On May 20, the Hoover Institution Library & Archives hosted a special event featuring Gregg Bemis, a Stanford graduate (class of 1950) and current owner of the famed wreck of the British luxury liner RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Bemis, a retired businessman, nautical history buff, and deep-sea diving enthusiast who, at the age of seventy-six, visited the underwater wreck in 2004, delivered a talk explaining his longtime fascination with the story of the famous ship and his ongoing struggle to attain permission from the Irish government to subject the wreck to sustained forensic study.
Bemis’s talk coincided with the opening of a short-term exhibition in the Hoover Tower rotunda that featured never-before-seen artifacts retrieved by Bemis and his diving teams, including a porthole from the ship’s promenade, china and cutlery from its dining room, a ceramic chamber pot, a brass pocket-watch case, and bullets and rifle shells that had been stored among the ship’s cargo. Remember the Lusitania! Discoveries from the Shipwreck also displays photographs, posters, documents, medals, and maps from Hoover's archives, including the recently acquired collection of Lindon Bates Jr., a first-class passenger on the Lusitania who in 1915 was bound for London to work for Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium.
Bemis, who spent many hours researching in the Hoover Library & Archives as a Stanford undergraduate, explained that he initially bought the wreck as a possible commercial venture but soon became consumed with researching its history and the unsolved mysteries that surround the ship’s sinking. Occurring at a pivotal historical moment that introduced large-scale wartime attacks against civilians, the sinking of the Lusitania caused the deaths of 1,201 men, women, and children (128 of them American), provoking widespread international outrage.
In the then-neutral United States, the torpedoing of the ship provided valuable fodder for prowar activists. As Bemis explained, he now would like to use forensic methods to solve a still-lingering question about the ship: Was the Lusitania carrying heavy munitions to the Allies, officially making it a legitimate target for the German navy? The Lusitania, one of the largest luxury liners in the world in 1915, sank in an unprecedented eighteen minutes, as the result of two explosions. Although historians have established that the first explosion was attributable to a German torpedo, no consensus has been reached as to the second explosion: Could it have been caused by onboard ammunition?
Despite the technical difficulties of reaching the wreck, divers are eager to inspect the remains of the ship for clues about its fate. According to Bemis, the Lusitania is to the diving world what Mount Everest is to the world of mountaineering. As testament to the physical and historical enormity of the salvage effort, Bemis shared with the audience video footage of the deep, treacherous dive he made to the ship’s remains in 2004. The footage was also on display in the Hoover Tower rotunda as part of the Library & Archives’ exhibition.
Remember the Lusitania! Discoveries from the Shipwreck was on display in the Hoover Tower rotunda at Stanford University from May 20 to May 24, 2015. The exhibition provides rich historical context for and documentation of the sinking of the Lusitania, the extraordinary reaction the incident provoked, and its military and political consequences.
For more information, call the Hoover Archives at 650-723-3563.