The day America’s chemical weapons were unleashed…

Most of the attention brought to bear on White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s talk of Hitler, Assad and poison gas has focused on the false assertion that Hitler never used chemical weapons against German citizens. But Mr. Spicer first made another factual assertion that requires a second look. Indeed, his statement that the United States “…didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two” sidesteps the larger truth that America’s chemical weapons were, in fact, unleashed during that conflict … and in a manner that eerily echoes Russia’s current defense of its Syrian client.

By the winter of 1942, the mediaeval port of Barí had become a strategic staging point for the Allied campaigns in Italy and the Balkans. On the afternoon of December 2nd, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham held a press conference at Barí and declared the port safe from Luftwaffe bombers.

Nobody could have anticipated what happened next.

At 7:30P that same day, 105 German JU 88’s — their engines newly modified to extend their range — appeared overhead. The thirty vessels riding at anchor were sitting ducks. Thousands of tons of high explosives rained down on the harbor and the Allied armada within. Contemporary accounts called it the Pearl Harbor of the Mediterranean. In a matter of minutes, seventeen vessels were sunk, eight were heavily damaged, and hundreds of lives were lost. But the killing had only just begun. Over the next few days, hundreds more sailors and townsfolk watched as their skin blistered and their lungs bled. Many continued to sicken, and then die. Simultaneously, one of World War Two’s greatest cover-ups ensued.

One thing was immediately clear: a secret weapon had been released on Barí and all signs pointed to a chemical weapons attack. Initially, suspicions focused on the Third Reich. Had the Luftwaffe chosen this moment to launch a new and terrifying phase of World War Two?

Bearing recent events in Syria in mind — as well as Sean Spicer’s easily-refuted words about the use (or, as he claimed, non-use) of chemical weapons by Germany under Hitler — this might seem like a safe assumption.

But it’s not. Declassified records tell a very different story. One of the vessels moored in the port of Barí was an American Liberty ship, the SS John Harvey. It was anything but a regular member of the US merchant marine.

Its mission was Top Secret: President Franklin Roosevelt, in close consultation with the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had signed a covert order authorizing the shipment of 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs to the Adriatic port of Barí. And, when the SS John Harvey exploded, its secret cargo seeped into the air and waters of the harbor, killing or maiming everyone who touched it or became exposed to its deadly fumes. Soon, 628 Allied servicemen and merchant mariners were listed as mustard gas casualties. Of these, 69 died within two weeks. The full extent of casualties among the civilian population have never been confirmed, but conservative estimates suggest that as many as 1,000 non-combatants may have been maimed or killed in the attack.

Under the 1925 Geneva Protocols, the wartime use of chemical and biological weapons had been banned, but their possession and transportation was not unlawful. Still, such technicalities offered little comfort to the terrified men, women and children of Barí who suddenly found themselves under assault by American chemical weapons.

There is one more twist to the story. Dr. Stewart F. Alexander, a member of Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff, was dispatched to Barí where he performed tissue studies on the victims. Viewed under the microscope, the victims’ tissue samples revealed a remarkable detail: the mustard gas was very selective as to which cells it killed. Indeed, the faster growing the cell, the quicker this chemical weapon destroyed it.

Alexander’s accidental discovery in Barí led directly to the world’s first successful chemotherapy treatment in the fight against cancer. Remarkably, a medication derived from mustard gas has led to the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Rarely are the unintended consequences of war so positive, a fact that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — indeed all of us — would do well to consider in the aftermath of his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people in Idlib Province.

Jason Williams