Chapter 8 "I SMELL GARLIC !" "Stop the engines! Stop the engines!" Michael A. Musmanno's voice was high-pitched and shrill as he yelled at his crewmen aboard the schooner Inaffondabile. He was still holding the tinfoil in his hand, too shocked by the realization that it was dropped from German aircraft above the harbor to release it. Musmanno had seen a great deal of fighting during the war, but this was different. This was a complete surprise, a German air strike where no German plane dared fly, where the Allies supposedly had an overwhelming fighter defense. Fabiano Menorisini, the Italian attending the engines, immediately cut the power and the swishing sound of the propeller gradually stopped. "What is wrong?" ] "Get down. Take cover. The Luftwaffe is attacking," Musmanno bellowed. He did not have time to explain fur- ther. Menorisini and the two other Italian fishermen aboard the schooner did not argue. They flattened out on the deck. For a long minute Musmanno prayed that he had been wrong, that even the daring Luftwaffe pilots would not have nerve enough to attack as far south as Bari. It was a forlorn hope. Suddenly there was a blinding flash that lighted the area around the schooner as bright as the Golden Triangle of his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shrapnel ripped through the schooner, leaving jagged holes for the water to pour in, and a ship less than one hundred yards to the right slid under the surface of the harbor. Twisting his head, Musmanno looked toward the sky. Three huge parachute flares were drifting earthward, lighting every inch of the sky! and outlining every ship in the harbor. He saw something else, too. He saw a Ju-88 silhouetted against the sky, its nose pointed directly toward the Inaffondabile. Miniature geysers of water shot up all around the schooner as the German pilot opened fire with his wing guns. "He's after us," Musmanno yelled. "Fire... fire." Menorisini and Giovanni Catella grabbed the machine guns lying on the deck and began firing at the oncoming plane. It was a one-sided fight, however. A bullet from the German plane ripped into Menorisini's leg and he fell to the deck. Catella took one look at his wounded companion, glanced at the diving plane, and made his decision. He jumped overboard. Musmanno, also firing a machine gun, refused to give up so easily. He felt they still had a chance. He did, that is, until the bow of the schooner suddenly burst into flames. "Abandon ship!" Musmanno did not have to leap into the oil-covered water. Without warning the deck of the Inaffondabile disappeared from under his feet and he found himself flailing both arms in an effort to keep his head above the water. Floating debris kept hitting him until he was dazed, but he managed to keep afloat. "Catella? Menorisini? Can you... ?" A timber, thrown against him by the force of another ship exploding in the harbor, hit his head a glancing blow as he turned to look for his companions. Without a word he slipped beneath the slime on the surface of the harbor. Fortunately, the bitter cold of the water brought him back to consciousness and his eyes opened to a sight he would never forget. He was deep in the water. Above him on the surface a fire was raging, giving the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea an orange glow as he looked upward. By this time his lungs felt as though they were on fire, as if they, too, were going to explode if he did not get to the surface where he could take a deep breath. He fought his way upward, finally breaking through the oil slime into the flames. Frantically he swam toward an open spot in the spreading fire, splashing a path with his arms. Only the fact that he had surfaced where the olive oil from the broken casks that had been aboard the schooner had spread across the water with the other slime saved him. It kept him from being burned until he reached a clear spot. A floating timber provided Musmanno a resting spot for a few moments, but it suddenly submerged as another figure appeared out of the darkness and gripped it. The captain saw that it was Menorisini. Both men splashed their way to a cask floating nearby and, fortunately, the cask supported both of them above the water. Musmanno continued to search the harbor for Fabiano and Barcelli and finally discovered them hanging onto another bobbing cask. The four survivors from the schooner salvaged a third cask and maneuvered a timber across the three casks that had contained their precious olive oil only a few minutes earlier and improvised a raft with rope. With sticks, found in the debris floating on the surface of the harbor, and cupped hands the men of the Inaffondabile started to paddle toward the shore that was at least a mile away. The attacking German planes had disappeared and Musmanno felt more confident after the strafing ended. He knew that it was a long distance to solid ground, but he saw no reason that they could not make it safely if they avoided the fires and burning ships. He was still congratulating himself on being alive when there was an eye-popping explo- sion that shook the entire harbor. Clouds of smoke tinted every color of the rainbow shot thousands of feet into the air. Meteoric sheets of metal rocketed in all directions carrying incendiary torches to other ships, setting off a series of explosions that could be likened to Chinese firecrackers with each firecracker a ship of from seven to ten thousand tons. In addition to the ship explosions, the piers vibrated with the detonations of artillery shells and sacks of gunpowder stored on the dock. Occasionally small black objects could be