Americans remember December 7 as Pearl Harbor Day, but most Americans have never even heard of the “Little Pearl Harbor,” which occurred in Bari Harbor, Italy, on December 2, 1943. More than 100 Luftwaffe bombers mounted a surprise attack on Allied ships moored in the harbor. Their bombs sank or rendered inoperable 28 of these ships. Nearly a thousand Allied troops were killed or wounded. along with hundreds of civilians.
Unbeknownst to those in the port, one of the ships carried liquid death in its belly. The American freighter John Harvey was secretly carrying mustard agent, in violation of international agreements that banned its use. President Franklin Roosevelt had covertly ordered the shipment of 100 tons of mustard agent to Italy for retaliation in the event that the Germans used chemical warfare against the Allied troops. The incident was covered up and remained a secret for decades.
When the German bombs hit the John Harvey, the ship’s hold immediately exploded with devastating violence, killing all those who knew about the mustard. Deadly liquid and gas flew high into the air and then slowly settled back down into the harbor, coating everything and everyone in the vicinity. Casualties would mount over the coming days and weeks as the agent slowly and painfully claimed the lives of many who had survived the initial attack.
Among those who survived in the harbor that day were some of America’s first SEALs, the men of the OSS Maritime Unit. Their ranks included Jack Taylor, a former dentist from Hollywood, and Sterling Hayden, one of Hollywood’s leading men. Their stories are captured for the first time in a new book titled First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit.
Hayden recalled the drama: “We were trapped on the end of a dock, and eighty partisans from Yugoslavia went right on with what they were doing in spite of the commotion, loading ammunition, blankets, and high-octane gas into a pair of wooden schooners. The leader of the Yugoslavs, a man named Stipanovitch, fired at the low-flying German planes with a machine pistol. ‘Bloody fucking buggers!’ he yelled over and over again in a deep voice that boomed through a broad mustache.”
Fortunately for the OSS, the Luftwaffe bombers targeted the Allies’ more impressive warships and failed to sink the Maritime Unit’s ragtag fleet, which included a former fishing vessel known as the Yankee. As the OSS men cleaned up Bari and attempted to save civilians and seamen alike from the damage caused by the bombs and the lethal mustard gas, they also prepared the Yankee for one of the most daring and dangerous rescue missions of World War II.
A couple of weeks earlier, a C-53 Skytrooper transport plane carrying 26 American nurses and medics had crashed behind enemy lines in German-controlled Albania. That war-torn country was occupied by the Germans, but it also held a variety of armed insurgent groups and militias who were fighting the Germans. In a high-profile operation authorized by President Roosevelt himself, the first SEALs would attempt to rescue the American medical personnel.
The OSS pioneered modern irregular warfare. It developed the first versions of capabilities and technology that American special-operations forces use today –everything from a rebreather (a precursor to SCUBA) to silent floating mattresses to submersibles to facemasks. More importantly, the OSS men were masters of militias: They were able to organize, train, and control groups of partisans and irregular troops behind the lines. These activities were eerie precursors of today’s world, where the militia has become the king of the modern battlefield, asserting itself in places like Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and Ukraine.
In addition, the OSS developed cultural awareness, often employing archaeologists and anthropologists as operatives who work with the native population. One man summed up the ideal OSS operative perfectly: “A Ph.D. who could win a bar fight.”
The first SEALs successfully infiltrated one of their own into Albania. He worked hand in hand with the British and the local militias to find the nurses and medics and guide them back to the coast, avoiding numerous hostile groups along the way. Linking back up with Hayden and Taylor on the Yankee, the group made another perilous journey through the enemy-infested waters of the Adriatic before finally arriving safely back in Italy.
The nurses and medics weren’t the only ones saved in the aftermath of the attack on Bari. The Allies sent a team of medical investigators to examine the deadly effects of the mustard gas, and they made a startling discovery: Mustard gas could be used to suppress the growth of cancer cells. This discovery was instrumental in the development of chemotherapy that helped to save thousands of lives.
As old becomes new once again, the men of the Maritime Unit are more relevant than ever today. The capabilities and technology they pioneered — maximizing irregular forces and blending special operations with intelligence gathering — have culminated in the execution of the Bin Laden raid and numerous other crucial operations on the modern battlefield.
— Patrick K. O’Donnell is the best-selling author of nine books, including First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit, Dog Company, and We Were One, which was selected for the Commandant’s Professional Reading List. He has provided historical consultation for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers; he served as a combat historian with a Marine rifle platoon during the battle of Fallujah; and he is an expert on special operations, Iraq, and counterinsurgency on the modern battlefield. More information is available at PatrickKODonnell.com and FirstSealsBook.com.