Lusitania: The epic battle over its biggest mystery

The Lusitania, which made 202 crossings between Liverpool and New York before being sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.
Photograph by Library of Congress

Retired venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owns the salvage rights to the Lusitania — and he thinks he can solve the 100-year-old mystery of why it sank so quickly. His biggest obstacle: The Irish government, which has fought him for years over his plans to explore the wreck.

 

It was a kiss Gregg Bemis will never forget.

It happened in 2004. Bemis, 76 years old at the time, was wrapped in diving gear, floating at the bottom of the Irish Sea. He took out his mouthpiece, knelt carefully on a slab of encrusted steel, and planted a fervent if wet smooch on the hull of the Lusitania—the elegant passenger ship that was sunk by a German submarine in 1915, 100 years ago this week, in one of the pivotal moments of World War I.

“It was silly,” Bemis admits, “but you know, a ship is a lady.”

What’s more, it’s his lady. Since 1982, Bemis has owned the Lusitania wreck. A hard-charging venture capitalist and lifelong diver, Bemis bought the salvage rights as an investment, figuring at the time that the scrap value of the steel, bronze, and brass on the historic ship was about $12 million.

Since then, Bemis’s investment has evolved into an obsession (he prefers “crusade”), not financial, but historical. Years of studying the ship’s catastrophic demise have convinced him that its shattered bones could resolve an old but still heated debate—by offering proof that the Lusitania was secretly carrying war supplies from then-neutral America to embattled Great Britain when it was sunk.

To make his case, Bemis has spent heavily out of his own pocket—he says the cost of his explorations long ago exceeded his potential return on the salvage investment. He has descended to the wreck a half-dozen times, in scuba gear, submersibles, and mini-submarines, and financed several forays by other divers. Today, on the centennial of the Lusitania tragedy, he believes he’s tantalizingly close to rewriting history.

Lusitania
Bemis preparing to descend to the wreck in June 2004.Courtesy of Gregg Bemis

But Bemis’s irresistible force has collided with an immovable object: Not the 38,000-ton bulk of the ship herself, but the full force of a cautious, conservation-minded Irish bureaucracy. Years after Bemis became the Lusitania’s owner, a change in maritime law gave Ireland jurisdiction over the wreck. And 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.

In the battle between preservation and property rights, preservation is currently winning: Bemis has been unable to convince the government to let him explore his ship his way. And the current dispute is just the latest in a series of legal battles that has enmeshed Bemis and the Lusitania for almost 30 years. Bemis has won some fights and lost others; along the way he’s become a minor celebrity in Ireland, thanks to coverage of his lawsuits and his knack for colorful, unsparing criticism of the country’s cultural mandarins. Even one of his own attorneys says that Bemis can come across as “an undiplomatic pain in the ass,” and Bemis is proudly unapologetic about that. To authorities’ insistence that their only priority is to protect the Lusitania, Bemis replies: “Protect it from what? They are not protecting it from the ravages of the ocean, nor the fishermen’s nets, nor the pirates, but only protecting it from the owner and historical truth.”

As the clock ticks, salt and currents erode the remains of one of the most historically significant shipwrecks of the modern era (second only to the Titanic). But in the standoff between Bemis and Dublin, neither side seems inclined to blink.

An unexplained explosion

A photo believed to show the U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the Lusitania.Photo: AP

Just after 2 o’clock in the afternoon of May 7, 1915, as the Lusitania was steaming toward Liverpool off the southeastern coast of Ireland, a U-boat fired a single torpedo that struck the ship’s starboard side. Fifteen seconds later, another, even more powerful explosion rocked the ship; she sank, bow first, after just 18 terrifying minutes.

Only 761 passengers survived; 1,201 died, including 128 Americans. (The death toll also included three stowaways.) The fatal voyage had begun in New York; in the U.S. and Britain, the sinking was depicted as a heinous crime against noncombatants, and when the U.S. finally joined the military alliance against Germany in 1917, the sinking was cited by many as a justification.

But some historians believe that the second, still unexplained explosion could cast the sinking in a different light. In recent interviews in Santa Fe, where he now lives, Bemis dismissed some possible causes of the blast. Coal dust? Unlikely; moisture in the air would have precluded that. A boiler explosion? He doubts it; that would not sink the ship so swiftly.