seen in the upward rush of flame and smoke and Musmanno shuddered at the piteous fate of those sailors and dock workers who were being hurled to their death--not realizing that the terrific blast he had just witnessed was spewing a deadly chemical toward him and the other three men on the improvised raft. Hypnotized by the scene in the harbor, they forgot to paddle and floated aimlessly. It was not until a siren sounded, warning of another possible air strike, that Musmanno or- dered his crew to grab some pieces of wood drifting nearby and start paddling toward shore once again. He no longer was as confident as he had been prior to the explosion of the John Harvey, since their path seemed partially blocked in every direction. Finally Musmanno guided the raft north toward the ruptured fuel line that extended along the quay, hoping to find a path that was clear. They entered an area that was not burning, that was dark. The oar suddenly slipped from the captain's hand and as he groped for it in the blackness he was surprised to see it clearly as the whole ocean abruptly lighted up. He listened for the sound of planes, certain that the Luftwaffe had returned and dropped more flares, but he did not hear the roar of a single propeller. Turning to look back toward the quay, Musmanno could not believe his eyes. The sea had opened up like a drawbridge and as the two huge waves on each side started to fill up the void again the raft carrying him and the others from the schooner was directly in the middle. The raft bounced skyward like a hard-hit tennis ball, throwing the four men into the harbor. An oil tanker along the fueling quay had exploded! Since light traveled much faster than sound, Musmanno had seen the illumination before he heard the blast. The concussion knocked him off the raft and into the oil slime covering the harbor and he choked and coughed as the black mixture went into his mouth, up his nose, and nearly blinded him. It was several seconds before he could see again, seconds during which he drifted nearer to the flames that were now spread- ing from the quay toward the middle of the harbor. Once he got the slime from his eyes, Musmanno grabbed a timber and made his way toward the improvised raft he and his compan- ions had made earlier. Miraculously it still was in one piece, the casks lashed to the timber by the rope Menorisini had found in the water. Nearly exhausted, he climbed back onto the raft and was soon joined by the other three men from the schooner, all of whom were blackened by the slime of the harbor. "I smell garlic," Musmanno said as they started paddling toward shore again. Menorisini, a rag wrapped around his wounded leg, agreed. "I smell it, too. Must be from the supply ship." Musmanno shook his head. "Since when would Ameri- can ships carry garlic to Italy?" Unknowingly, Musmanno had detected the odor of the mustard in the water and in the smoke drifting over the harbor, but in the confusion he promptly ignored the smell. He and everyone else who thought they smelled garlic. Musmanno's main concern at that moment was reaching the comparative safety of shore. Poison gas bombs never entered his thoughts. The Italian schooner Inaffondabile was not the only ship in the harbor that night that did not belong to the United States. Besides the Inaffondabile the British merchant ships S.S. Fort Athabaska, S.S. Testbank, S.S. Devon Coast, S.S. Lars Kruse, S.S, Crista, S.S. Fort Lajoie, and S.S. Brittany Coast were anchored at Bari. So were the Norwegian vessels S.S. Lorn, S.S. Bousta, S.S. Norlom, and S.S. Vest; Dutch merchant ship S.S. Odysseus; Polish ships S.S. Puck, S.S. Lwow; and the Italian cargo vessels S.S. Barletta, S.S. Frosinone, and S.S. Cassala. Some were lucky that tragic night; some were unlucky. One of the less fortunate ships was the British freighter Fort Athabaska which was anchored close by the American merchant ship Joseph Wheeler. The Fort Athabaska was loaded for departure to North Africa, carrying seventy-six tons of general cargo, 238 bags of ordinary mail for Algiers, and two captured thousand-pound German rocket bombs. When the Joseph Wheeler exploded, the Fort Athabaska caught fire and, despite the heroic efforts of the British crew, the German rocket bombs stowed in number two hold be- tween decks were detonated by the extreme heat and flames, reducing the British ship to a shattered hulk. Of the total complement aboard of fifty-six, there were only ten survivors. The British tanker Devon Coast was not any luckier. She was anchored southernmost in the harbor, moored stern on to the breakwater and blacked out, although her port lights, including the arcs, were on. Shortly after the air strike began a bomb hit the Devon Coast in number two hold causing a bright green flash that was followed by an explosion. Al- though the scene was brilliantly illuminated by flares and fires, the crew was unable to see for several minutes. They were temporarily blinded by the mustard that had been released by the explosion of the John Harvey, although at the time the crew did not know it. The Norwegian ship Lorn that was moored alongside the Devon Coast had also been struck by a bomb and was on fire. Her bow moorings had parted and she was drifting perilously near, the wind blowing the flames right across the fore part of the Devon Coast. Within minutes the British tanker was burning and the crew abandoned the ship, despite the fact that they could barely see. Using life rafts as long as they were available and then leaping into the water, the seventeen sailors, two army gunners, and four navy gunners got off the Devon Coast