Disaster at Bari, Chapter 10

                         Chapter 10

                  "I CAN'T HEAR THE MUSIC"

Kenneth Bixler, Richard Rodi, and Henry Philips, Jr.,
delighted that they had traveled from San Severo to
Bari. As members of the 315th Service Group, they were
preparing a new headquarters in the city so that when their
unit was transferred from the command of the British Desert
Air Force, along with the Seventy-ninth Fighter Group,
within a few days they would be ready to operate. The three
officers had arrived in Bari on December 1 and spent most of
that day looking over the city. After working at a temporary
headquarters arranged for by the Fifteenth Air Force during
the afternoon of December 2, they headed for the officers'
club to have dinner. The officers' mess they visited was on the
waterfront at the end of a quay protruding some seventy-five
yards into the harbor. Before the war it was one of the better
restaurants in Bari. The dining room, on the level of the
quay, was enclosed in glass and diners could eat and look out
across the water. Below the dining room, nearly on the water
level, were a dance floor and bar, both of which were also
enclosed by glass and lavishly decorated.

Bixler, Rodi, and Philips were in the dining room when a
couple of antiaircraft guns opened up close by. None of the
men were very concerned at the time.

"Probably some nervous Italian gunners," Rodi muttered,
continuing to eat as though nothing had happened.

A few seconds later, however, they heard a distinct
whine and knew that a bomb was dropping toward the
building. They hit the floor. The first bomb exploded out in
the water, close enough to take out all the windows of the
officers' mess. Bixler saw the decorations that had been
wrapped around one of the columns in a barber pole effect
start to unwrap like a snake and eventually it covered him as
he lay on the floor. The young waitresses were screaming
hysterically and were cowering in the corners. A few Italian
civilians in the officers' mess were also panic-stricken and
Rodi moved to try to calm them.

A second explosion splashed water from the harbor onto
the floor of the room. The mirrors along the walls cracked,
loosened, then fell headlong, missing people by inches. The
waitresses howled louder and the young female vocalist stood
wringing her hands and sobbing over and over, "I can't hear
the music... I can't hear the music." Someone suggested
evacuating the mess in favor of a shelter in the city, but Rodi
knew that the streets, at the moment, were more dangerous
than the building. Flak was falling along the road and side-
walk accounting for many casualties, and flying debris from
nearby bomb explosions was injuring countless civilians and
military personnel as they tried to get to the shelters. He
decided to stay in the officers' mess. He was still there with
his companions when the John Harvey exploded, doing still
more damage to the building.

At about 8:30 P.M. there was a lull in the blasts and the
three officers decided to try to reach their rooms in the city.
Picking their way through the dining room past smashed
tables, splintered chairs, and walking on broken glass, they
reached the street that led away from the quay. They moved
rapidly through the harbor area to their apartment, not
stopping to cheek any of the destruction, determined to get
into the comparative safety of their rooms. Rodi's room was
damaged despite its distance from the harbor. The window
was broken, a chair overturned, and his personal articles had
been blown or knocked from the positions in which he had
left them. While he was still trying to straighten the place up
another alarm sounded.

This time the three Americans scampered into the un-
derground air raid shelter across the street from the apart-
ment and they discovered, just as Ralph Scheer did, that they
had made a mistake. There were hundreds of men, women,
and children jammed into the shelter. Some were crying,
some were staring in petrified fright. For two hours they
stood inside the shelter while the water rose continually
higher and higher around their legs and the oxygen supply
became lower and lower. Since they were two floors below
the street, they could hear nothing at first, but later there
was one deafening explosion. It sounded as though a bomb
had hit at the shelter's entrance. Instinctively, everyone
turned to face the noise and was met with a cloud of dust,
from the plaster walls and ceiling. For a horrible
second Rodi feared the worst. He thought the shelter was
caving in and the entrance--the only way in and out--was
blocked. But when the dust cleared he was relieved to see
that the shelter was still intact. The signs of panic were
quickly calmed and nothing further occurred until the all
clear sounded at 11:00 P.M.

 Back in his apartment the three officers joined a medic
occupying the room next to Rodi's for a drink of brandy and
for two hours repeated their stories and listened to others.
According to most of the men who joined the group in the
medic's room, the military and civilian damage was great.
Between ten and seventeen ammunition and gasoline ships
were reported hit in the harbor. One soldier said that the
projection booth in the Ensa Theater had fallen forward into
the balcony injuring the audience, some seriously. A direct
hit was made across from the Corona Hotel, killing many and
rendering the hotel useless. Occupants of the hotel, mostly
military, were hunting rooms for the night. Rodi did not know
what was rumor and what was truth, but he was worried
about the delay in setting up the headquarters for the 315th
Service Group since the efficient operation of the Seventy-
ninth Fighter Group depended on the services of ground
units as well as its flying personnel. The Seventy-ninth
Fighter Group had moved to the Middle East late in 1942 and
had become part of the Ninth Air Force. The pilots of the
group had flown ancient P-40s while moving westward in the
wake of the British drive across Egypt and Libya to Tunisia.
By escorting bombers, strafing and attacking enemy shipping,
and supporting the ground forces, the Seventy-ninth Fighter
Group played a prominent part in the Allied operations that
defeated the Axis forces in North Africa, captured Pantelleria,
and conquered Sicily. Now both General Clark and Field
Marshal Montgomery were depending upon the group to
help their armies in southern Italy. Any delay in its opera-
tional status could be serious.

