16. Liberty ships were endangered in ports as well as at sea
Although Liberty ships faced their greatest peril underway at sea, they weren’t entirely safe in port, including the ports of the United States. The Liberty ship SS E. A. Brian, while loading explosive ordnance at Port Chicago, California, erupted in an explosion which triggered a massive fireball of nearby explosives on July 17, 1944. Three hundred and twenty were killed, nearly 400 more injured, and E. A. Brian was destroyed. The resultant inquiries and investigations spread blame for the disaster among several US Navy and yard personnel. Another Liberty ship, SS John Harvey, sat at anchor in the port of Bari, Italy, laden with a cargo which included mustard gas bombs. The secret cargo was intended for retaliation had the Germans used poison gas against Allied troops in Italy. When attacked by Luftwaffe pilots on December 2, 1943, the cargo exploded.
Both Churchill and Eisenhower immediately moved to suppress the news of the release of liquid mustard into the harbor at Bari. At least 17 ships were severely damaged in the attack, and sailors abandoning ship entered the water, where they were exposed to the toxic mustard. Regardless of the horrors of the disaster, in which over 600 seamen suffered from mustard gas exposure, a benefit derived from the investigation changed cancer treatments. It was discovered that exposure to small amounts of nitrogen mustard shrank tumors in some types of cancer. Following the war research at the Sloan Kettering Institute based on the discovery developed the earliest derivatives of mustard-based chemotherapy. The American Cancer Society recognized the Bari disaster as the beginning of the “age of cancer chemotherapy”.