May 7, 1915 — American multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt died a hero on this day trying to save women and children aboard the liner Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat.
The ship, owned by the Cunard Line, was built to dominate the highly lucrative transatlantic passenger trade. Launched in 1906, it was completed the following year as the largest ship in the world weighing 31,550 tons.
The maiden voyage of the 787 feet (240 metres)-long liner took place on September 7, 1907, when she sailed from Liverpool in England to New York City. On this day the ship was reversing that voyage and was heading to the UK from New York with 1,959 passengers and crew on board.
But it was the time of the First World War and Germany, with a formidable fleet of submarines – or U-boats – was attempting to stop vital supplies reaching the UK across the Atlantic. Germany had declared the seas around the UK a war zone and warned that Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning.
Nobody seriously thought this threat would apply to a non-military luxury passenger liner such as the Lusitania, especially as she would be bound to have many neutral Americans on board.
But Germany took a different view and its embassy in the United States had placed a warning in 50 American newspapers, including those in New York, explaining the dangers of sailing to the UK. It read:
Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy Washington, D.C., 22 April 1915.
Some New York newspapers had printed the warning directly next to Cunard’s list of departure dates, and as the Lusitania got under way the dock was crowded with reporters. They saw that despite the German threat the ship was packed with passengers.
Clearly they believed that a luxury liner with no obvious military value would not be a target. Two other factors boosted confidence. First, Cunard had declared the Lusitania to be the “fastest and largest steamer now in the Atlantic service”. So, in the highly unlikely event of a threat, it was thought, she could outpace any German vessel and thus escape danger.
Secondly, several rich and famous people such as Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and wine merchant George “Champagne King” Kessler had come on board, inspiring confidence. Obviously they would have had access to high-level information warning them if danger really did exist.
William Turner, the captain of the Lusitania, known as "Bowler Bill" because he usually wore a bowler hat when ashore, received advice from the British Admiralty on how to avoid making his ship an easy target. He was urged to alter course every few minutes at irregular intervals so that the evasive tactic of zigzagging would thwart any attempt by U-boats to plot the Lusitania’s course.
Captain Turner ignored the advice and on the afternoon of May 7, just off a headland near Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, a torpedo fired by a German U-boat exploded amidships on the Lusitania’s starboard side. It was followed by a second explosion, possibly caused by damage to the ship’s steam engines.
Eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania had disappeared beneath the waves and 1,198 people, including 128 American citizens, were drowned. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew only 761 survived.
The victims included Alfred Vanderbilt who, during those 18 minutes, had performed extraordinary acts of courage. He could not swim but made no attempt to push through the crowd and get into a lifeboat.
Instead, he and his valet calmly helped several women and children to safety. According to reports a steward saw Vanderbilt “vainly attempting to rescue a hysterical woman” and shouted to him: “Hurry Mr. Vanderbilt, or it will be too late!” Vanderbilt did not listen and continued to help women and children.
A report in the New York Times four days later told of how a woman passenger overheard the tycoon say to his valet: “Find all the kiddies you can.” According to the report the man rushed off collecting children and as he brought them to Vanderbilt “the millionaire dashed to the boats with two little ones in his arms at a time.”
The report added that “when he could find no more children he went to the assistance of the women and placed as many as he could safely in the boats. He continued his efforts until the very end.”
Vanderbilt was last seen helping a nurse put on a lifebelt, but before he could finish securing it they were both washed off the deck. The body of the 37-year-old millionaire was never found.
President Woodrow Wilson had announced at the start of the war that the United States would remain neutral and he was supported by a majority of the American people.
But the sinking of the liner and the loss of so many passengers, including those 128 Americans, caused a wave of indignation across the United States and it was expected that a declaration of war would follow. The Government, however, clung to its policy of neutrality and its reaction to the sinking simply amounted to three separate notes being sent to Berlin condemning the German submarine war policy.
To placate America, the Germans gave an informal assurance to President Wilson that there would be no repeat of the Lusitania incident and they would end their “sink on sight” policy. They did so on September 18, 1915.
It was, however, re-introduced on February 1, 1917 and by April of that year, five American merchant ships had been sunk, causing the United States to declare war. The sinking of the Lusitania became an iconic symbol in military recruiting campaigns.
Alfred Vanderbilt’s grandson grew up on stories of his grandfather’s gallantry. As a 65-year-old public relations executive, Alfred Vanderbilt III told the Irish Times in April, 2021: “He spent his last minutes trying to save the children on the Lusitania. I can’t think of anybody braver. How do you do that?”
Answering his own question, the grandson added: “He had been brought up to do the right thing. He saw his moment and he took it. What I have heard from my family over and over again is what a wonderful man he was. It is not as if he was a bad guy who got a good reputation because of his death. He was really a loving and caring man.”
Published: April 21, 2021