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WAS THERE A GUN?
December 24, 1962
When a U-boat sank the 'Lusitania' in 1915 the Allies denounced Germany for the murder of an unarmed vessel. But the question still persists: Was she truly defenseless? An American explorer, John Light, has tried to find out. Recently Kenneth MacLeish, son of Poet-Playwright Archibald MacLeish and an accomplished scuba diver, went down to search the wreck with Light. Here is him report
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December 24, 1962

Was There A Gun?

When a U-boat sank the 'Lusitania' in 1915 the Allies denounced Germany for the murder of an unarmed vessel. But the question still persists: Was she truly defenseless? An American explorer, John Light, has tried to find out. Recently Kenneth MacLeish, son of Poet-Playwright Archibald MacLeish and an accomplished scuba diver, went down to search the wreck with Light. Here is him report

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There were also faint echoes of American expeditions mounted during these years to remove a rumored treasure from the ship, but if they ever appeared the shore watchers did not observe them.

In 1950, however, the informal intelligence system of the coastal community was full of sound and stories about a British salvage firm that was reputedly hard at work on the wreck, setting off charges placed by a crane at the surface according to the directions of a diver suspended in a pressure-proof chamber. It was agreed that the salvors took nothing off the wreck and, in any case, the firm still refuses even to discuss it. Questions about their rumored undersea activities brought this answer: "You just cannot get any further with it. You're just wasting your time."

When John Light came to them later to seek advice about the Lusitania, he was told to mind his own business. Light, a stubborn, freckle-faced Yankee from Boston, reacted to this British rebuff by making the ship very much his business. In the course of his inquiry he found a crewman who claims to have been aboard one of the British company's ships when—as he tells it—she returned briefly to the wreck in '54 to put down a diver, set off a charge and leave after a general admonition to the crew to forget they had ever been there.

Light, going down with wet suit, flippers and air tanks, was the first free-moving diver to reach the contentious carcass of the murdered ship. He had come partly because the depth was challenging and the name evoked memories, and, of course, to make his movies of the famous Lusitania. But before he could find money and men to do the job he had to prove that the job could be done, for there was reason to doubt it.

Light provided proof on July 20, 1960, going alone to 245 feet, operating a camera, keeping track of his time on the bottom, despite heavy narcosis brought on by the pressure at that depth of nine atmospheres and returning safely after prescribed decompression delays on the way up.

A few weeks later light had two good men, a little money and a bare minimum of equipment. He began work at once, and at once encountered the fearful frustration of open-sea diving on a deep target. Because of the strong tide, dives could be made only at slack high or low water when the current was briefly still; bottom time was limited to 10 minutes; high seas made diving impossible four days out of five.

And there was the problem of buoys. To explore the enormous expanses of the hull the divers needed lines from surface floats to known points on the wreck. They tried manila lines with heavy anchors; the tide carried them away. Then they swam down the lines and tied them in at the bottom; the lines frayed and parted. They attached iron chain at the bottom to prevent chafing; fishermen broke the lines loose and stole them during the night. Steel cable was the only solution, and cable had to be shackled to the ship. Shackling is a simple procedure at one atmosphere's pressure; at 10 it requires formidable concentration. The first diver to swim down a well-placed cable "just didn't think to attach it."

With the season half gone they learned to do it. They also acquired from Cunard a set of deck plans ("Somebody made a mistake giving them to us," says Light), showing where guns were to be placed, if and when desired. They also got a transcript of the testimony of the German Stahl. Light noted that the positions described by the convicted perjurer jibed with certain of those on the published plans. He selected one for special search. It was just outboard of the children's nursery.

The divers placed a buoy near the spot and went for a look. There was no gun in sight. But as Light surveyed the scene with a trained salvage-diver's eve he found himself actually shaping the words, "Someone has been here before." In places the metal had been cut and he saw evidence of recent blasting.

Rare luck with tides and weather permitted a return to the same spot the following day, this time with little narcosis. ("You get a sort of tolerance," Light saws, "if you hit depths like that in quick succession.") The position checked out exactly. And in the side of the superstructure, directly below the hypothetical gun emplacement on the vertically tilted deck, was a hole some eight feet across, black and bottomless. It seemed to Light "as if some heavy object had dropped straight down after the ship had settled on her side. Maybe long after. The superstructure is made of light materials, and it looked as if something had just torn on through. And there were three steel cables leading into the hole that had been drawn so tight that they had sliced right into the surrounding metal. Maybe they were attached to whatever had fallen through. Maybe somebody was trying to hoist that thing away, and it broke loose."

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