What Really Happened?

He's weathered many a storm to secure ownership of the Lusitania wreckage. Now Gregg Bemis wants to get to the bottom of suspect events a century ago.

May/June 2015

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What Really Happened?

Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress

In 1982, Gregg Bemis made the cheapest and most expensive financial transaction of his career: For one dollar he acquired full ownership of the RMS Lusitania, the British transatlantic passenger liner struck by a German torpedo in 1915. Given the legal battles he's fought and millions of dollars he's spent since then to verify his ownership and access the wreck that lies 300 feet below the waves in the North Atlantic, Bemis, '50, concedes the venture was "a personality failure on my part. I like to stick to things, I like to see them through to the end." No end is in sight, though, because what started as a business interest has become a personal mission. Bemis wants to finally settle a long running controversy: Why did the ship sink so fast, and was there a cover-up?

The 100th anniversary of the disaster has reawakened interest in its mysteries, and a Hoover Institution exhibition from May 20 through May 24 will include artifacts retrieved from the Lusitania by Bemis and his licensed researchers.

"I'm not concerned with the business of it anymore," Bemis says. "What I want to do is answer significant historical questions."

Launched in 1907, the Lusitania was once the largest and fastest ship in the world. Considered a "greyhound of the seas," it became an international celebrity of sorts and a source of British pride in the era when naval ships and commercial liners were both the tools and symbols of Britain's power.

It was nationalistic pride, however, that fueled World War I. Britain's navy illegally blockaded Germany in 1914, declaring imports such as foodstuffs contraband. On February 4, 1915, Germany deemed the waters around Britain a war zone that any ship would enter at its peril. The United States was officially neutral, but the threat to its commercial interests led President Woodrow Wilson to announce that Germany would be held to "strict accountability" for any destruction of American blood or treasure. Nonetheless, the United States did not consider itself a full ally of Britain; diplomatic relations nearly broke after Britain in effect sealed off North Sea access to neutral ports with minefields.

On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania left New York for its 202nd crossing with about 2,000 passengers. Eleven miles off the coast of Ireland on May 7, they heard and felt a sharp explosion. A torpedo from a German submarine had struck the starboard side toward the bow. Some seconds later, a massive internal explosion rocked the ship and it immediately started listing starboard.

Some 700 meters away, Walther Schwieger, commander of the U-boat that launched the torpedo, watched the terrible scene unfold through his periscope and later wrote in his log:

"The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure right above the point of the impact and the bridge are torn asunder, fire breaks out, and smoke envelopes the high bridge. . . . It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion ensues on board; the boats are made clear and some of them are lowered to the water . . . some boats, full to capacity, are lowered hastily, touch the water with either bow or stern first, and founder immediately. . . . The ship blows off steam; on bow the name 'Lusitania' becomes visible in golden letters. The funnels were painted black, no flag was set astern. . . . Since it seems as if the steamer will remain afloat only a short time, we dove to a depth of 24 meters and ran out to sea. It would have been impossible for me, anyhow, to fire a second torpedo into this crushing crowd of humanity struggling to save their lives."

The Lusitania disappeared beneath the waves in 18 minutes. In all, 1,198 men, women and children—among them 128 Americans—perished.

Following the wave of telegrams carrying news of the disaster came a predictable reaction. "As a lad in the seventh grade of grammar school, [I] experienced the anti-German outburst that shook the country," recalled Thomas A. Bailey, '24, MA '25, PhD '27, in a prologue to his 1975 book, The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy. The eminent Stanford history professor later recalled in his autobiography, published shortly before his death in 1983, being "strongly pro-Ally" and getting into "a bitter argument with a seventh-grade girl who probably hailed from a family with some Germanic background."

Bemis is sitting at a table holding up a small painting of the Lusitania. The painting is realist in style, and the boat has a long black body. The upper cabin is white, and there are four, large orange chimneys blowing smoke.COLD-CASE CONUNDRUM: Says Bemis, "The coincidence of the U-boat being precisely in the right place to encounter the Lusitania is miraculous (Photo: Joshua Alvarez).

The Lusitania's destruction set off a diplomatic battle between Britain, Germany and the United States, whose neutrality mostly benefited Britain. The 128 American casualties seemed proof enough that Germany should be held to "strict accountability."

Only a handful of U.S. newspaper editorials advocated for anything like an armed retaliation. But Americans, generally, were angered by the atrocity and expected a strong response from Wilson. Wilson had not wanted war, either, but an influential faction of his subordinates advocated for joining Britain. The German propaganda apparatus in America, which had somewhat balanced British propaganda, collapsed under the weight of popular anger. America ultimately declared war against Germany in 1917.

