Lusitania: The epic battle over its biggest mystery

Photograph by Library of Congress

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.

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.

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

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.

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