Midwest Voices

Steve Johnson: Sinking of Lusitania led the U.S. to war

A German U-boat 100 years ago this month torpedoed and sank the passenger liner Lusitania, drowning 1,198 civilians, including 128 Americans. It led to the U.S. entering World War I.
A German U-boat 100 years ago this month torpedoed and sank the passenger liner Lusitania, drowning 1,198 civilians, including 128 Americans. It led to the U.S. entering World War I.

At 2:10 p.m. on May 7, 1915, Capt. William Turner guided the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland, en route to Liverpool from New York. The Lusitania’s passengers were finishing lunch.

Capt. Walther Schwieger and his German submarine U-20 awaited the prey. In a moment of destiny, Capt. Schwieger fired a torpedo at the Lusitania, unleashing a sharp explosion, ripping through the cruise liner’s starboard (right) side.

Onlookers on the Irish coast watched as the once mighty vessel sank. In 18 minutes, the Lusitania plunged beneath the Irish channel’s ice cold waters, drowning 1,198 civilians, including 128 Americans. A fortunate few escaped.

The Lusitania passengers’ experience was much like the hellish carnage of the men falling in the muddy trenches of the Great War. Recently I attended a discussion by author Erik Larson on his new book, “Dead Wake,” which tells the story of several people on the Lusitania’s final voyage, including a Kansas City connection.

Kansas Citians Ted and Belle Naish were on the Lusitania for a late honeymoon. Ted was an engineer, Belle was a teacher, and they enjoyed hosting church picnics on their farm near Edwardsville.

On the Lusitania, Ted was seasick and took lunch in their cabin while Belle enjoyed walking the deck, admiring the “very pretty” “Irish islands.” The Naishes enjoyed watching a last sunrise together on May 7, 1915; hours later the fateful torpedo would strike the Lusitania. As the ship sank, the Naishes helped fellow passengers, but they were separated as they plunged into the cold waters — Belle survived, Ted did not.

Belle donated their farm to the Boy Scouts as Camp Theodore Naish, in his memory, a wonderful legacy that has shaped many thousands of Boy Scouts’ lives.

Why didn’t the Lusitania immediately trigger America’s entry into World War I (like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 generations later)? Many Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, embraced isolationism.

Wilson urged Americans to remain neutral in the Great War and Wilson pressed for a negotiated “peace without victory” to the Great War. But the combined Hydra heads of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram (the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman’s attempt to embroil Mexico and America in war) plunged America into the Great War.

The Lusitania’s ghost would deliver 2 million Americans to the Western Front. The Lusitania sinking solidified America and Britain’s Special Relationship, as a symbiotic friendship emerged from the shared tragedy.

Britain would become America’s closest ally through the 20th century and to this day. As an Anglophile, I believe America and Britain’s continued strong alliance is vital. As we celebrate this Memorial Day, we honor the fallen, our veterans, and civilians who perished in war, including the Lusitania passengers.

Fittingly, Kansas City celebrates Memorial Day at the Liberty Memorial, America’s National World War I Museum and Memorial, where several Lusitania artifacts are being exhibited. This Memorial Day, long may the memories and stories of the fallen, the veterans, and the civilians live on.

The Lusitania’s fallen evoke a hauntingly beautiful verse of Canadian John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” penned a century ago: “We are the Dead, Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved, and now we live/In Flanders fields.”

Steve Johnson is an attorney in Kansas City and a member of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in history from Kansas State University and earned his law degree at the University of Kansas. He welcomes correspondence at steve@johnsonlawkc.com. Twitter: @fountainpenlaw.