Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mystery of the Lusitania Shipwreck

Mystery of the Lusitania Shipwreck

by Roger Weston

Allegedly, anonymous and mysterious telegrams were received by some passengers just before they boarded the fateful journey of a glamorous passenger liner that was to depart from New York on May 1st, 1915. The telegrams warned of impending disaster. They were signed Morte.

Such was the beginning of the legendary final journey of the Lusitania, one of the most famous passenger liners ever. And in fact, she was about to play a stunning role in world history. 

Officials denied the reports of the threatening telegrams. Evidently they were persuasive because 1,256 passengers decided to go ahead with the trans-Atlantic crossing to England—as well as hundreds of crew members. There were other reasons for caution, too. The German embassy in Washington, for example, warned travelers that it was wartime and ships like the Lusitania were legitimate targets. Keep in mind that due to the ongoing hostilities in Europe, crossings were limited. After all, the Germans were sinking ships with stealthy submarines called U-boats.

The passengers had plausible reasons to think that they would survive the dangerous trip. After all, the Lusitania was a fast ocean liner. Combine speed with the safety precaution of following a zigzag pattern and they might well have made it. Other ships certainly did. It was also said that no submarine could outrun the Lusitania, winner of the Blue Riband for being the fastest transatlantic liner. There were added factors that would inspire confidence. Passengers felt certain that the Germans would not hit a passenger ship—especially one with Americans onboard. If all of that wasn’t enough, the ship’s brochure advertised that she was “unsinkable”. Many people have blind trust in authorities, and this claim must have given them comfort. The brochure also touted that the Lusitania and her sister ship were “the safest… in the world.” This is a logical conclusion: an unsinkable ship would be safe indeed. These claims could be backed up, too. The ship was constructed with 175 watertight compartments, so that if one compartment was flooded, the others would stay dry, and the boat would be fine—assuming all the watertight doors were closed.

Furthermore, the famous multimillionaire Alfred G. Vanderbilt would be along for the crossing. Surely, if well-connected people were taking the trip, everything would be okay. Or would it? It is unlikely that the captain of the German U-boat knew or cared whether or not there were celebrities on board.

Amidst all the rumors and hype, the ship kept her schedule. She slipped her moorings on May 1st, and five days later entered dangerous waters. To his credit, the captain took several wise precautions in a display of competence and efficiency. The lifeboats were uncovered and swung out on their davits; the crew was told to have them ready for launch in case of trouble. He also dictated that the ship be blacked out, which was a wise move. He ordered extra lookouts on deck. Then on May 6th, the Lusitania received what must have been a chilling message over the wireless: U-boat activity in the area.

Anyone who has been at sea knows that this is not the kind of news that you want to hear. Nevertheless, the Lusitania’s captain was not especially concerned. This much can be inferred from his subsequent actions—or shall we say lack of actions. For example, the British Admiralty had issued critical instructions, which the captain either misunderstood or ignored. No doubt many passengers who signed on for the journey had taken comfort in the Lusitania’s capabilities. She was known for her speed, which meant they could outrun a submarine. There were other precautions a captain could take such as running a zigzag course. This would have made it difficult for a submarine to sink them. The passengers were right to think that these factors worked in their favor; however, the captain, as has been said, ignored such instructions. He also ignored the order to keep clear of headlands and steam in mid-channel. He did the opposite. He ran a lackluster 18 knots, and he ran a straight course, hugging the coast a half mile offshore of the Coningbeg Lightship. He did all this in the very area where the submarines had been sighted. As a result, the Lusitania was an easy target. 

At 1:20 p.m., a U-boat spotted the massive ocean liner and fired a torpedo, which struck the leviathan amidships. A second blast within the hull was even more powerful. This explosion in the boiler room was probably a detonation of the coal dust. However, the captain of the Lusitania had a secret. He was delivering more than just passengers to England; he was also delivering ammunition for the war against Germany. There were 5,000 cases of cartridges and 1,500 cases of shells. Furthermore, these were stored against the bulkhead leading into the No. 1 boiler room. Some have suggested that the ammunition caused the secondary explosion. Perhaps it did.

Either way, the damage was fatal. The ship listed to starboard. Within minutes, she tilted forward and buried her nose in the frigid water. Within 18 minutes, she made her descent to the bottom. Almost 1,200 doomed passengers and crew members made the deep fall with her; by the time the silt settled, they had surely passed on, and the ship had become their watery tombstone.

It may seem that this was a routine disaster where a ship was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong captain. And that may be the case. However, there is a mystery associated with the Lusitania. Some writers have claimed that Winston Churchill, who was at the time first lord of the Admiralty, wanted this disaster. They have suggested that because there were over a hundred Americans aboard, their deaths at the hands of Germans would lure the Americans into the War. It is true that England was in dire straits and desperately needed military help from reluctant America. It is true that this disaster helped tilt the scales toward America entering the war, although not for a couple more years. While this is possible, at least for now, these claims are just conspiracy theories—at least until convincing evidence emerges, which so far has not yet happened after a hundred years.