An illustration from a British newspaper, based on eyewitness accounts of the sinking.Photo: Time-LIfe Pictures/Getty Images

Bemis is sure the Lusitania was secretly carrying highly explosive war contraband—including nitrocellulose or guncotton, a key component in some kinds of ammunition—to Great Britain, a nation already short on war supplies. The Germans believed this, too, according to some historians. Germany certainly thought the “Lucy” was a valid target: Its embassy published an ad in New York newspapers just before the Lusitania’s last journey, warning that the ship, which sailed under the British flag, was in danger of attack. Washington, D.C., London, and Cunard, owner of the ship, all scoffed at the smuggling accusation at the time, and no conclusive proof has ever emerged.

Bemis has a plan to provide that proof. What he doesn’t have is permission to carry it out.

His, for $1

A mini-submarine explores the wreck of the Lusitania during the filming of a 1994 documentary.Photo: Jonathan Blair—National Geographic Creative

The role of historical detective seems an unlikely one for Bemis. He is a graduate of Stanford and Harvard Business School, born to a wealthy New England family (his forebears founded the Bemis Bag Co. in 1858; it’s now Bemis Co., Inc., an international packaging corporation with $5 billion in sales). He’s a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War, a longtime executive in energy, paper, and venture capital, a man both profane and articulate. But even he struggles to explain his bewildering, 47-year relationship with the ocean liner he now calls The Old Lady.

It all began in 1968, when Bemis read a newspaper article about a friend who was partnering with a former Navy diver to build an underwater breathing system, machinery that would allow divers to work safely at then-unheard-of depths while avoiding the life-threatening effects of decompression. Their goal: To use that system to salvage the Lusitania, whose rights the diver had bought a couple years earlier for 1,000 pounds (about $22,000 today).

Bemis, who grew up on the water in Massachusetts, was an avid recreational diver by then. (His later accomplishments in venture capital included buying and making profitable the Ocean Corp., which is now one of the largest professional diving schools in the U.S.) Fascinated by what he read, Bemis joined the two men in a venture to design a mobile saturation diving system, or SAT. While SATs are now in use all over the world, “There were no such systems in existence then,” Bemis recalls. “We were way ahead of our time.”

Too far ahead, it turned out: The cost of building and testing such a complex system escalated, and the venture went broke. But Bemis and his friend retained ownership of the company’s remaining assets—including the salvage rights. And although Bemis then returned to the corporate world, his interest in the Lusitania only grew. In 1982 he bought out his partner’s share for one dollar, becoming the ship’s only official “salvor.”

The ship’s “telemotor,” which turned its rudder; it was salvaged by Bemis in 2011.Photo: Eoin McGarry

He soon got entangled in a legal hassle that foreshadowed things to come. In the mid-1980s, Bemis contracted with a Houston diving firm, Oceaneering International, to survey what exactly was on the wreck. The divers brought up three propellers, china, a bell and whistle, an anchor chain—“a lot of stuff,” notes Bemis. But the British government laid claim to the property, and Bemis wound up having to go to court to prove his ownership.

British courts ruled in Bemis’s favor in 1986. His deal with Oceaneering allowed that firm to sell the salvaged items, and his own share of the proceeds was small. Mostly he was, and still is, upset over what eventually happened to those big, bronze propellers. “Only one is in a museum,” Bemis says, “in Liverpool. The second is on the grounds of a hotel in Dallas. And the third was melted down for I don’t know what. It’s tragic.”

A fateful change in the law

“Saloon” (or first-class) passengers play shuffleboard on the deck.Photo: Topical Press Agency—Getty Images

For most of maritime history, the oceans—and the wrecks underneath them—have been governed by the concept of freedom of the seas. The phrase “international waters” conveys the underlying idea: All nations have access, and each nation’s legal control over its coastal waters extends only to a narrow strip of ocean along its shoreline.

But in the 1980s, that strip got wider. After years of multinational negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, a new Law of the Sea was adopted worldwide, extending nations’ jurisdiction to 12 nautical miles out from their coastlines, up from three. The new legal regime primarily reflected nations’ desires to established sovereignty over offshore mineral, oil, and gas deposits. But it also meant that the Lusitania, which sank 11 ½ miles off the coast, was now in Irish territorial waters.

It took a few years, and major advances in underwater exploration technology, before the repercussions of this change came back to bite Bemis. In 1994, National Geographic aired a television documentary about the Lusitania produced by Bob Ballard, the celebrated photographer of the Titanic. Made with Bemis’s cooperation, the show offered the public extensive footage of the ghostly 787-foot wreck for the first time.

The film also brought the wreck’s attention to divers worldwide. That same year, a group of American and British divers showed up without Bemis’s permission, made multiple descents to the Lusitania, and poached various items from the ship—violating both Irish law and Bemis’s salvage rights. Both Ireland and Bemis sued, and the divers eventually were ordered to give the Lusitania recoveries to Bemis, who turned them over to Irish museums.

