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March|April 2005

THE MYSTERY OF THE LUSITANIA


THE UNITED STATES DIDN'T ENTER WORLD WAR I until the conflict was three-fourths over, but the country produced more propaganda posters than any other nation that took part. Among the most important are those that portray the sinking of the Lusitania, like "Shall This Continue?". The loss of that ship 90 years ago pulled the United States into the war on the side of the Allies against Germany and, for the first time, into what historian Barbara Tuchman called "the tournament of world power." A U-boat sank the Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland as it neared the end of its passage from New York City to Liverpool, England. A torpedo struck midships just below the waterline and set off a mysterious second explosion, sending the cargo-and-passenger ship to the bottom in 18 minutes and killing 1,195 people, including 123 Americans.

It's been speculated that the British Royal Navy sank the ship to speed America's entry into the war and that the second explosion was of contraband munitions. The ocean spelunker Robert Ballard explored the Lusitania's remains, but he "found nothing to suggest the ship was sabotaged." Instead, Ballard discovered "one of the saddest wrecks I've ever seen." In a weird turn, the wreckage now belongs to 76-year-old New Mexico businessman Gregg Bemis. He acquired it from a business associate, who bought it at auction from the London & Liverpool War Risks Insurance Association. The Irish government has tried to keep Bemis from plundering the remains, most effectively by passing a law that protects the Lusitania and the area around it as a heritage site.

Because Bemis is limited by the law to looking at the ship, not touching it, he has filed suit in Ireland for the right to cut through the hull so he can inspect its twisted metal. Some say he could find treasure—paintings by Monet, Rubens, and Titian were listed in the cargo logs and, if they were encased in lead tubing as experts claim, they could remain in good condition. Bemis says he's after the truth. He insists that the Irish law is keeping him from solving the mystery of the second explosion—and of what lured America to take her first step toward becoming a superpower.

—THE EDITORS

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