On May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland, 1,198 people perished. These were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. These people took a risk that didn’t pay off. A hotel manager named Albert Bilicke took the cruise for his health because he was recovering from abdominal surhgery. His recovery was cut short by the German torpedo. A 24-year old Canadian girl named Dorothy Braithwaite was on the Lusitania to visit her sisters in London, who had been widowed on the same day. Dorothy never got a chance to console them. Emily Hadfield of Ontario, Canada, was traveling with her 8-month old baby. Emily perished in the shipwreck; however, her baby was plucked out of the water and survived. An opera singer named Millie Baker had been training her voice in France and Spain and was planning to make her stage debut with the Opera Comique, but she was deprived of her big chance. After her death on the Lusitania, her mother received a note in the mail, sent on May 1st, 1915, signed, “Love always, your Millie.” Father Basil W. Maturin, stayed on the sinking ship and never attempted to board a lifeboat. Instead he gave absolution to all who requested it, and he handed a child onto the last lifeboat.

More than seven hundred survived the shipwreck, but many endured trauma and survived as a testament of the human spirit. They clung to floating debris and held on for their lives. One woman floated to shore in an armchair. Another woman gave birth in the water. She and her baby survived. A new bride was sucked into one of the funnels of the sinking ship, but was then spit out. She splashed down into the water near her husband’s lifeboat.

As we now approach the 100-year anniversary of the tragic shipwreck, we honor and remember the passengers of the Lusitania.

Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twistYou can find his books at: 
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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Forgotten Rescue: The Suevic

The Forgotten Rescue
by Roger Weston

In March of 1907, a ferocious storm raked the gloomy waters off the Cornish coast. Thick fog buried the Lizard peninsula. This treacherous outcrop was the home of many small fishing communities. On this night in the Ides of March, a fisherman’s wife spotted an ominous red glow in the fog. Word spread quickly in the small community. Bearded fishermen leapt into action. It was clear that this red glow was no weather phenomenon. It was the distress flare of a ship. The news could not have been more grim given that the conditions were brutal, and the chances seemed high that some if not all of the mysterious ship’s passengers would die if they were not soon rescued.

The fishermen of the Lizard Peninsula knew the sea like their own mother, but on this night the sea raged out of control. The men knew well the power of storms like they knew the frailty of men in peril. They knew the code of the sea demanded their action. Four crews of men took to the oars of four rescue boats and set out to sea in fog so dense they could see nothing at all. In these eerie conditions, they rode the wild horse of the sea’s towering waves. Huge waves thrust them high in the fog and they could see nothing but the distant red glow. They rose and fell, rose and fell. The men fought with all their might against a powerful south-westerly gale. The rowers pulled with all their might and even then could barely make progress against the adversity of the storm and sea. They were determined, however. Their will was fixed to match that of the sea. So thick was the fog soup that they couldn't see the stricken ship until the rescue boat bumped into her wave-swept hull. 

As the waves swept by the ship, which was run aground on a reef, the rescue boats were lifted high up toward her rails where 524 terrified passengers prayed for their lives. The complement included 85 children. When the rescue boats rose on the crests, men and women dropped their children overboard into the lifeboats. Two of the ship’s own lifeboats had already been launched and were headed for certain doom because they did not know how to pass through the reef. The timely arrival of the local fisherman played a crucial role in their salvation. Another minute and they’d have been lost in the fog, lost to the hungry sea whose appetite is never satisfied.

All night long the men of the local fishing villages risked their lives, running out to the ship and rescuing loads of passengers. Sixty local fishermen took turns at the oars. Every passenger was ferried safely to shore where the wives of the fishermen had lit bonfires to guide their men home and keep the survivors warm. 

These selfless local heroes worked all through the night, fighting a Herculean battle against the weather, making run after run out to the ship. These brave men, guided by the red glow on the waters and the orange glow of fires ashore, these men who knew the ways of survival at sea—they saved everyone on board, brought them all to safety. These men of the Lizard Peninsula were true heroes, and it is only fitting that their heroic deed should be remembered. 

The ship was the Suevic, a 550-foot leviathan, her bow run aground on a reef. She survived the night as it turned out, but after the storm settled, neither her crew nor salvagers could get her to budge.  There was no way to refloat her.

Almost no way. 

There is always a way, and salvagers put forth a highly-risky plan to her owners, the famous White Star Line. What the salvagers proposed was to carefully place numerous explosive charges of dynamite up and down the sides of her bows. They would detonate all the explosives and sever the grounded bow from the rest of the ship. The rear 400 feet where not damaged, so the majority of the ship would be floated back to harbor, her compartments sealed off so that sea water would not flood her holds. 

The explosives were detonated as planned, weakening the steal that connected the bow with the rest of the ship. That weakness gave way as the ship lifted and lowered on the watery swells.  The ship—minus her bow, was sailed back to Southampton under her own power. She was towed by salvage ships, but their role was mostly to guide the ship, since her engines and propellers were in good shape and provided the power for the voyage. 

Back in port, her owners had a new bow built and attached to the ship, which was then in great shape to continue her career on the high seas. In fact, she went on to sail for more than three decades, but was finally sunk by her crew to avoid her falling into the hands of the Nazis. 

