Disaster at Bari, Chapter 9

                      Chapter 9


 General "Jimmy" Doolittle was worrying, even before
the German aircraft arrived the night of December 2. One of
the main reasons his new Fifteenth Air Force had been
organized was to split the enemy's defenses, especially the
German fighter force, and help reduce the alarming casualty
rate being suffered by the Eighth Air Force flying out of
England and attempting to strike deep into the Reich. Dur-
ing the fall months the Eighth Air Force had taken a severe
mauling, so much so that the loss rate reached prohibitive
proportions. Washington was faced with the sobering fact that
during the latter part of 1943 German fighter forces in the
west were increasing, not decreasing as had been expected.
There was concern also about the improvement in perfor-
mance among German pilots, mostly due to improved fighter
tactics and increased firepower on the FW-190. Doolittle had
received a report that concluded that the entire American
daylight bombing program against strategic objectives located
deep in Germany would be seriously threatened unless steps
were soon taken by the Fifteenth Air Force to draw off some
of the enemy's fighter planes. Washington was looking ahead
to the invasion planned for the spring of 1944 across the
English Channel, an operation that could not possibly suc-
ceed if the Allies did not control the skies over Europe by
that time.

Time was thus a critical element for Doolittle and his 
new air force. He was aware that the British had voiced
strong opposition to the formation of the Fifteenth Air Force,
chiefly because they believed it diverted bomber groups from
the scheduled buildup in the United Kingdom in preparation
for the cross-channel invasion. Most British leaders believed
the Italian project a doubtful venture. They pointed out the
fact that only a small percentage of the Combined Bomber
Offensive targets were closer to Italy and the Fifteenth
Air Force than to the Eighth Air Force operations out of the
United Kingdom. Even these could be bombed from England,
if necessary. The heart of the German war machine was in the
west and northwest, not the south. Nor did the British
leaders think that the reputedly better weather conditions in
Italy were a critical factor in daylight attacks by the American
bombers, since it was the weather over the targets in Germany
that really mattered, not the weather in the base area.
Advances in weather forecasting techniques and navigation
had made the weather in England a secondary problem. Any
advantages that the Fifteenth Air Force might have because
of longer hours of daylight during the winter months in Italy
would be more than counterbalanced by the necessity of
crossing the Alps where clouds and bad icing conditions were
common at the great heights. These mountains also constitut-
ed a serious obstacle to the safe return of damaged aircraft.
Many an Eighth Air Force bomber had been able to limp
home to its English base, losing altitude gradually. The
crippled Fifteenth Air Force bomber returning to Italy from a
mission against south German targets would be forced to stay
high or crash.

 Doolittle knew that the odds he faced, both in his
operations against the Germans and in his relationship with
the British, were stacked against him during the initial stages
of the organization of the Fifteenth Air Force, but he was
determined to prove the worth of his men and planes by the
end of 1943. A spectacular mission to the Messerschmitt
works at Wiener Neustadt on November 2, one day after the
formal activation of the Fifteenth Air Force, gave the cocky,
tough-minded general a good start, but, after this one day of
glory, trouble began. Bad weather, lack of radar equipment,
and a critical shortage of long-range escort fighters prevented
the Fifteenth Air Force from bombing high-priority targets in
southern Germany for the remainder of November. By De-
cember 2 Doolittle was so anxious to get his planes and crews
into the air against vital targets in Germany that he literally
walked the floor of his office in the former Italian Air Force
Headquarters building near the harbor. Everytime he looked
out the window and saw the ships waiting to be unloaded,
ships that carried men and supplies for his new air force, he
felt a sense of frustration that was nearly overwhelming. The
needed bombs, crews, mechanics, ammunition, and fuel
were so close to the bases at Foggia, yet so far. The growing
pains were threatening "Jimmy" Doolittle's usual good humor.

