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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans


 

 

THE SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA

[428] DURING the World War, it was the declared policy of Germany to torpedo any vessel flying an enemy flag in the waters adjacent to the British Isles, regardless of its character, or who was on board.

One bright morning, the first day of May, 1915, the huge British liner, Lusitania, lay at her dock ready to sail from New York to Liverpool. Her decks were crowded with passengers. They had read, in the morning papers that "vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her Allies, are liable to destruction—and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her Allies, do so at their own risk."

In spite of this warning, the ship was crowded with a large and happy throng, who were not deterred by any threat of destruction. She steamed down the harbor amid the waving of hands from the shore, and the sound of music on her deck. There were many confident souls on board, but along with them were many who were wondering if destruction really lay in wait for the great vessel.

The voyage was full of pleasure. The decks were crowded with promenaders, and the smoking- [429] room and cabins were centers of amusement and conversation. There was little thought of danger, and but few discussed the possibility of the ship being torpedoed. It was an event that no one wished to consider for a moment.

The morning of May 7 came with a heavy fog over the sea. The blowing of the siren awakened the passengers, and some of them commented on the fact, saying it might attract the submarines. Later on the fog lifted, leaving the sky without a cloud and the sea as smooth as glass. The shores of Ireland were in sight. Everybody was glad that the voyage was nearly over, and that, in a few hours, the ship and its passengers would be safe.

The morning passed, and the ship steamed steadily on. Luncheon hour came, and the passengers thronged below for their midday meal. Nearer and nearer came the friendly shores, and less and less grew the danger that threatened the vessel. The British flag was flying, as if in defiance to the threat of Germany.

Having finished luncheon, some of the passengers came on deck, some went to their rooms to rest, while others turned to the smoking rooms. The ship settled down to the usual afternoon routine.

At a few minutes after two o'clock, some of [430] the passengers saw what looked like a whale or porpoise, rising about three-quarters of a mile to starboard. They knew that it was a submarine, but no one dared name it. All eyes now fastened in silence and dread on the menace that lay so quietly and sullenly in the distance.

Then a long white line, making a train of bubbles across the water, started from the black object. It came straight for the ship. No one spoke until it was about sixty yards away. Then some one cried out, "It is a torpedo."

There was no chance for the great ship to get out of the way. Its movement was too ponderous for the swiftly coming torpedo. It was plain that it could not miss its mark. It was aimed ahead of the vessel, and timed to strike under the bridge. As the missile of death came nearer, it dived, and the passengers held their breath. Would it hit or would it miss?

Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion, and the fore part of the ship was torn into great holes. Pieces of the wreckage came through the upper deck, and fell among the frightened passengers. Germany had carried out her threat, and had dealt death to the great trans-Atlantic liner!

There was no second torpedo; there was no need of one. The boiler exploded immediately, [431] and the ship listed heavily to starboard. The passengers rushed to the high side of the deck—the port side. There was such a list to starboard that the life-boats on the port side swung so far in that they could not be launched.

The vessel began to settle, and the life-boats on the starboard side were launched. The first boat dropped clear of the ship, and floated away with no one in it. One man jumped from the deck, swam toward the boat, and got in alone.

Everyone was frightened, but there was no panic. The cry was raised, "Women and children first!" These were placed in the life-boats that were launched. The ship settled down on the starboard side, and also by the head. Those who could not get into the life-boats trusted to the life-preservers, and made ready for the plunge into the cold water. The officers of the ship acted with bravery and coolness, trying to launch the life-boats and get the women and children into safety. The wireless telegraph apparatus was put out of commission shortly after the explosion, but not before a distress message, calling for help, was sent out and answered.

So quickly did the ship sink that it was impossible to get life-preservers from the lower deck cabins. Many had to leap into the sea without [432] them. The shock of the cold water was so benumbing that those who jumped in were not able to swim, and many of them soon sank out of sight.

With one great plunge, the stricken vessel, that so often had crossed the Atlantic, and that, only an hour before, was so full of life and power, sank head foremost into the sea. A great wave, rushing over her decks, cast the remaining passengers into the water.

Then followed a scene of indescribable tragedy. Two boats, full of people, were overturned. Another was swamped as the vessel went down, and still another was dragged down by catching in the davits. The sea was piled with wreckage to which people were clinging. Some were struggling to swim, others were depending on life-preservers, all were battling with the waves in mad endeavor to save their lives.

Women were holding on to their husbands, while both went down. Children were floating helpless, trying to catch any object and crying piteously for their parents, before their little mouths were closed forever.

One by one they went down beneath the cruel waves. Thus, eleven hundred and fifty-two were drowned. Of these, one hundred and fourteen were known to be American citizens. Of the two [433] thousand and more passengers, nine hundred and fifty-two were saved in the life-boats and on the rafts picked up by friendly vessels that hastened to the scene of disaster.

Thus did the German submarine carry out the threat of the German Government, and sink a noble ship with its precious freight of human lives.


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