One day seven years ago, while on a magazine assignment, I found myself on a boat off the coast of Ireland, bobbing in dark, heavy seas 300 feet above the slumbering wreck of the R.M.S. Lusitania as sport divers returned triumphantly to the surface. When they came aboard, the gleeful explorers, part of a marine archaeology expedition sanctioned by the Irish government, produced a piece of history — a plastic container holding a handful of .303 rounds they’d found inside the plankton-hazed ruins, rounds that had been manufactured in America and bought by the British to kill Germans during World War I. One of the divers peeled back the lid, and the corroded ammunition greeted fresh air for the first time in 93 years. “There’s thousands of cases of ammo down in that hole!” one of the Irish divers cried out. “You could just scoop the stuff up!” But then he turned somber. Even though he had dived the great wreck dozens of times before, the expression on his face was that of a spooked man. “It will always be a scary place, a daunting place,” he told me. “There’s a lot of lost souls down there.”
Few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man. On May 7, 1915, the four-funneled, 787-foot Cunard superliner, on a run from New York to Liverpool, encountered a German submarine, the U-20, about 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. The U-boat’s captain, Walther Schwieger, was pleased to discover that the passenger steamer had no naval escort. Following his government’s new policy of unrestricted warfare, Schwieger fired a single torpedo into her hull. Less than half a minute later, a second explosion shuddered from somewhere deep within the bowels of the vessel, and she listed precariously to starboard.