 The genera] was leafing through a debriefing report of a
mission flown by the Eighth Air Force to the Solingen area
the previous day when he heard the sound of aircraft
approaching Bari. He did not get up from his desk to look at
the oncoming planes. He did not feel it was necessary. All
day long the C-47s of the Fifty-second Troop Carrier Wing
had been ferrying his men to the city from North Africa and it
made him a little happier to know that several more planeloads
were arriving. He started to study the mission report again
when suddenly his office seemed much brighter than it had
been previously. At first, he thought the lights had, for some
reason, become brighter, but when he glanced toward the
window facing the harbor he saw the flares floating down
toward the ships anchored in the harbor. He knew instinctively
what they were, where they came from, what they meant.

 Doolittle was still trying to get to his feet when the first
explosion sounded. The windows on the side of the building
facing the harbor were shattered instantly, the glass flying
across the room. The door to his office collapsed into the
room, narrowly missing the general. Standing by the shattered
window closest to his desk, Doolittle looked out across the
harbor. One look told him all he needed to know about the
precious supplies he had waited for so long, the supplies---
and men--that were on the ships in Bari harbor. They were
lost. Already the ships were burning and, even as he watched,
one exploded. There was nothing the general could do but
stand and watch the destruction helplessly.

The first person Bruce Johnson, Fifteenth Air Force
Headquarters commandant, thought about when the first
enemy bombs exploded was his friend and commanding
officer "Jimmy" Doolittle. Johnson had just started to walk
out of the officer's mess hall when the initial blast occurred.
Running outside, he reached the street as a low-flying Ju-88
dropped a string of bombs nearby. The concussion picked
Johnson up and threw him approximately fifteen feet. He was
stunned momentarily, but, as soon as he regained his senses,
he got back on his feet and hurried to the Fifteenth Air Force
Headquarters building to cheek on Doolittle. He found the
general still in his office amid the broken glass and smashed
doors staring at the scene in the harbor.

"We're taking a pasting, Bruce."

There was nothing else to be said.

In the wing of the Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters
building extending away from the street, Radio Operator Roy
Gibson sent the air raid warning over his transmitter and
then ran to the front of the building. Through the large,
glassed-in-lobby area he could see hundreds of tracer bullets,
criss-crossing the sky toward the harbor area. While watching
the tracers he noticed the brilliant flares light Up the ships
and he knew what was coming next. Turning to another radio
- operator he asked, "Where's the shelter?"

His companion had just arrived in Bari, too, and did not
know any more about the layout of the headquarters building
than Gibson. Realizing that they could not stay in the glassed-
in-lobby, the two radio operators decided to go to the radio
maintenance room in the basement of the building. Just as
they turned to go the first bomb exploded and the glass front
of the lobby was shattered by the concussion. When Gibson
arrived in the basement, he noticed an opening at the far end
of the maintenance room. Upon investigation, he discovered
that a sloping driveway led up to a stone wall that surrounded
the headquarters building and that two huge, thick, wooden
doors formed a gateway through the wall. The doors were

Stooping low, Gibson looked under the heavy doors. He
saw that the sky was still filled with tracers and periodically
he heard a bomb explode in the harbor area. He was still
stooped down when there was an extremely loud explosion
and the wooden doors were blown off their hinges, hitting
him a glancing blow. Glass from the windows in the building
behind him hit Gibson on the back and neck, inflicting minor
cuts. He rushed back into the basement and took cover in the
maintenance room. Finally, at midnight, he was told it was
safe to go to his quarters in the Italian schoolhouse four
blocks down the street. After four hours of listening to the
violent explosions and feeling the headquarters building shake
after each one, Gibson was grateful to get away.

 The street was covered with glass fragments and stone
and brick debris that had been blasted loose by the ship
explosions, the bombs, and the machine-gun fire from the
Ju-88s. He had no trouble finding his way to his quarters,
however, since the fires burning in the harbor lighted the
street with an orange glow. When he arrived at his room, the
radio operator discovered that his bed was covered with
broken glass and part of the ceiling was knocked down. After
cleaning off his blankets, Gibson tried to get some sleep, but,
despite the fact that he was exhausted, he could only doze a
few minutes at a time. It was the most miserable night he
ever spent. He even had trouble breathing as the smoke and
fumes rolled inland from the harbor area.., and from the
John Harvey.

