Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Dead Wake - Erik Larson

   2015; 359 pages.  Full Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania.  New Author? : No.   Genre : Non-Fiction; History; World War 1; Ships.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Everything I know about the Lusitania comes from history classes, either in high school or college.  Here’s what I remember from those classes.

    The sinking of the Lusitania caused an outrage in America that immediately caused us to enter World War 1 on the side of the British and French.  Since we did that in 1917, that means the Lusitania was sunk in 1917 as well.

    It was torpedoed by a German U-boat.  There were two giant explosions.  The Germans say that proves the luxury liner was secretly carrying ammunition from the US to England.  The British say it proves that the U-boat fired not one, but two torpedoes, those dirty dogs.

    The Lusitania was an American ship, so the sinking of it was an act of war.  The attack took place somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  There were some survivors, but a lot of passengers died because there weren’t enough lifeboats.  Most of them were Americans.

    Hmm.  Strangely enough, the only true statement in those last three paragraphs is that the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

What’s To Like...
    Dead Wake is Erik Larson’s most recent book, and is a departure from his usual style of interweaving two disparate stories, such as in The Devil  in the White City, where he tells about the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago (which showcased the a marvelous invention called the Ferris wheel), and a detective's dogged hunt for a serial killer named H.H. Holmes.  Here, no such blending takes place, but the POV does skip around from the perspectives of the U-boat, the Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson in Washington DC, and Room 40  in London, the headquarters for British Intelligence during the First World War.

    Larson divides the book into five sections, arranged chronologically, and chronicling the voyages of both vessels.  They are :
Part 1. (pg 5) Bloody Monkeys (background and pre-voyage preparations)
Part 2.  (pg 133) Jump Rope and Caviar (the voyages themselves)
Part 3. (pg. 215) Dead Wake (the paths of the two ships meet)
Part 4. (pg. 245) The Black Soul  (the torpedoing, sinking, and rescue efforts)
Part 5.  (pg. 315) The Sea of Secrets  (the aftermath and consequences)

    The torpedo impact takes place at 2:10 PM on May 07, 1915, which, book-wise, is on page 247.  You might think that means a whole bunch of boring pre-explosion stuff to slog through, but Erik Larson did meticulous researching into the lives of the various passengers and crewmen, and their lives and intertwining fates makes for fascinating reading.

    The book isn’t overly technical, but I enjoyed learning about the U-boat technology of World War 1.  Submarines were viewed as a joke at the beginning of the war.  They were small, their torpedoes had a 60% fail rate, and their batteries needed charging frequently.  But after they sank a couple British warships, they developed into a deadly threat.  Indeed, it led to an official British policy forbidding any of their large warships from being dispatched to rescue survivors from a torpedoed ship.  This would have a grave impact when the Lusitania went down.

    As usual, Erik Larson throws all sorts of details and trivia into the account.  Arthur Conan Doyle writes a fictional sub story that turns out to be remarkably prescient.  I learned about the long-forgotten “Straw Hat Day” celebrations.  There’s an eerie quote about the horrors of trench warfare by some German soldier named Adolf Hitler.  And you’ll be amazed by how much coal has to be loaded onto a ship that’s about to embark on a transatlantic voyage.  Overall, it was really neat to get a “feel” for life in the 1910’s – in Germany, in the US, and in England.

    The title is explained on page 241.  The ending is great, which is no small feat since most readers will know ahead of time how things turn out for the Lusitania.  The blame-games played in the aftermath will sadden you.  Winston Churchill, then the Secretary of the Navy, comes across particularly poorly.  The “Epilogue” section is in a “whatever happened to” structure, and I greatly enjoyed  that.  The closing paragraphs (pg. 353) about Theodate Pope’s search for her shipboard friend, Edwin Friend, will bring both a tear and a smile to your face.

    There are no pictures in the book, which was mildly disappointing.  I would’ve liked to see a larger-scale map of the watery areas of interest.  The “extras” in the back of the book include 6 pages of acknowledgements, 58 pages of notes, and an 11-page index.  I highly recommend reading the "Sources and Acknowledgements" section, as it details just how much work goes into writing and publishing a book like this.

Kewlest New Word ...
Sequelae (n., plural) : conditions that are the consequence of a previous disease or injury.

    Men served as ballast.  In order to quickly level or “dress” his boat, or speed a dive, Schwieger would order crewmen to run to the bow or the stern.  The chaos might at first seem funny, like something from one of the new Keystone Cops films, except for the fact that these maneuvers were executed typically at moments of peril.  U-boats were so sensitive to changes in load that the mere launch of a torpedo required men to shift location to compensate for the sudden loss of weight.  (pg. 121)

    He and Pierpoint swam together.  Turner saw the bodies of the ship’s firemen floating nearby, upside down in their life jackets – he counted forty in all.  Seagulls dove among corpses and survivors alike.  Turner later told his son, Norman, that he found himself fending off attacks by the birds, which swooped from the sky and pecked at the eyes of floating corpses.  Rescuers later reported that wherever they saw spirals of gulls, they knew they would find bodies.  Turner’s experience left him with such a deep hatred of seagulls, according to Norman, “that until his retirement he used to carry a .22 rifle and shoot every seagull he could.”  (pg. 296)

 “If you had to jump six or seven feet, or certainly drown, it is surprising what ‘a hell of a long way’ even older people can jump.”  (pg. 272)
    Dead Wake was a riveting book for me, especially the “what ifs” and the subsequent events.  The British navy tries to make Captain Turner a scapegoat, but instead, you, and Erik Larson, have to ask: Why wasn’t there a destroyer escort for the Lusitania as it approached Liverpool?  After all, it was in a war zone, and Germany had sent out explicit communications that they would sink any and all vessels their U-boats encountered there.

    It should also be noted that, by its own shipping records, the Lusitania was carrying much-needed rifle-carriages and shrapnel shells to England, making it fair game in the conflict.  Still, the popular conspiracy theory that it carried another, secret trove of highly-explosive munitions is pretty much debunked by Larson.

   The actions of the United States are also head-scratching.  No matter what your and my 8th-grade teacher told you, we didn’t declare war because of this.  The Lusitania was sunk in May 1915.  We didn’t enter the war until two years later (half the duration of the four-year conflict), and that only after our indignation over the infamous “Zimmerman Letter”.  Wiki it, or read this book.  Talk about skewed priorities.

    9½ Stars.  Dead Wake is a fantastic read for history buffs, and I've never yet been disappointed in an Erik Larson book.

    We’ll close with some of the more poignant stats and trivia given in the book.  764 people survived the sinking of the Lusitania, including the ship’s captain, William Turner.  1,195 people died, including 27 of the 33 infants aboard  and 3 German stowaways, who had been caught at departure snooping around, and were incarcerated below-decks.  The bodies of more than 600 passengers were never found.  123 Americans perished.

    The Lusitania was just 16 hours from arriving at its destination when it was torpedoed.  The total time between the impact and sinking: just 18 minutes.  Although each passenger had been issued a life jacket, many of them died because they didn't know how to put it on and/or where they had stashed it in their cabins.  Think about that last piece of trivia the next time you take a cruise and have to participate in the mandatory life jacket drill.

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