Another American in the officers' mess that night vms
Donald D. Mossman, commanding officer of the Base Petro-
leum Laboratory of Petroleum Section, Allied Force Head-
quarters, which was situated in the Anic Refinery. He man-
aged to escape the mess without serious injury and, as he
stood outside where a British crew fifteen yards away was
firing Bofors guns over his head, Mossman could see the
flames along the fueling quay. It was obvious to him that the
bombers had hit the fuel lines running along the quay and he
wondered how much aviation gasoline would be lost. The
Fifteenth Air Force planes at Foggia needed every drop of
fuel available, were waiting for it. Now they would be grounded.
Mossman sighed and turned his eyes away from the fueling
quay. There was nothing he could do about the fires. He
suddenly felt sick.

Walter Logan, the war correspondent attached to the
British destroyers docked in Bari harbor, was nearly at the
pier when the German bombers arrived and started attacking
the ships. The first explosion knocked him down and he
immediately lost consciousness. He did not wake up for three
days. Meanwhile, a companion correspondent, Frank Fisher,
was on the opposite side of the harbor and watched in horror
as the bombs cascaded down from the Ju-88s. One of the
initial string of bombs was off target and landed within
yards of his car, but did not damage it. Leaping into the car,
Fisher and several friends drove through the middle of Bari
the other side of the harbor. A newspaperman, he felt he
had to get the story of the bombing regardless of the danger.
Watching across a neck of sea a short distance from the
docks, he saw a yellow flame spread out and then a cloud of
smoke pour upward, its underside tinged with red. Without
warning there was a terrible blast and the whole sky turned
"My God, they got the ammunition ship," a sailor near

There was a few seconds of silence and then a wind
whipped through the town like a tornado. Houses in the old
section of the city folded up like cardboard dollhouses and
collapsed. There was a continuous crunch of breaking glass,
punctuated by the heavier sound of doors, window frames,
and Venetian blinds being ripped out. Scores of civilians were
injured by flying glass. They walked about as if stunned, their
faces like maps drawn with lines of blood. A naval officer,
slightly wounded, stopped to talk with Fisher and said that
he was standing within two hundred yards of the ammunition
ship when it went up and was not even knocked down. Yet,
ten miles inland, the concussion blew out windows. The force
was felt at some points twenty miles or further from the

Everyone was talking about the force of the blast. None
knew about the greater danger of the mustard.

At the Bari airport, several miles from the city, Lester Y.
Murphy was sleeping in the C-47 that James Oleman had
flown to Italy that day. Murphy was crew chief on the plane
and had stayed behind at the field to check the aircraft prior
to the return flight to North Africa. Before bedding down in
his sleeping bag, he made certain that the rubber porthole
plugs were in the windows of the C-47 so that no light could
escape from the cabin during the night and to keep out the
cold. He had been asleep only a few minutes when he felt the
plane rock violently and an instant later everyone of the
rubber plugs came flying out of the windows straight toward
him. He ducked instinctively, realizing later that the plugs
would not have hurt him even if they had hit him. He was so
scared at the strange phenomenon of the flying plugs that he
scrambled out of the C-47 as fast as he could move. Standing
beside the plane, he saw the red glow hanging over the city
and knew that there had been an explosion. He was still
wondering what happened to cause the fire when a plane
roared over the airfield at low altitude and he recognized its
silhouette despite the darkness.

"A JU-88! My God, the Luftwaffe!"

It was a sleepless night for the crew chief.

William Jones of the Fifteenth Army Group was still
working in his office at Santo Spirito several minutes after the
planes he had heard pass the village had disappeared to the
south. He had a lot of work to do and was not paying any
attention to the periodic noises from the direction of Bari. He
did not even look through the large glass doors toward the
city seven miles to the south. He did not, that is, until the
glass doors suddenly blew into the office, knocking his papers
in all directions and nearly upsetting his desk. A fraction of a
second later there was a loud blast and the interior of the
room turned bright red. Shocked, Jones stared through the
opening where the doors had been and saw flames shooting'
high into the sky over the city of Bari. At that moment he
knew who had been piloting the planes that had passed Santo
Spirito a few minutes earlier.

"The Germans! They've bombed Bari!"

