Bari



Disaster at Bari, Chapter 8







                     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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