 Cheedle V. Caviness of the Fifteenth Air Force Service
Command was already stretched out on his bed in the school
building on the night of December 2 when he noticed some
peculiar light patterns on the ceiling of the room. The
thought never entered his mind that the light came from
flares dropped by enemy planes since he had been assured,
as had the other Americans stationed or passing through Bari,
that the German Air Force "was shot all to hell" and was
nothing to worry about. When the lights continued to dance
all around the ceiling of his room, however, Caviness decided
to look out the window in an effort to determine what was
causing the light. Just as he reached the window facing the
harbor, he saw a geyser of water shoot a hundred feet into the
air. This geyser was soon followed by several others. He had
been in the USAAF long enough to recognize the cause of
the geysers.

"Bombs! Bomhs!"

 Before he could decide on his next move a bomb landed
in the rear of the building--one of the string of bombs that
knocked the wooden doors off their hinges at the spot where
Gibson was taking shelter-and the concussion knocked Caviness
flat. Getting back on his feet, he headed for the air raid
shelter in the basement of the building. He had just reached
the entrance of the shelter when another explosion at the
harbor let go and he was thrown headlong into the shelter.
Fortunately, neither blast injured him.

When the all clear signal sounded, Caviness went back
to his room and discovered that it was badly damaged. All the
glass was missing, part of the front wall was blasted away, as
was a section of the ceiling. He now had a very good view of
the harbor and the scene fascinated him. The surface of the
harbor was a mass of flames and he could see several ships
that were burning along the East Jetty. Suddenly he saw
flames shoot several hundred feet into the sky and before he
could even lie fiat on the floor the force of the blast of an
ammunition ship exploding hit the school building. A large
window frame was dislodged and hit him hard on the knee.
Limping badly, Caviness headed for the basement and the air
raid shelter again. This time he stayed in the shelter, not
venturing out until daylight the next morning.

Harry Fischer of the Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters
A-3 Section had arrived in Bari on December 2 from North
Africa and was completely unfamiliar with the area. He, too,
was quartered in the Italian school building. After eating in
the evening, Fischer, Joseph Redden, and William Duncan
went into the city, but, since it was getting dark and they
were tired, the three men returned to their room early.
Fischer was stretched out on his bed, just as Caviness was,
when the first string of bombs exploded and the window glass
of the building was shattered. He did not know where the air
raid shelter was located, since no one had yet briefed him on
its location, but he ran as fast as he could down three flights
of stairs just to get out of the building. When he reached the
street, Fischer discovered he had no shoes on so, as happens
so often during such moments of danger, the unimportant
seems important. Ignoring the bombs dropping in the area,
he ran all the way back up the three flights of stairs, sat down
on his glass-covered bed, and put on his shoes.

 When he reached the street the second time his friends
had disappeared, so Fischer hurried to the beach about a
block away and fell flat on his face. He never prayed so much
in his life as he did during the minutes that followed,
especially when three bombs landed in the harbor near the
spot on the beach where he was stretched out. Dirt, sand,
and oil were blown on him by the blast, but he was not

William Blau, a friend of Fischer's, was also in the school
building resting on his bed, disappointed because his two
buddies, Ray Donahue and John Wood, had gone into Bali
without waiting for him. Without warning, Blau heard a
sound that reminded him of the roar of a big truck passing
the building and he hoped that all the convoys would pass
early in the evening so they would not keep him awake all
night. A moment later the antiaircraft guns along the harbor
opened fire and someone in the school building yelled to
Blau, "Get out! It's an air raid?

Blau did not wait for a second warning. He raced down
the stairs, through the door, and into the street. Looking
toward the water, he saw what looked like a fountain spurting
skyward and redoubled his efforts to get out of the area.
Following a man in front of him, Blau raced up the street as
fast as he could run, turning right when his guide turned

"Not that way," someone yelled from the darkness. The
marshaling yards are down there."

Blau and his companion whirled around and raced the
opposite direction. Finally they ran into a small group of
soldiers behind a low wall and joined them. Gradually, the
turmoil seemed to quiet down some and as soon as the all
clear sounded, Blau went back to his quarters. He, too,
wanted to put his shoes on since he had run out of the school
building in his bedroom slippers. The room was a mess, so as
soon as he put his shoes on he went back to the street and
watched the ships burning in the harbor. He was still in the
street when the John Harvey blew up and the blast knocked
him down, just as it did everyone else in the open. Lying on
the ground, he watched the mushroom cloud of smoke drift
toward the city from the stricken ship completely unaware
that the deadly mustard fumes were mixed with the smoke.