minutes before she exploded. The fate of the British freighter Testbank was directly connected with the explosion of the John Harvey. The Testbank was moored stern on to the jetty at number eighteen berth on the night of December 2 waiting for a convoy. Once the attack by the Luftwaffe began, so many of the ships along the jetty were hit and started burning that the Testbank was hidden from view by those on shore. The smoke and flames formed an effective screen to conceal the British freighter, but the seventy-five men aboard her quickly assessed the situation and began abandoning ship. They were too late, however. When the John Harvey exploded nearby, the Testbank was ripped apart and seventy of her complement were lost. The five survivors were ashore at the time. A British Ministry of War transport, the Fort Lajoie, was also anchored in the harbor awaiting a convoy when the German aircraft made the surprise attack, She was luckier than many of the other ships. During the initial pass of the Luftwaffe Ju-88s over the harbor, bombs exploded on the port side of the Fort Lajoie but inflicted no damage. However, one of the illumination flares dropped by the planes fell into the starboard defensive gun position, setting it on fire. A fire party was immediately organized, but, before the men could put out the flames, the flare burned through the iron deck and set fire to the gunners' quarters beneath. When the John Harvey exploded, the Fort Lajoie was peppered with red hot splinters and several more small fires were started. Pieces of red hot metal blew into number four hold and started a fire among rubbish piled there. The forepart of the lower bridge was also alight which, together with fire in the Oerlikon nest, made three separate fires burning at the same time. All hatches fore and aft were blown off and tarpaulins were ripped to shreds. There were several large dents in the decks and one piece of plating ten feet by six feet by four feet wrapped itself around one of the winches. A large anvil weighing about one hundred pounds landed on the deck, blown there by the blast from another ship, followed a few seconds later by an ammunition box that cut through number four derrick and fell into number four hold. Six two-pound shells were found buried in the lagging of the boiler fronts, but there was no damage to the boilers. Despite the terrible beating the Fort Lajoie took, the crew did not abandon ship. Instead they continued to fight the three fires and, at the same time, attempted to shift the ship out of the oily fires on the surface of the harbor. They discovered that this was impossible, since they could not knock the steel pins out of the cable shackles, so they sat out the raid at anchorage, treating their wounded and waiting for an opportunity to take them ashore to the military hospital. Deck Cadet James L. Cahill of the John Harvey and Seaman Walter Brooks had been the first to leave the ship on the afternoon of December 2 to go into Bari on shore leave. They had enjoyed the sights of the city, had eaten and drunk their fill, and had started back toward the dock when the German aircraft suddenly appeared from over the Adriatic Sea and began the attack on the ships in the harbor. Cahill and his companion were about twelve blocks from the water- front and near the railroad station when the first bomb was dropped; they immediately rushed into the nearest air raid shelter. When it appeared that the German planes had left the area, the pair emerged and once again started toward the dock, but within a few minutes an alarm warned them that more trouble was in the offing. At that time Cahill and Brooks were near an old fort that housed the headquarters of the British port authorities so they took refuge there until the all clear sounded. Later they were taken to dockside by a British major of Marines and asked to identify their ship. "That's the Joseph Wheeler," Cahill said, pointing to a burning, blackened hull. "And that is the John L. Motley," he added as he indicated a bow sticking up from the water. The deck cadet's face went blank and he looked around wildly. "Where's your ship? Where's the John Harvey?" the British major asked. For a moment Cahill did not answer, but finally he turned away from the harbor and said, "She's gone. The John Harvey is gone." "What a pity," the Britisher replied. "What did she carry?" "Anmunition, I think." Cahill's face clouded. 'grad, and--" " Yes?" "I, I don't know. Nobody knew. It was a big secret." The "secret" was already taking its toll out in the harbor and on the survivors stretched out on the dock, covered with the oily slime, waiting for transportation to the hospitals in the area. The secret of the mustard was kept to the bitter end by Beckstrom and died with him when the John Harvey exploded. Far to the north Oberleutnant Teuber was throttling back the engines of his Ju-88 as he turned on the approach for the runway at his home base. He was tired but jubilant. The raid had been much easier than he had anticipated, the aircraft losses lighter, the results excellent. He knew that Richthofen would be delighted, that the wires between Italy and Berlin would be busy that night as an assessment of the damage inflicted on the ships in the harbor at Bari was relayed to the Fuehrer. As soon as he cut the engines, Teuber stuck his head out into the clear night air of northern Italy and took a deep breath, filling his lungs to capacity. "Now for a cold beer," he murmured as he climbed from the bomber. Everything was fine with Oberleutnant Teuber. It was a wonderful night.
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