Cunard Line’s four-stack luxury liner RMS Lusitania was churning across the Atlantic from New York and headed for Liverpool with 1,960 people on board. They were just 11 miles off County Cork on the south coast of Ireland, and about 300 miles from their destination on the afternoon of May 7, 1915.
Most of the passengers had just finished lunch, and some were strolling on deck.
Suddenly a torpedo headed right toward them, throwing witnesses into a panic.
Moments later, it hit the starboard side. “Instantly there was an explosion,” Frederick D. Ellis wrote in his book “The Tragedy of the Lusitania.” “Portions of the splintered hull of the steel vessel mounted upward over the waves to mark the stroke of the torpedo and fell again to mingle with still more debris sent aloft by the explosion of a second torpedo.”
Terrified passengers headed for the lifeboats. Then there was a second explosion, according to some survivors. But was it a torpedo?
Within 18 minutes, the Lusitania sank 300 feet to the murky bottom of the Atlantic. Overall 1,197 perished — including 128 Americans. Hundreds were children.
There were passengers on board from Washington, Montana, Utah and British Columbia who perished or survived, but none from Idaho.
World War I had already been raging for almost 10 months and President Woodrow Wilson had deliberately kept America out of it — though supplies were quietly being sent to Britain.
Sinking the Lusitania changed everything. Was it part of a conspiracy to pull the U.S. into the war?
The American public that had favored staying out of the conflict was becoming increasingly riled at the attacks on American shipping, and the killing of Americans — including millionaire Alfred G. Vanderbilt on the British-owned Lusitania.
Then as the winds of war shifted toward America joining the battle, the final straw was British Intelligence intercepting and decoding the Zimmerman Telegram, a diplomatic communique between the German Foreign Office and the Mexican government.
Sent in January 1917, the cable proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico that would return Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the Mexicans.
The message was made public — including by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman who wrote the message.
On April 2, President Wilson issued a call to arms, and Congress declared war four days later.
Mexico wisely rejected the German offer and stayed neutral.
Germany had given ample public warnings for all shipping to stay out of British waters, where the German U-boats were prowling and mines had been laid.
A History Channel report said, “In early May 1915, several New York newspapers published a warning by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk … The sinking of merchant ships off the south coast of Ireland prompted the British Admiralty to warn the Lusitania to avoid the area or take simple evasive action, such as zigzagging to confuse U-boats plotting the vessel’s course.”
The warnings went unheeded, though some passengers did cancel. Among those dismissing the warnings were Cunard officials and Lusitania Captain William T. Turner.
Turner told the press that the Lusitania was too fast for any U-boats, and mockingly called tales of the torpedoes “the greatest joke” he’d heard in days.
Top U-boat surface speed was 15.4 knots and 9.5 knots underwater. Lusitania’s top speed was 25.5 knots.
Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, actually hoped allied shipping would be attacked by the Germans, according to John V. Denson in his book, “A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt.”
He noted that a week before the Lusitania sinking, Churchill stated that it is “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”
Shortly after leaving New York, three German stowaways carrying photographic equipment were discovered in the Lusitania’s steward pantry. They were locked up and interrogated, but refused to reveal what they had planned — only stating that they would show the Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill “how to trim his navy.”
Five days out of New York, the Lusitania entered the war zone. Some passengers grumbled that there’d been no emergency drills aboard, but the complaints were ignored. Captain Turner however did order blackouts — no smoking on deck at night — and covering of skylights. He also posted double lookouts, closed watertight doors and swung the lifeboats over the side to make their use quicker if needed.
With all this drama unfolding, passengers continued to party — much like on the Titanic three years earlier before it hit the iceberg.
Saloon (first class) passengers Charles and Mary Plamondon of Chicago were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, and in third class, John Welsh — returning to Manchester, England, from California — proposed to Gerda Theoline Neilson of Norway, whom he met on the ship and they planned to get married upon arriving in Liverpool.
They survived and did, but the Plamondons perished in the sinking.
Local Irish boats picked up most of the survivors, and nearly 200 casualties of the disaster are buried in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh.
For a century, the world has been told that Germany had no right to attack a civilian passenger liner, but the Germans believed there were munitions on board the Lusitania and they had every right to attack.