Robert M. Flynn was asleep in the school building when
Oberleutuant Teuber and the Ju-88s arrived over Bari. The
noise of the nearby antiaircraft guns awakened him and he, as
Blau, Fischer, and all the others in the building, raced to the
street below. He was still crouched in a doorway watching the
burning and exploding ships in the harbor when an explosion
so loud he "thought the world had blown up" echoed through-
out the area and slammed him hard against the side of the
building. By the time his head had cleared, a truck had
stopped in front of the school building and the driver yelled
to Flynn.

"Hop in. I'll take you into town."

Flynn and several of the other men climbed into the
back of the truck, but they had gone only a short distance
when the driver stopped. An English "fog" truck, a vehicle
equipped to spread a concealing layer of chemical "fog" over
the area, was at work and it was impossible to go any further
along the road. The men got out of the truck and walked back
to the school building as the smoke and mustard from the
John Harvey combined with the "fog" and spread over the
eastern part of the city.

Carl Orgel, a maintenance engineer with the Fifteenth
Air Force, had left the Italian school building earlier in the
evening and gone into Bari to see a movie. He finally settled
for Sun Valley Serenade at the Oriente Theater, a plush
Italian movie house in the center of the city. When he first
heard the noise of the bombs exploding above the voices on
the screen he thought it was a truck backfiring. Settling back
in his seat, he waited for the noisy vehicle to move on down
the street so he could enjoy the movie. He had just made
himself comfortable when there was a second explosion and
the huge chandelier hanging in the theater broke loose from
the ceiling and crashed on the people below. Fortunately,
Orgel was not hit by the light œLxture, although some of the
glass fragments struck him. The second floor balcony had
protected him from a direct hit.

His first thought was to get out of the theater, but he
soon discovered that everyone in the movie house had the
same idea. People--soldiers and civilians---were crowding
toward the exits, knocking each other down, trampling those
that were unfortunate enough to fall. He could hear agonizing
screams from those being stepped upon and from those being
crushed against the seats or walls. Despite the fact that the
thunderous explosions seemed to be getting louder and nearer
to the theater, Orgel decided the safest thing to do was stay
in his seat. He was more willing to take his chances with the
bombs than he was with the hysterical people jamming the
exits of the theater.

 Finally, the crowd inside the Oriente Theater calmed
down and when the all clear sounded they walked in orderly
fashion out of the building. Orgel followed them and went
back to his quarters in the school building, discovering the
same mess that his buddies had discovered. The fact that he
had been in the center of the city when the John Harvey
exploded made him completely ignorant of the danger of the
spreading mustard. Of course, no one else knew about the
chemical that had been unleashed by the German bombers

 James Oteman, the C-47 pilot who had brought a planeload
of Fifteenth Air Force men to Bari late on the afternoon of
December 2, was admiring the feminine qualities of Betty
Grable in the movie Springtime in the Rockies when he heard
noise in the distance. He and Jens L. Lerback, his compan-
ion, ignored the racket as they concentrated on the blonde
bombshell on the screen, never dreaming that German bombs
were exploding outside. A short time later Oleman heard a
much louder noise and he turned to look at Lerback. Before
he could say anything, however, a bomb exploded outside the
theater in an alley and blew in the exit door along with some
dirt and gravel. An antiaircraft gun on the roof of the theater
began firing at the same time and the panic was on. He and
Lerback hit the floor and rolled under the seats to keep from
being trampled and waited until the crowd was out of the
theater. They then started down the long corridor that joined
the theater and the Grande Alborgo delle Nazioni, the hotel
where they were staying for the night. About halfway down
the corridor another bomb hit close by and Oleman was
terrified to see the "brick" wall collapse and fall directly
toward him and his companion. He did not even have time to
yell before the wall crashed down on his head.