Jones recognized the overall importance of the air strike
immediately, knowing full well that critical strategic deci-
sions, both for future Allied bombing and for Allied ground
attacks, were dependent upon the men and supplies coming
into Italy through the port of Bari. The Cairo meetings
between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Chiang Kai-shek from
November 22 to 26; the following conference at Teheran
between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin on November 28;
and the final discussion being held the next day, December 3,
between Churchill and Roosevelt before each left for home
undoubtedly concerned the future course of the war in all

The concern that Jones felt over the importance of the
Bari bombing was justified. It was ironic that an Italian port
that had shortly before December been in enemy hands was
now a key to future operations in Italy and an important
factor in the invasion of the Continent across the English
Channel. The strategic situation as discussed by the Ameri-
cans, British, Russians, and Chinese during "Sextant" (the
code word for the Cairo meetings) and "Eureka" (code word
for the Teheran conference) had drastically changed within
the past few weeks. Italy had surrendered as expected, but
the help she had given the Allies was disappointing. On the
other side of the world, the tide was turning against Japan in
the Pacific and the possibility for her decisive defeat in-
creased the Pacific theater's need for American resources. In
the ETO, Operation Overlord, the cross-channel invasion
planned for the spring of 1944, demanded men, equipment,
and supplies unequaled in the history of warfare. Conse-
quently every piece of equipment, every man, every round
of ammunition, every bomb, and every gallon of aviation fuel
lost at Bari could completely upset the delicate balance of the
plans decided upon at Cairo and Teheran.

During the meeting at Cairo, Roosevelt and Churchill
decided on a tentative course of action to present to Stalin on
November 28 at Teheran. Basically they agreed that Opera-
tion Overlord had top priority.

"Overlord remains top of the bill," ChUrchill stated, "but
should not be such a tyrant as to rule out every other activity
in the Mediterranean."

Still feeling that "he who holds Rome, holds the title
deeds of Italy," Churchill wanted to keep the Mediterranean
strong. Stalin, however, sided with the Americans
during the Teheran conference by placing Operation Overlord
at the top of the Allied operations priority. He did agree that
the movement of Allied troops up the Italian Peninsula was
important if, and this was a complete surprise to both Churchill
and Roosevelt, the forces turned left into France instead of
right into the Balkans and Austria. He firmly believed that
this pincer movement would aid in making Operation Over-
lord a success. While some English and American leaders
considered this as an attempt by Stalin to keep the Western
Allies out of the postwar Balkans, there was enough evidence
that it was sound advice since it would force the Germans to
fight on two fronts. With this small piece of encouragement,
Churchill, who desperately wanted to keep the British and
American forces in Italy strong, immediately pressed for
Operation Shingle.

Operation Shingle was designed as a knock-out blow to
the German forces defending the Gustav Line by landing
troops on the beaches of Anzio, a little town thirty-
three miles south of Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea and sixty
miles behind the German line of defense. By the time the
Teheran conference ended, Churchill had convinced his com-
panions that it was advisable to leave sixty-eight LSTs which
were due to return from Italy to the United Kingdom on
December 5 for Operation Overlord, in Italy until January
15, 1944. He planned to use these craft for Operation Shingle.

Unfortunately the Germans had no intention of cooperat-
ing with Churchill or any other Allied leader. Kesselring's
Gustav Line, the scene of Garibaldi's triumph over the
Neapolitans in 1860, was much stronger than either the
British or American commanders had anticipated. Trying to
move up the peninsula on schedule, the British Eighth Army
and the Fifth Army, created out of three American and three
British divisions, found the going rough and slow. Mud, dirt,
slush, rain, and Germans were everywhere. Vehicles quit
running, bridges were washed out or dynamited by the
enemy, snipers were on every high ridge to pour fire down on
the Allied soldiers. It soon became evident that neither the
Eighth nor the Fifth Army would be in Rome by the end of
December, 1943, as Churchill expected. It also became obvi-
ous that the Fifth Army could not reach the Anzio area in
time to support the forces that would be landing there in
Operation Shingle. The British prime minister refused to
give up on his idea, however, deciding that, if the Fifth Army
could not reach Anzio, the solution was to strengthen the
Shingle force so it could stand on its own feet against the
German troops that would be in the area. Two important
problems had to be solved: more men and more supplies
were needed! The success of Operation Shingle would de-
pend initially on its shock effect, but overall only a fast
buildup of men and supplies, faster than Kesselring would
reinforce his own troops and supplies, would guarantee the
operation. A large concentration of men, equipment, and
supplies at Bari to be moved northward to Anzio as needed
was imperative. Twenty-four hours before Roosevelt's and
Churchill's meeting at Cairo on December 3, however, the
Luftwaffe made their very successful raid on the ships in Bari

It was little wonder that, as Jones stood outside his office
at Fifteenth Army Group Headquarters in Santo Spirito and
watched the fires and explosions in Bari harbor, he felt
frustrated. It was possible--even probable--that this disaster
would have a serious effect on future Allied operations in
both the Mediterranean and European theaters of war. Per-
haps the Pacific, too.

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