One final fact regarding this amazing tale should be mentioned. Two years after the wreck of the Suevic, her owners, the White Star Line, began work on another ship which was destined for a much more tragic shipwreck. That ship was the SS Titanic

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Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twistYou can find all of his books at: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Two Ships in a Death Grip: The Story of the USS GRUNION

An Aleutian Showdown

It’s July 29, 1942. Fitted with big deck guns for protection against enemy ships, the Japanese cargo ship KANO MARU arrives at Holtz Bay, Attu Island, Alaska, a remote and foggy Aleutian island that the Japanese have occupied in order to divert US naval resources away from Midway and thereby divide the US Navy. The occupation marks the first time in history that US soil has been occupied by a hostile foreign power. The KANO MARO’s mission is to bring supplies to Japanese troops on both Attu and Kiska Island, both of which are occupied by troops who have dug extensive tunnels and trenches to defend their positions. The captain and crew of the KANO MARO have no idea that this routine re-supply mission will turn out to be anything but routine. 
The KANO MARU takes on cargo and leaves for Kiska Island, escorted by a sub chaser CH-26.  Later that day, contact with the sub chaser is lost in a thick fog of the Bering Sea.

July 30, 1942.  The KANO MARU approaches Kiska Island, but the heavy fog prevents her from entering Kiska Harbor. She drifts far off shore.

As the fog begins to thin out, KANO MARU heads toward Kiska Harbor at 15 knots.

Meanwhile, the American submarine USS GRUNION is on her first war patrol. When she reports anti-submarine activity, she is ordered back to Dutch Harbor.

Then the USS GRUNION surprises the KANO MARU, launching a torpedo that hits the machinery room of the Japanese cargo ship. Two Japanese sailors are killed. The starboard machinery room floods, and the diesel engine shuts down.
The KANO MARU remains afloat although she now lacks engine power. When the Japanese crew spots a periscope, they open fire with their big 40-calibre 3-inch guns. No hits scored.
On the USS GRUNION, LtCdr Mannert L. Abele fires another torpedo, but Mark-14 torpedoes are unreliable. This one passes beneath the KANO MARU. The GRUNION fires two more, scoring two hits, but both torpedoes fail to explode. It is a devastating moment for Abele and his crew.
Faced with the prospect of failure, Abele takes bold and courageous action. He orders the GRUNION to surface, where the crew attempts to sink the disabled KANO MARU with gunfire. 


The KANO MARU also has her guns, however. She opens fire on the GRUNION. One shot hits the GRUNION’s conning tower. The GRUNION dives. Abele’s crew loses depth control. GRUNION plunges into the deep.
She exceeds crush depth and implodes in the freezing Bering Sea waters. Sudden death claims every crew member.
Later, sub-chaser CH-26 ISHIZAKI and cable-layer ship UKISHIMA arrive on scene. The crewmen spot debris from the doomed USS GRUNION floating on the surface. A crew from ISHIZAKI boards the KANO MARU to assist with repairs.

A Japanese transport ship attempts to tow the KANO MARU back to the relative safety of Kiska Harbor, but the towing cable breaks. The KANO MARU drifts all night in the dark and stormy Bering Sea.
The next day KANO MARU is towed to Kiska Harbor where her cargo is offloaded. The US aerial bombardment of Kiska Island continues. The day of her arrival, two bombs explode near the wounded ship. She sustains hull damage from a near miss on her port side.
An Aleutian storm drives the KANO MARU against the coast. More than a mile SW of Kiska Harbor, she runs aground at the base of an eighty foot cliff.  She is deemed beyond repair and abandoned.
Back at the Dutch Harbor US Naval Operating Base, the fate of the USS GRUNION is unknown. She has simply disappeared in the vast gray waters around the Aleutian Islands, a chain that stretches a thousand miles from the Alaskan peninsula toward Russia’s Kamchatka.
In 2006, after more than six decades at the bottom of the Bering Sea, the USS GRUNION is found. She is located north of Kiska Island at a depth of more than 2000 feet. The fishing vessel AQUILA, which is towing a sidescan sonar to search for the GRUNION finds her. The search is led by the two sons of the GRUNION’s Commander Mannert Abele.
For more information on the GRUNION, visit
The shipwreck of the KANO MARU remains on Kiska Island, Alaska.


Today, there are many shipwrecks on Kiska Island, which is one of the most remote islands in the world. It is also an official National Historic site, although few people visit. The island has one of the most hostile environments in the world due to frequent Aleutian storms.
If you enjoyed this story please share it by using one of the links below. To receive more shipwreck stories in your inbox sign up to receive my emails. Thank you in advance for your support!  
Side note: After learning about Kiska's unique war time history and discovering that to this day she preserves this forgotten WWII battlefield, I decided to set my novel The Golden Catch on Kiska Island. This action-packed thriller centers around a Japanese shipwreck and it’s mysterious cargo.

You can purchase it here: THE GOLDEN CATCH
 Download to your mobile device:  THE GOLDEN CATCH

 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page