But in Ireland, the furor over the case established the idea that the Lusitania was vulnerable to plunder. And in the aftermath, Ireland’s cultural ministry, the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, quickly placed a protective order on the Lusitania—making it necessary, under Irish law, not only to get Bemis’s approval to dive there, but Ireland’s too. That order, now known as an Underwater Heritage Order, remains in effect two decades later.

The passenger liner under construction at a Scottish shipyard, circa 1905.Photo: Adoc-photos/Corbis

It was at this point that Bemis and Ireland became antagonists—and according to Bemis, a false rumor was partly to blame. During the legal battle with the illicit divers, old reports resurfaced that one of the passengers on the ill-fated 1915 voyage, British art collector Sir Hugh Lane, had been transporting paintings by Rubens, Monet, Rembrandt, and Titian– each encased in a protective lead tube—when the ship went down. According to the book Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by Diana Preston, the value of those paintings was estimated at $4 million at the time—about $93 million today.

Bemis believes that one of the illegal divers, a woman who’s now deceased, circulated rumors that the expedition had spotted the tubes, and that Bemis was trying to claim them for himself. Bemis calls that accusation “preposterous,” but he also thinks it motivated the Irish authorities to crack down on access to the ship.

The Irish government tells a different story. Terry Allen, the director of Ireland’s National Monuments Service, is the official who now oversees the rules governing the Lusitania. The Heritage Order is intended “to protect the wreck from unauthorized diving and interference,” Allen says, and has never been aimed personally at Bemis. As for the missing paintings, Allen said, “the State does not have a view” on whether they actually existed. Allen and other officials also point out that reverence for the victims of the Lusitania also holds a place in Irish culture: Irish rescue boats brought most of the survivors back to shore, and nearly 200 casualties of the disaster are buried in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh.

But what isn’t in dispute is the significance of the Heritage Order. As described on an Irish government guide for divers, when an order is in effect, “a person must not dive on, damage, or generally interfere with any wreck or archaeological object except in accordance with a Ministerial licence.” In practice, that means Bemis faces major obstacles if he wants to physically alter the Lusitania in any way—and to determine the cause of the second explosion, Bemis will almost certainly have to do just that.

Eoin McGarry, a professional wreck diver who has explored sunken ships all over Europe, is perhaps Bemis’s most fervent and loyal supporter in Ireland—over the past decade he has become Bemis’s partner in exploration. At age 45, McGarry says he has dived on the ship “more than 30 times, more than anyone else in history, people tell me. I’ve come to know The Old Lady well.” McGarry says that almost no other governments are as sensitive about explorations in their waters as Ireland has been with the Lusitania. In Greece, he says, diving around wrecks from the classical era is almost entirely banned. But he also notes that those ships are actually ancient—while the Lusitania, which launched in 1906, is only a little over 100 years old. “They classify [the ship] as archaeology, where we both classify it as historical,” McGarry says. “This is the stick that they beat Gregg with now.”

Would Bemis be treated better if he were Irish? Richard Martin, his attorney in Ireland for most of the last 20 years, doesn’t think so. “The government regards Gregg as a somewhat eccentric, obsessive, difficult, undiplomatic pain in the ass,” Martin says. “But I don’t think the fact that he is American or Canadian or Mexican really comes into it.”

Is history untouchable?

A cross section of the Lusitania, published in 1906, the year of her launch.

 

As Bemis and McGarry continue to pursue the mystery of the second explosion, the government’s restrictions now seem especially onerous. Bemis’s team believes they’ll be able to isolate the cause if they can send robotic cameras into the boiler room and storage holds and examine the wreckage. But that means either cutting holes in the side of the ship or physically taking the wreck apart—moves that Irish authorities see as potential damage or interference with an archaeological site. The result: a slog of litigation and frustration for Bemis as he has alternately played by and chafed against the rules.

On multiple occasions, Bemis has had to sue the Irish government for permission to explore his own wreck. One such case took him all the way to the Irish Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. After the ruling, the government reluctantly approved Bemis’s plan to cut a hole in the side of the ship and send an ROV (a remote-controlled underwater vehicle) inside, equipped with a camera—a plan Bemis was implementing in tandem with the shooting of a second National Geographic documentary.

“They gave us permission only two days before shooting began,” Bemis recalls ruefully. Worse still, Bemis’s luck turned against him. The device cutting the three-foot hole in the hull malfunctioned, and the effort was abandoned. Instead, the filmmakers asked the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to run computer simulations of the second explosion; but the lab concluded that the cause was an exploding boiler, not munitions—a conclusion that Bemis rejects, but still calls “a terrible disappointment.”

