as a pivotal setting in the […]

  2. September 2, 2012

    […] shipped to camps outside of Paris, then onto Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As with the Bombing of Bari, Italy, this remains a little known episode of World War II, outside of those it directly […]

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