By Dirk de Klein of

SS John Harvey was a U.S. World War II Liberty ship. This ship is most well known for carrying a secret cargo of mustard gas and whose sinking by German aircraft in December 1943 at the port of Bari in south Italy caused an unintentional release of chemical weapons.

SS John Harvey

SS John Harvey

The John Harvey was built by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington, North Carolina, and launched on 9 January 1943.

In August 1943, Roosevelt approved the shipment of chemical munitions containing mustard agent to the Mediterranean theater. On 18 November 1943 the John Harvey, commanded by Captain Elwin F. Knowles, sailed from Oran, Algeria, to Italy, carrying 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60–70 lb. of sulfur mustard.SS John Harvey mustard gas

After stopping for an inspection by an officer of the 7th Chemical Ordnance Company at Augusta, Sicily on 26 November, the John Harvey sailed through the Strait of Otranto to arrive at

Bari was packed with ships waiting to be unloaded, and the John Harvey had to wait for several days. Captain Knowles wanted to tell the British port commander about his deadly cargo and request it be unloaded as soon as possible, but secrecy prevented him doing so.

On 2 December 1943 German aircraft attacked Bari, killing over 1,000 people, and sinking 17 ships, including the John Harvey, which was destroyed in a huge explosion, causing liquid sulfur mustard to spill into the water and a cloud of sulfur mustard vapor to blow over the city.SS John Harvey

SS John Harvey

SS John Harvey

A total of 628 military victims were hospitalized with mustard gas symptoms, and by the end of the month, 83 of them had died. The number of civilian casualties, thought to have been even greater, could not be accurately gauged since most had left the city to seek shelter with relatives.

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  • Bill Getz says:

    An important story. First I have heard of it. The BIG question is, what we were doing with mustard gas bombs? I thought there was a convention signed against their use after WWI. A good subject for someone to research and write an article. I’m too old to take it on.

  • Richard Binder says:

    The “convention” against chemical weapons was the Geneva Gas-War Protocol of 1925. Among the nations attending the conference in Geneva, 12 refused to sign the Protocol, and the U.S. was among those 12.

    When WWII began, both sides had chemical weapons, but Hitler was adamant that German chemical weapons were to be stored only inside Germany, and the Wehrmacht never used any.

    The U.S. and Great Britain both had chemical weapons; in the case of the U.S., these weapons were for use IF AND ONLY IF Axis forces deployed chemical weapons first. (A German scientist supposedly discovered that the U.S. had a plan for a 15-day campaign of bombing German cities with mustard gas and carbonyl chloride. It was said that the campaign would kill between 5 million and 6 million Germans. So far as I know, this propaganda claim has never been verified.)

    The John Harvey disaster was by far the worst incident involving chemical weapons, but it was not the only one. During the invasion of Poland, the Poles used a chemical bomb to destroy a bridge, killing two German soldiers and injuring 14 others. Germany appears not to have retaliated against Poland for this action.

    The entire history of chemical weapons in WWII would indeed make an interesting book.

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