 The "bricks" hit him--and bounced off his head harmlessly.
The wall was made from light-weight material painted to
resemble a brick wall and it was quite a relief to the pilot. In
the hotel lobby Oleman discovered that the glass front was
badly damaged. The revolving door was pushed inside the
lobby and there was broken glass all over the floor. Upstairs
in their room there was practically no damage. The room had
a double bed and a large mirror hung over the head of the
bed. Neither were disturbed. Since the window facing the
harbor had a large wooden shutter closed over it, the glass
was not even broken. Grateful for a place to sleep, Oleman
and Lerback got into the bed. Before they could get to sleep,
however, the John Harvey was ripped apart when the flames
reached the mustard bombs. The heavy wooden shutters flew
through the window, hurtled across the room and smashed
into the mirror above the bed. The glass from the mirror
showered down on Oleman and Lerback, cutting them slightly
in several places. Through the open space where the window
had been, Oleman saw an unbelievably large cloud at least
three thousand feet high over the harbor drifting slowly
inland. The cloud was full of fire and all kinds of burning
objects. It was also full of mustard, the invisible menace from
the John Harvey.

 Another pilot who had brought a planeload of cargo for
the Fifteenth Air Force into Bari that same day was Edward
Borsarge. He and two companions were in the Oriente
Theater when the bombs were dropped and they managed to
get outside within the first few minutes of the air strike.
When he reached the sidewalk outside the movie house,
Borsarge found himself caught in a milling crowd of Italians
and Allied soldiers, each person seeming to want to go a
different direction. Some were running toward the docks,
others were running away from the docks. Others were just
running back and forth. Borsarge fought his way into the
middle of the street and headed for the nearest air raid
shelter. When he got to the entrance of the shelter it was
jammed with people. A young boy was on the ground and
hysterical Italians were trampling over him. Borsarge helped
get the boy back onto his feet, but when he tried to go into
the shelter an old man stopped him.

"Don't go in there. It's filling up with water."

 The flier turned and raced back to the lobby of the
theater. On the way he passed another pilot he recognized.
This pilot was standing in the street yelling and shaking his
fist at the low-flying German bombers, bolstered by the large
amount of Italian wine he had consumed earlier. Borsarge
dragged him into the lobby before he got killed. They had
just stepped inside the theater when the John Harvey explod-
ed. Both Borsarge and his drunken companion were knocked
down by the blast, but neither was injured seriously. Decid-
lng the lobby was the safest place in the area, Borsarge
sweated out the remainder of the air raid there.

 Ralph A. Scheer arrived at Bari on December 2 aboard a
C-47. He was on his way from La Senia Air Base in North
Africa to join the 376th Bomb Group at San Pancrazio,
southern Italy; after registering at the Grande Albergo delle
Nazioni, he decided to retire early. The sirens interrupted his
sleep within a few minutes, however. He jumped out of bed
and turned on the lights, but at that moment the hotel's
power was knocked out. The same explosion blasted the toilet
in his room off its base and water poured across the floor.
Feeling his way out of the dark room, Scheer found the
corridor leading to the lobby and followed it. Once he
reached the hotel lobby he was swept up by the mass of
humanity racing through the hotel on their way to the air raid
shelter in the street and was carried along with them. The
shelter resembled a subway tunnel and, with the rest of the
crowd, he entered the tunnel. The moment he got inside he
knew that he had made a mistake, but there was nothing he
could do about it. The entrance he had just come through
was the only opening into the tunnel and there was no way
he could get through the crowd following him to get back out
of the shelter. The room was jammed with Italians. Babies
were crying, old men were coughing, women were wailing,
and the smell of garlic nearly made him sick. Within minutes
water began seeping into the shelter from the street and he
feared it would drown them all.

 Fortunately, after what seemed an eternity, the all clear
sounded and Scheer was able to get back to the street. He
hurried to his room in the hotel and even the bed with one
leg knocked off and the broken toilet looked good to him after
the air raid shelter. Putting a chair under the broken leg of
the bed, he crawled under the blankets and went to sleep.