Meanwhile, speculation about the sinking was rife. Schwieger had anticipated the debate that continues to this day: What caused the second, fatal explosion—a boiler, coal or gunpowder? The latter fed into a conspiracy theory. The German embassy accused Britain of smuggling military weapons aboard the liner, which the British denied. The Kaiser himself claimed that Britain conspired to have the ship destroyed as a way to force American entry into the war. That theory survives among a faction of journalists and history buffs who wonder why there was no naval escort provided by the Admiralty, or question the coincidence of the Lusitania turning directly into Schwieger's path.

These questions also preoccupied historian Bailey, who strenuously argued that the evidence negates any notion of conspiracy, and history buff Bemis, who is unsatisfied with Bailey's arguments and believes conspiracy cannot yet be ruled out.

Bailey proved to be a pugnacious historian who published four books on American diplomacy—and its failures—during World War I in addition to the Lusitania volume. His wit and writing skill made his textbook The American Pageant ubiquitous and earned him a following among younger historians. But when he tried to publish an appendix titled "Probing America's Past: A Critical Examination of Major Myths and Misconceptions," no publisher took it up.

"I concluded from this disappointing experience," he lamented in his autobiography, "that my [younger] colleagues in the historical profession were not so much interested in exploding myths as they ought to be—or as I was. A few professors seemed rather comfortable with time-honored illusions."

Stanford history professor emeritus Paul Robinson was a young academic around the time Bailey wrote those words. "He was past his prime, representing a field—diplomatic history—that was considered old-fashioned. He was for a time Stanford's premier historian, but Stanford changed in the '60s and '70s, and it seemed like he was left behind. His decision to write a book about the Lusitania further supported that perception among the younger historians," recalls Robinson.

Bailey's decision was not unprovoked. In 1972, Life magazine excerpted British journalist Colin Simpson's book claiming new evidence of a cover-up by the British government. Simpson's publishers had obtained Bailey's translation of Schwieger's diary. However, Simpson argued that the Admiralty—led by Winston Churchill—knowingly set the Lusitania, which they clandestinely loaded with high explosives, on a crash course with Schwieger's U-boat as part of a plot to embroil the United States in the war.

Bailey fumed. As he wrote in his memoir, he felt he had "established beyond a reasonable doubt" in a 1935 article in the American Historical Review "that Schwieger was merely following orders to sink any large merchant ship, that he was not lying in wait for the Lusitania, and that he was ending his mission and on the way home when he encountered the liner by mere chance." Bailey accused Simpson of publishing an altered version of his diary translation and charged that he "freely mingled fiction with history" and "gravely misused his manuscript sources."

A black and white painting of the Lusitania. A massive explosion is occurring on the side of the vessel, and slightly ahead of it is a gaping hole. Above and to the right of the ship is a photograph of Turner.CAPTAIN'S ORDERS: Was Turner (inset) a foolhardy 'old salt' or was he following secret instructions? (Painting: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Photo: Bain New Service / Library of Congress)

Incensed, the elderly Bailey enlisted the help of Capt. Paul B. Ryan, a Hoover Institution research associate and a retired U.S. Navy submarine officer. Their book, The Lusitania Disaster, exhaustively reinforces Bailey's original argument and asserts that the disaster could have been avoided had the Lusitania's captain, William Turner, followed orders and standard wartime protocol. Bailey and Ryan lacerate Turner as an "old salt" whose pride and arrogance put the Lusitania at unnecessary risk.

The second, fatal explosion, they argue, was most likely caused by bursting boilers. Although the ship's manifest listed 4,200 cases of Remington rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of nonexplosive shrapnel, the authors cite live experiments in which huge quantities of cartridges were lit on fire and did not explode.

Bailey's book earned good reviews and was a "modest commercial success," but he remained embittered by the credibility afforded to Simpson's conspiracy theory. "Myths are hard to kill," he wrote in his 1982 memoir, "assuming that they can ever be killed, for the harder a critic lashes at them the deeper their roots seem to sink."

At first, the Lusitania was nothing more than a business venture for Bemis. After the ship sank—taking its precious cargo of copper, bronze and silver with it—the Liverpool War Risk Insurance Association (a British government operation) assumed ownership by paying off the owners' insurance claim. In 1967, it held a silent auction, drawing two bidders for the Lusitania: British intelligence and an American, John Light, who won with a 1,000-pound bid.

Light, an ex-U.S. Navy diver, was already legendary in Irish pubs. From 1960 to 1962, with only basic scuba gear and primitive gas-mixing technology, he had dived the 300 feet down to the Lusitania's dark, cold grave 42 times, suffering severe nitrogen narcosis in the process. Witnesses said that every time he surfaced, he was as white as a ghost.