Bemis, being the indefatigable Bemis, has a Plan B. He now wants to remove several steel plates from the ship’s upward-facing, exposed port side, in two places. He thinks the resulting view will provide evidence that a boiler did not explode, and that munitions did. To do so, he’d like to be granted a “mission license” that would give him the latitude to operate unhindered. “Whatever it takes to achieve it would be up to me to figure out, do it, pay for it,” Bemis explains. “That’s fundamental to the way we think in America. If you have a task to do, hire the best person you can and get out of the way.”

Bemis, right, with Eoin McGarry just after a visit to the site of the wreck in 2011.Photo: Courtesy of Eoin McGarry

Ireland’s response to this plan isn’t an absolute “no,” but it still comes with conditions that Bemis finds intolerable. Ireland wants Bemis to indemnify the government if any divers are injured or ships damaged in the expedition; it also insists on approval rights over his salvage proposals, including approval by an archaeologist chosen by the government. Bemis sums up the Irish demands: “They want me to fully expose myself financially with them having 100% ability to stop me in my tracks at any time.”

The dispute reached a nadir of sorts in mediation last September—a miserable 10 ½-hour session, in Dublin, during which Bemis was coming down with strep throat. As far as Bemis was concerned, no progress was made. “I felt like this was just a scam,” he says, “one more process to go through so they could say, ‘Well, we tried, but Bemis is incorrigible, you know.’”

Bemis’s lawyer, Martin, believes the government has softened its original conditions. But under prevailing law, he adds, “the only way to work with the state is to jump through the hoops they want you to jump through.” And he doubts Bemis will ever accede: “He totally objects to their entitlement to tell him how to deal with his property.”

Running out of time

The Lusitania was torpedoed just a few miles from the shore of County Cork, Ireland, where it looms large in local culture. This memorial in County Cork commemorates the sinking.Photo: Richard Cummins—Corbis

Bemis’s zeal has not been cheap. He pays for most of his own travel to Ireland; he rents expensive equipment and hires expert divers and prominent lawyers. Sources knowledgeable about diving expeditions estimate his personal outlay as easily in the seven figures. Bemis himself is skittish about revealing exactly what the Lusitania has cost him personally over the past 47 years. “It’s embarrassing,” Bemis acknowledges. “Why look any stupider than I already look?”

One clearly pressing factor is Bemis’s age: He will turn 87 later this month. “He’s going to run out of time,” Martin worries. In part with that in mind, Bemis recently replaced Martin as his lead counsel, bringing aboard a younger, more aggressive lawyer from the same firm.

There is another urgency: The wreck continues to deteriorate. The steel structure continues to corrode, and passing fishing trawlers frequently strike the ship with their nets, doing more damage. McGarry dove to the wreck in late September. “I can see changes,” he says. “I see them every year.”

What’s next? Bemis is deciding, with his new lawyer, whether to sue again. He says meeting the heritage department’s conditions is “not possible.” Terry Allen said in October that “It remains our hope that he will be able to continue his investigations,” and that the state will “assist and facilitate him in that regard.” Bemis’s response: “Meaningless.”

A World War I recruitment poster.Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt—Getty Images

Any path forward for Bemis will cost him more money, more time away from family (“a wife, five grown kids, and 11 grandchildren, all over the country”), more grueling transatlantic travel for an octogenarian. “At my age,” he admits, “I’m not going to make a career of this much longer.” And yet, Bemis passionately wants one final chance to determine what really happened. “We spend millions investigating a plane crash,” he says, “but we don’t do a proper investigation into why [the Lusitania] sank. Leaving that wreck on the bottom of the ocean does not serve the interests of the Irish people or the people of the world.”

The 100th anniversary of the disaster this month—marked by new books, TV shows, and memorials in the U.S. and Ireland—is attracting a new and perhaps final wave of attention to Bemis’s cause. To seize the moment, Bemis and McGarry have designed a small steel plaque commemorating the Lusitania victims, which McGarry and another diver will take down on May 7 and lay on the hull just forward of the bridge. Attached to it will be a watertight capsule containing the names of the dead. Bemis will be aboard the boat that takes the divers to the site and is expected to speak briefly, if only to echo the message on the plaque:

Courtesy of Gregg Bemis

Bemis could not resist taking a poke at the government with the plaque’s final line: “Hopefully someday the truth around the sinking will be revealed.”

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