Within a short time the alert was sounded again, but this
time Scheer refused to risk his life in the shelter. He decided
that the Luftwaffe did not have enough planes to make him
go back into the tunnel-like air raid shelter and stand shoul-
der to shoulder with the screaming Italians again. The hotel
was deserted. Looking around the lobby, he saw that one wall
was made of fieldstone, so he moved an overstuffed chair
against the wall and sat down to await his fate. He did not
have long to wait. There was a tremendous blast at the harbor
and, to his horror, the fieldstone wall began to fall. Scheer
was too seared to move. The wall crashed on him.., and he
stood upright and still alive! Like the "brick" wall that had hit
Oleman, the "fieldstone" wall was made of cardboard. The
rest of the night was anticlimactic to Scheer.

A wall figured in the experiences of Ben Peralta, a
supply officer with the Fifteenth Air Force at Bari, but this
wall was for real. Peralta and a New Zealand officer were
having an Italian dinner, complete with an ample supply of
red wine in a small restaurant near the waterfront when the
bombs started to explode. As soon as the bombs landed near
the eating place, the other diners, the owners, and everyone
else left, leaving Peralta and his companion alone in the
place. The bombing became more intense and the building
shook, but the two officers kept on eating and drinking.
Suddenly, as one bomb blasted a hole in the street less than a
hundred yards from the restaurant, the New Zealand officer
yelled. "Let's get out of here."

He promptly got up and crouched under a heavy Italian
archway in the building, but Peralta refused to leave the table
which was placed against a very strong-looking stone wall.
The New Zealander would not take "no" for an answer,
however, and grabbing Peralta by the arm, he pulled the
American under the archway. A minute later another bomb
exploded nearby and the stone wall collapsed, smashing the
chair Peralta had been sitting on to splinters. All he received
under the archway was a few scratches from the glass and
mortar that was hurled around the restaurant by the blast.
That was one wall that was not imitation.

Down the street at General Depot Number Five, John
Kiser was still considering the sins of gambling, the question
that was being kicked around in the day room when the
antiaircraft guns suddenly began firing. Without a word the
meeting broke up as the men scattered. When the chaplain
regained his speech, he muttered that everyone should go to
the air raid shelter, hut he was too late. Much too late.
Everyone had disappeared. Kiser went directly to the base-
ment of the warehouse, feeling it was the safest spot, but as
the explosions ripped away the windows, doors, and shutters
of the building he wondered if he had made a mistake.
Especially when he heard shrapnel hitting on the roof of the
warehouse as many of the antiaircraft shells fell off target and

Finally the all clear sounded and Kiser left the base-
ment. Outside he saw that the depot warehouse had taken a
beating. There were no doors remaining, since the bombs
had either splintered them or ripped them entirely off the
hinges. The window glass was all shattered and most of the
frames had been blown inside the building. The roof had
gaping boles in it and the slate lay in piles inside the
building. From a distance the docks were a mass of flames
and, knowing there was nothing he could do to help, Kiser
went to his room. His bed was piled high with white powder,
since the mortar knocked loose from the ceiling had been
sifted by the mosquito netting and deposited on the blankets.
Cleaning the mortar from the bed, he crawled underneath his
blankets. He was still cold, so he put his heavy topcoat on top
of the blankets and as he got warm he began to doze.
Suddenly he heard nine short blasts on a ship's whistle
somewhere in the harbor and, although he did not know what
the signal meant, he recognized its urgency. Before he could
get out of bed, however, the entire sky was illuminated and
he saw a brilliant flash through the hole in the wall where the
window had been earlier in the evening.

 Kiser ducked his head under the covers just as slate from
the roof of the building fell on his bed. The dust was so thick
he could barely breathe as he lay in the bed and listened to
the series of explosions and felt the warehouse tremble from
the concussion. Then, almost as suddenly as it began, the
bedlam was over and the quiet frightened him. Coughing,
shaking, Kiser lifted the blankets from his head and looked
toward the harbor. An enormous cloud of smoke was drifting
toward the warehouse and it seemed to be coming from a
ship that had just exploded in the harbor. He did not know it,
but he was staring at the remains of the John Harvey. He was
also watching the most deadly cloud he had ever seen in his
life. He did not know that, either.

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