Shortly after his purchase, Light needed funding and entered into a contract with businessman George Macomber, who recruited Bemis, earning Bemis a one-third share of the ship. Macomber and Bemis hoped Light would build and lead a salvage operation, but the venture collapsed, and in the liquidation Bemis and Macomber took ownership.

For years Bemis, a corporate executive, all but forgot about his 50 percent stake. But by 1982, diving technology had substantially improved and a new salvage operation was planned. Macomber, wary of the liability and heavy financial losses already incurred, willingly gave his 50 percent stake to Bemis.

Macomber's decision to pull out was the correct business move, Bemis, turning 87 this year, says with a smirk. Sitting in the kitchen of his adobe home in Santa Fe, N.M., he is skinnier than the photos of him in his scuba gear make him out to be, but he betrays no signs of frailty. He walks quickly and slides in and out of chairs with surprising abruptness. He still plays soccer twice a week. "The next oldest guy is 15 years younger than me," says Bemis, his eyes flashing with pride behind his thin glasses.

Bemis is out of his element in New Mexico, where his wife is part of Santa Fe's lively artistic community. He is a man of the sea, born and raised in Boston. His father, F. Gregg Bemis, is honored in the National Sailing Hall of Fame as one of the creators of the rules governing modern-day yacht racing. "We had a place down in Cohasset, Mass., right on the shore. We spent every summer of my life there in the water and on the water." In the late '60s, Bemis sailed a 40-foot boat across the ocean from Portugal to Grenada in the Caribbean. "I've been in horrendous sea storms. The ocean is an incredible entity. I don't sail anymore, though. It's like golf, I only play if I'm invited." He took up scuba diving in the late 1960s, around the time he became involved with the Lusitania.

Bemis sits on a boat in a full wet suit. His head is covered by a skintight black hood, part of the bulky suit. In his hands are a pairs of goggles.DELVING DEEP: Bemis at 76, ready for his 300-foot dive to the Lusitania (Photo: Courtesy Gregg Bemis)

Bemis majored in economics at Stanford after switching out of psychology. "I wasn't making much progress until I took an economics course, and then I tore it up as a student," he says. But it was during his service in the Korean War with the Marine Corps that he earned his "second education." That experience engrained in him a briny obstinacy, but also a strong sense of justice. He relates having to replace a subordinate when he discovered him abusing South Korean workers, and says that bettering their treatment started attracting South Korean volunteers essential to American efforts.

He certainly doesn't shun a fight for what he considers fair. As warden of the Lusitania, he's gone to court several times in Britain, Ireland and the United States over ownership and access to the wreck; he recounts those battles like an aged boxer reminiscing over his knockout victories. He's defeated individuals and national governments, including the British Crown. As a result, Bemis alone owns the ship but not the cargo or personal effects; anything that he salvages belongs to him unless anyone else claims the property—and so far nobody but Ireland has.

The Irish government has proved to be Bemis's biggest and longest-running opponent. Those troubles started in 1994 when Bemis denied a British team of technical divers access to the wreck. A lawsuit ensued, but the divers, led by Polly Tapson, went diving anyway—"behind my back," Bemis recalls. "[Tapson] wrote me a letter, disappeared and then did the dive. Out of spite, because I said what she was doing was wrong, she whispered into a reporter's ear that she had seen the lead tubes [rumored to contain] the lost art collection of [passenger] Sir Hugh Percy Lane, and that I would try to steal them."

Hearing the story, Michael D. Higgins, then the Irish minister for arts, imposed a heritage order labeling the Lusitania a "war grave" site that must be protected. Thus started 12 years of litigation between Bemis and the Irish government. Bemis won the right to access the wreck after the case made it to the Irish Supreme Court in 2007, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Irish government and the personal enmity of powerful Irish bureaucrats and politicians like Higgins, now the president of Ireland. Still, Bemis has to wrangle with Ireland's bureaucracy to obtain permits. "They play games with me. I still need to get permission through licenses to conduct expeditions, but they use every legal loophole available to make it impossible," he says.

In February, a representative of the Irish Department of Arts and Heritage defended its actions to the Irish Independent. "The Lusitania is generally recognised as one of the world's most important shipwrecks and the department's view is that the conditions attached to Mr Bemis' licence are no more onerous than is absolutely necessary to protect a wreck of this magnitude."

