Intravenous (IV) Chemotherapy — National Cancer Institute (NIH) [Public Domain]
While my mom was alive, trips to the hospital for chemotherapy were a regular occurrence. I’d drop her off in the morning in a large room filled with La-Z-Boy chairs and lots of people her own age. It looked more like a meeting home for seniors than a hospital.
Between the televisions, magazines, and comfortable chairs, the only thing that stood out were the IV (intravenous) stands. However, there was something hidden in this calm room — a secret. It involved a combination of a military cover-up, chemical weapons, a botched defense of an Italian port, and a one in a million opportunity to study the effects of a nerve agent on human blood.
All these things sat in front of my eyes each trip I took to drop my mom off. It just never dawned on me at the time. One of the most regular treatments we have for cancer is with us due to a twist of fate and the work of a certain doctor.
You’ve likely never heard this story. However, there’s a good reason for that — multiple governments didn’t want it told.
A Safe Port in the Storm of War
“I would regard it as a personal affront and insult if the Luftwaffe should attempt any significant action in this area.”
— British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, December 2, 1943
The Italian port of Bari was taken by the British in September of 1943. The ancient medieval town was left mostly undamaged in the war according to Jennet Conant’s article in the Smithsonian Magazine. By early December, the port became a main supply hub for the American and British air forces.
In December of that same year, the British run port was relatively peaceful. It was 150 miles from the front and the German Luftwaffe was barely present in the region. Conant says it wasn’t unusual to see couples strolling the area and ice cream vendors in the streets.
Although an occasional German reconnaissance plane could be spotted, they were seen as more annoying than threatening. One such flight flew over Bari on December 2nd according to Eric Niderost’s article in History.net. The German pilot made two passes over the city without their single anti-aircraft battery firing a shot.
In the harbor thirty Allied supply ships were crammed together waiting to be unloaded — some almost touching they sat so close. They carried everything from ammo, vehicles, food, and fuel. The liberty ship John Harvey was among them, which carried special items.
Both the ship’s security officer and the captain tried to speed up the removal of their cargo. But they had an issue, it was classified and they couldn’t explain their urgency. The ship sat for five days without incident although their luck would soon run out.
The Little Pearl Harbor
“You’d hear something coming at you, howling. And it would go by and it would sparkle, like a sparkler that you use at 4th of July. It was burning metal, part of a ship. And it might have weighed a ton.”
— Walter Broll, sailor present at the attack on Bari, National WW2 Museum
The random German plane which passed twice was on an important mission. Lt. Werner Hahn, the pilot, notified the local Luftwaffe the port was totally undefended and loaded with ships — an easy target. 105 Ju-88 bombers were sent to attack Bari.
The initial wave of pilots arrived at 7:30 PM according to Niderost. They were to drop flares and light up the harbor so the rest of the bombers could pick out their targets. However, the pilots were stunned to see the harbor was brightly lit, barely defended, and packed with ships like a war wasn’t going on.
The pilots leisurely attacked the city, then turned their attention to the ships. Walter Broll in his interview says he never even heard an air raid siren go off. Many of the sailors were on shore leave, so a good portion of the deck guns couldn’t even be manned properly. Explosions and death filled the once peaceful harbor.
The John Harvey had avoided a direct hit but eventually caught on fire. The sailors on board frantically tried to save the ship and its special cargo — 2,000 mustard gas bombs, each weighing nearly 100 lbs. Unfortunately, it was too late, the ship went up in a mushroom cloud and rocked the harbor.
At the end of the attack, most of the ships in the harbor were sunk or destroyed. Countless men also found themselves in the water covered in a mixture of oil and mustard gas. The serene port town was now a scene of chaos, explosions, and fire. However, simple words don’t do this image justice.
Broll’s face during his interview still reflects the horror of the event 50 years later — his voice cracking. He says at a point he just sat down and cried because there was nothing else to do. He kept waiting for another wave of planes to come. It was a perfect storm, one more attack and they’d all be dead.
The Battle in the Hospital
World War II Project (Bari Dec 2–3rd, 1943) — Photos taken by TSgt Mathew F. Paterniti Via WikiTree
The local hospital in Bari was flooded with attack victims according to Conant’s article. The building itself suffered damage, the power going out at points. Due to the rush of injured and the chaos of the scene, many men were given morphine and wrapped in blankets until they could be properly evaluated.
