Lusitania and other doomed ships

Last night, my wife and I watched another documentary about the Titanic (1,490–1,635 deaths), this one about a private notebook kept by the judge in the British hearing that–for reasons unknown–hadn’t been read by anyone. The documentary yielded a few interesting ideas, but little that was new.

Other than the discovery of Titanic by Robert Ballard in 1985, most documentaries have yielded very little that is new, though Ballard’s discovery confirmed what many survivors claimed and many experts denied, was the fact that the ship broke in half before it sank.

We speculated as we watched this documentary why there is so much more out there in documentary land about Titanic than other ships that sank, some with more casualties. White Star Line’s publicity about the ship? The famous people aboard? The fact that the accident was so preventable?

Hard to say.

Wikipedia photo

The first edition of The Last Voyage of the Lusitania (1,198 deaths) came out in 1957 a year before the Titanic movie A Night to Remember. I read the book before I saw the movie and found it more haunting.

Years later, I learned that 9,400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in 1945 and that 4,386 people died when the Doña Paz sank in 1987.

We never hear anything about those disasters, or even about the Lusitania, much less the 1917 collision and subsequent explosion on board the SS Mont-Blanc of Halifax, Nova Scotia in which 1,782 confirmed deaths and a hard-to-believe amount of on-short devastation.

When the Night to Remember feature film came out in 1958, everyone saw it and talked about it and sang the 1952 original version of the song “When the Great Ship Went Down.” The 1997 film Titanic certainly got plenty of attention; it was a splashy production, that included the fact the ship broke in half and had that mesmerizing Jack and Rose story.

And yet, I continue to be drawn back to the Lusitania story and the swirl of anti-German propaganda that came after it. Much is made about the fact that the ship carried munitions, as though that means the “sinking doesn’t count” because it was a warship more than a passenger ship. I doubt the passengers knew they were sailing on a warship.

I have never feared the sea. I traveled to Europe by ship (though slower than Titanic!) and while in the Navy made three trips to the Western Pacific in an aircraft carrier. I always found the sea calming rather than boring and never worried about sinking. Yet the horror and chaos of major passenger ship disasters seem to tug at our heartstrings whether we’re reading about Lusitania or the 1914 Empress of Ireland disaster in the St. Lawrence River in which 1,012 died.

We seem to analyze and re-analyze these disasters as though when we get to the end of the documentary, book, or feature film, this time the ship won’t sink.

Maybe the fact that I grew up next to the sea and was a navy sailor has influenced me as I ponder these disasters and wonder what it would have taken to avoid them.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea,” a Vietnam War novel inspired by his experiences on board an aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. It will be free on Kindle this weekend.