In 1990, Bemis invited Bob Ballard, famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic, to conduct research on the Lusitania. That led to a 1993 National Geographic expedition (seen in the documentary Last Voyage of the Lusitania) during which Bemis dove down in a mini-sub. He takes issue with Ballard's conclusion that the second explosion was caused by coal dust. "I asked him a couple years later where he got the crazy idea of the coal dust explosion. There was a pause and he said, 'Oh, what difference does it make?'"

Bemis led another research expedition with National Geographic in 2011, shown in the documentary Dark Secrets of the Lusitania. But it was his technical dive down to the wreck in 2004 at age 76 that earned him celebrity status in the global "tec diving" community. Tec divers aim to exceed normal scuba diving depth limits of about 130 feet using techniques like mixing nitrogen and helium with oxygen. It's an extreme sport; divers risk permanent internal injury and death.

The Lusitania dive offers other hazards: It's in pitch darkness, it's cold (45 degrees), and tide differentials swiftly change the water depth. "When it comes to wreck dives, the Lusitania is Mount Everest," says Bemis. To prepare, he regularly flew to Florida for several months to train at a special 240-foot-deep "sinkhole."

Most of the thousands of items recovered from the ship have been auctioned off by the salvage firm Bemis partnered with in the 1980s to cover exploration costs of several hundred thousand dollars. He regrets being unable to prevent some of those sales. Of the three smaller brass propellers sold, one was bought by a British museum for 20,000 pounds—not cheap for a nonprofit institution. The second went to a Saudi oil magnate, and the third is widely reported to have been melted down to make sets of golf clubs.

A WW1 era poster with the bolded word 'Enlist' in the bottom-right corner. In the background, a woman in a white dress is plunging into the depths of the ocean holding a baby.DISASTER RESPONSE: American deaths sparked a poster campaign, heralding U.S. entry into WW1 (Illustration: Fred Spear, published June 1915 by the Boston Committee for Public Safety)

Says Bemis, "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."

Like author Colin Simpson, Bemis believes there was a cover-up. "It's conjecture at this point," he readily admits, "but it's interesting to me that [three months] before the sinking, Churchill told one of his associates that Britain must get the United States into the war. The coincidence of the U-boat being precisely in the right spot to encounter the Lusitania is miraculous. One would have to think that the sub commander knew that it was the place to be. It's also interesting that Churchill was out of the country when the ship was sunk—and 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. There were some things that were fortuitous, like where Schwieger's torpedo struck the ship, but other things seem planned."

Bemis is also a staunch defender of Capt. Turner; he hopes to locate the captain's safe containing secret orders that would exonerate him. "He had secret orders that could only be read once out in the water. He never revealed those orders in court. He was a total gentleman. Turner was not incompetent. I think he was an excellent man."

Not surprisingly, Bemis dismisses Bailey and Ryan's book and sees no basis for its rebuttal of Simpson. "When they wrote it, no one had found the ammunition. There was ammunition on the manifest, but the British maintained that there was no ammunition on board. I just can't help but feel that Bailey was put up to writing the book for the purpose of refuting Simpson and keeping things hushed," he says.

"When Ballard went down, we discovered to our horror that the Lusitania was laying on its starboard side, the side the torpedo penetrated. The only way to get conclusive evidence is to get inside the ship, and we can only do that with brute strength," he says, with an emphatic slap on the table.

Bemis knows he is at the twilight of his life. "I have one more fight left in me against the Irish government, and, if I win, I could do one more exploration and solve it." In any case, he has made sure that ownership of the Lusitania won't transfer to the Irish government upon his death.

"I've talked to my children about it, and they love the project, but none of them want to take on the hassle. No one else has volunteered. But I do have it set up in my will that my ownership should be transferred to a nonprofit."

A porthole from the Lusitania. The metal surrounding the window is deeply rusted. The window itself is a faded green and is covered in thick cracks.AT THE HOOVER: An exhibit from May 20 to 24 will include a porthole, silverware, plates, a watchcase and other items Bemis has recovered from the Lusitania. (Photo: Gregg Bemis)

He would like that nonprofit to be the Hoover Institution and presented a formal proposition late in 2014. "It would be a perfect venue. Their specialization in World War I history doesn't need elaboration. They're not going to put it in their backyard, but the connection is perfect. It would need to get past Stanford's risk management, though."

Asked about the proposal, Eric Wakin, the Robert H. Malott Director of the Hoover Library and Archives, noted that "Our full name is the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace," and so the archives "would, of course, be honored to be the custodians of the Lusitania, whose tragic sinking played a pivotal role in World War I. As a historian and an archivist, I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity and future potential for study and research that such a farsighted gift would make possible. That said, the Stanford University administration and community would have to agree before we would be allowed to accept this incredibly unique and generous gift."

Joshua Alvarez, '12, is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto.

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