While many of the patients reported feeling fine, they suffered from low blood pressure. Hours later, the ward went into an uproar. The men were screaming for water and ripping their clothes off saying they were burning. Death suddenly came out of nowhere. The local military physicians started thinking the Germans might have used nerve agents in their bombs and called for help.
Lt. Col. Stewart Francis Alexander, a physician trained in chemical warfare, was sent in. The American had a crash course in chemical agents, mustard gas in particular. Alexander noted the blisters and eyes swollen shut looked like symptoms of a gas attack, but sudden death days later was unusual. There also didn’t appear to be respiratory issues, at first.
Alexander could distinguish many of the patients suffered chemical burns, while initial evaluations were considered burns from the massive fires. He also knew the Allies had mustard gas supplies kept for retaliatory purposes if the Germans used them first. So, he asked the authorities if any were in the harbor, which they flatly denied.
The medical reports he examined appeared to show the damage was caused by long term exposure to a chemical agent, absorbed through the skin. The sailors were wrapped in blankets and left to sit while the agent did its work. Moreover, it didn’t appear to be dispersed by an aerial bombardment. A diver he sent into the water later found a shell casing — identified as American with remnants of mustard gas.
Despite his report and advisement on treatment, the British officers in charge of the hospital attempted to cover up his explanation of mustard gas. They claimed mustard gas fatalities were usually only 2% and the deaths in Bari were much higher — nearly six times. Plus, all the symptoms didn’t match a gas attack.
White Blood Cells
Forearms Of Test Subjects Exposed To Nitrogen Mustard — Naval Research Laboratory Via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander was stunned by the responses he received. He kept investigating further and found white blood cells were attacked by the agent. He saw similar symptoms in his training years before studying mustard gas. In trials on rabbits and other animals, the agent had appeared to “selectively destroy blood cells and blood-forming organs.”
During his training, he had always wondered about using the toxic agent to attack certain blood diseases, particularly leukemia. However, the army pushed him away from the research; he was there to deal with weaponized gas, not find a medical breakthrough. But this one random event where the agent saturated human bodies over time had shown his idea feasible.
He thought, “If nitrogen mustard could do this, what could it do for a person with leukemia or lymphosarcoma?” He realized he may not be able to help the worst cases, but he could use this rare instance to study the effects of a future medical breakthrough with human subjects. He ordered countless tests done to every patient affected and filed an extensive report.
Alexander’s report was officially censored, and all mentions of mustard gas were removed. However, the report ended up in the hands of Col. Cornelius P. Rhoads on General Eisenhower’s staff. Before the war, he was head of a hospital specializing in cancer. He immediately saw and praised Alexander’s work and knew the possible breakthrough it could lead to.
Rhoads used Alexander’s research from Bari along with a study from Yale about using nitrogen mustard to attack tumors to start funding a cancer procedure. He also met with Alfred P. Sloan Jr and Charles F. Kettering of General Motors to start a foundation to tackle cancer. It became the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and his procedure eventually became what we now know as chemotherapy.
The Allied power’s self-poisoning episode continued to be buried for years, and Alexander quietly went into his own medical practice. In the late 1980s the army finally commended him for actions in Bari, saying many more lives would have been lost if it wasn’t for his hard work.
The Hidden Story in That Quiet Room
Now, this is the story that hid in plain sight all those years right in front of my eyes. Concealed within the cushions of those plush chairs and IV stands was a tale of a devastated Italian port, suffering sailors, and a doctor brave enough to put his career on the line for a future breakthrough.
While that serene room added years to the lives of its residents, it was built upon the terror of Walter Broll and his fellow sailors. These servicemen weren’t given the courtesy of a warning about the bombs falling on their heads or the mustard gas exploding underneath them. Their own commanders would work to hide their tale for decades.
Finally, this story ends with a common medical procedure that has prolonged life across the globe from man’s ultimate predator — cancer. It personally affected me, giving my mom extra years to live. There’s no telling how many others it has saved, although most don’t know the tale.