While that belief has been denied all these years by the British and U.S. governments, American venture capitalist F. Gregg Bemis Jr. of Boston has proven the Germans correct.
Owning the salvage rights to the Lusitania, he’s been battling the Irish, British and U.S. governments for 50 years to exercise those rights. Diving on the wreck, they found an estimated four million rounds of .303 ammunition consigned to the British Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.
According to a 2015 book by Greg King and Penny Wilson — “Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age” — the ship also carried about 50 tons of shrapnel-filled 3-inch artillery shells from Bethlehem Steel Corporation, percussion fuses and 46 tons of volatile aluminum powder used in explosives.
Still unclear is what else is in boxes marked cheese, butter and oysters?
But Bemis’ main goal is to solve the mystery of what the second explosion was that sent the ship so swiftly to its watery grave? Could it have been the aluminum powder?
He’s visited the wreck a half-dozen times aboard submersibles, mini-subs and even scuba gear — using mixed gasses — and is itching for Irish authorities to stop preventing him from diving into the ship to find the answers.
Writing in his log, U-20’s Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger denies firing a second torpedo: “It would have been impossible for me, anyhow, to fire a second torpedo into this crushing crowd of humanity struggling to save their lives.”
Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic wreck, and who was invited to help Bemis, believes the cause was a boiler explosion. Bemis doesn’t think so.
He wants to send a robotic camera inside the wreck to prove his theory that a boiler didn’t explode, but munitions did.
Irish authorities think the exploration would harm the wreck.
Continuing to believe the conspiracy theory, writing in his log, Bemis describes the coincidence of the U-boat and Lusitania meeting at the same time as “miraculous,” further noting “that the cruiser Juno that was meant to provide an escort was sent out and called back — despite the fact they knew of submarine activity.”
The Lusitania holds yet one more mystery:
Supposedly, the ship also has sealed lead tubes containing works of art by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and others, which if found, Bemis promises to give to the Irish government. Other artifacts he said would go to museums.
The intrigue about sinking the Lusitania may continue for a long time — unless the Irish government relents from stonewalling further exploration aboard the historic wreck.
Fortune magazine says, “Ireland’s cultural officials view the ship as a combination historic monument and cemetery, a fragile archaeological site that could be desecrated if Bemis’s efforts to solve the mystery of its doom involve physically altering its remains.”
Salt and currents however are already desecrating those remains.
Even at age 90, Greg Bemis isn’t giving up — as one of the world’s most historic shipwrecks waits to reveal its mysteries.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
— IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY, Washington, D.C., 22nd April 1915
“I find it interesting that when a plane goes down we spend tens of millions of dollars to find and investigate it. Then there’s a shipwreck that has 1,200 victims, and no government money is available to support any research into it.”
— F. Gregg Bemis Jr., Lusitania salvage rights owner
Walther Schwieger, the captain of the German submarine U-20 that sank the Lusitania was killed in action on Sept. 5, 1917, when his U-boat-88 hit a British mine off the coast of Holland, with the loss of all hands.
He sank 49 ships and was the sixth most successful submarine commander of World War I.
The Lusitania was built in Liverpool for Cunard Line by John Brown & Co., Clydebank, Scotland, starting in 1904. Length was 787 feet and designed to carry 2,198 passengers and a crew of 850 at a top speed of 28 knots (reached on a one-day run during a transatlantic crossing in 1914).
The Titanic was built for White Star Line by Harland & Wolff, with the keel laid in 1909 in Belfast, North Ireland. The liner was built to carry 2,435 passengers (another source says 3,547) and crew of 892, but only had enough lifeboats for 1,178 people. Length was 882 feet 9 inches and top speed 24 knots.
After the sinking of Lusitania, an Admiralty inquiry brought serious charges against the ship’s Captain William T. Turner, but he was exonerated. Nearly a year after the sinking, he was appointed relieving master of the Cunard’s SS Ivernia.
On New Year’s Day, 1917, with 2,400 British troops on board the Ivernia was torpedoed by a U-boat off the Greek coast, with a loss of 36 crew members and 84 troops. Again, Captain Turner survived.
He died of stomach cancer in Canada in 1933.
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