The other ‘unsinkable’ ship

lusitaniaTomorrow, May 7, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.
A few commemorative events are planned, but, except for those who just read the sentence above, most Americans will not even know. Or care. And that’s a shame.
A Cunard vessel sailing under the British flag, the Lusitania set sail out of New York on May 1, 1915, with nearly 2000 passengers on board ignoring an ad in the New York Times placed by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., that read:
TRAVELLERS 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 travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Officials at Cunard and Lusitania captain, William Thomas Turner, in essence laughed at the threat. The Lusitania, nicknamed a greyhound because of its top speed of 25 knots, was considered unsinkable, well capable of outrunning any German submarine or surface ship.
Besides, even in wartime, passenger vessels were considered off limits.
But they were to be proven wrong by a 32-year-old commander of the German “Unterseeboot 20” just off the coast of Ireland. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, killing 1,198, including more than 125 Americans.
The story of the Lusitania, of Captain Turner and his German counterpart Commander Walter Schweiger, of a distraught President Woodrow Wilson who had just lost his wife but had developed a new love interest, and more importantly of many of the passengers aboard the doomed ocean liner and the series of events that left her vulnerable to attack is brought to life by Erik Larson in the book Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
So excited was I at the announcement of this book that I actually attempted to buy it at Barnes & Noble a week before its release. I had known of Larson from a previous book, The Devil in the White City, about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and when I read a review of Dead Wake in the NY Times, I knew it was a must read for me. After blowing through it in two days, I will add for everyone.
Larson is a master researcher and a master storyteller. In Dead Wake, as in The Devil in the White City, he creates dramatic tension by alternating chapters between those aboard the Lusitania and those lurking beneath her on U-20.
His attention to detail is fascinating and eye-opening. Like, as one reviewer noted, the fact that a single open porthole will admit water at the staggering rate of 3.75 tons a minute. Several portholes were left open on the Lusitania.
“Dead wake,” by the way, is a term for the trail atop the water left by a streaking torpedo. Many aboard the Lusitania watched with horror the dead wake of the missile heading for their ship 100 years ago.

Ed Ackerman