SCOTT SIMON, host:
May 7, 1915: The RMS Lusitania is on a New York-to-Liverpool run when it's attacked by a German U-boat 12 miles off the coast of Ireland; 2:10 p.m., a torpedo plows into the ship and explodes. Fifteen seconds later, a massive second explosion rocks the ship again. Within 18 minutes, Lusitania plunges 300 feet to the bottom of the sea. Nearly 1,200 passengers and crew perished.
The ship went down and left a mystery behind. What was the cause of that second blast? For nearly a century of investigation, argument and intrigue, the question is still unanswered. Independent producer Anne Goodwin Sides recently followed a dive team to the wreck for the first forensic expedition, and what they've brought up may already be changing history.
ANNE GOODWIN SIDES: The Holly Jo's engine purrs like a sleeping cat as we motor through the swells toward the wreck of the Lusitania. Along the gauzy smudge of Irish coastline 12 miles north of us, we can just make out a faint spike: the lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale. Colin Barnes, a transplanted Englishman, sits at the helm of this 36-foot catamaran, rolling a cigarette. After weeks of drenching rain, sunlight is glinting off the sea, and the sky looks as if it's been scrubbed clean.
Mr. COLIN BARNES (Fisherman and Dive Boat Captain): Very good conditions, especially for a submarine to spot an approaching ship.
SIDES: Barnes has had a long career as a fisherman and dive boat captain in County Cork. He's sailed over the wreck of the Lusitania at least 50 times. He often reflects on what it must have been like during the disaster - more than a thousand people in freezing water, wreckage strewn about.
Mr. BARNES: Everyone who survived said how awful it was listening to all these people crying for help. Just hundreds of people were about to perish in the cold water and just yelling for help.
SIDES: Barnes shudders, imagining the wildly tilting lifeboats spilling passengers 60 feet headlong into the sea and a tiny periscope disappearing beneath the waves. His voice quavers slightly as he recounts the unfathomable actions of the British Royal Navy. The Navy had dispatched a cruiser from nearby Queenstown to undertake a rescue, then mysteriously recalled it just as it steamed into view of the survivors. The stricken masses were left frantically waving in disbelief.
As if on cue, a ghostly form appears in Barnes' scanner. Directly below us, 303 feet down, the Lusitania slumbers in cold, dark water crowded with plankton.
Mr. BARNES: She's lying on her starboard side, and all the masts and rigging and everything just fell down on the starboard side, and the port side is still amazingly clean. You can still see all the portholes, and she's still a big, proud structure in the seabed, but she's losing height year by year. She is collapsing.
SIDES: Eventually, the port side will meet the sea floor, and everything will be entombed. Barnes consults his GPS and feathers the engine to steer us to the exact spot where highly trained divers will drop a shot line and descend into the murk.
Mr. BARNES: Just a little way back from the bell, there's a cargo area. So I'm aiming this shot right at the gunner adjacent to the cargo area on the port side, with the main point of interest being all these bullets that were observed there.
SIDES: Two years ago, a diver spotted a hodgepodge of bullets strewn about the ship's magazine moments before he had to surface, but he wasn't sure exactly where he was amid all the rubble on the enormous ship.
(Soundbite of men talking)
SIDES: On the deck of the Holly Jo, divers Owen McGarry(ph) and Stewart Andrews are suiting up. There's a ruckus of hissing hoses, clanking tanks and suctioning buoyancy bladders.
Mr. BARNES: We're all going to go fairly close together.
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
Mr. BARNES: OK.
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
SIDES: Beneath their fins, the frigid Celtic Sea heaves in a steady, hypnotic rhythm. As McGarrry and Andrews descend down the shot line, a small submersible robot - or ROV, from remotely operated vehicle - follows them down to the wreck. Minutes later, we cluster around the TV monitor and watch as Andrews scoops something up in his gloved hand - a small cache of metal. His masked face is beaming in the astringent light.
In his hands lie pieces of history - seven gleaming rounds of .303 ammunition, probably made by Remington in America and intended for the British Army - ammunition that for decades, British and American officials said didn't exist. Yet all around Andrews are mountains of jumbled rifle cartridges that glint like pirates' treasure in the robot's light.
The crew sends up a cheer. This is the first real breakthrough in a patient effort to solve the last lingering riddles behind the Lusitania's sinking.
Mr. GREGG BEMIS (Venture Capitalist): The German's claim from the beginning was that it was carrying war materiel. Shell cases would be war materiel. Fuses would be war materiel. So you could say, well, the Germans had every right to torpedo it.
SIDES: Gregg Bemis is the American venture capitalist who planned and paid for this expedition. If they're lucky, he says, his dive team could find as many as 4 million bullets.
Mr. BEMIS: Four million rounds of .303 is not some private hunter's cache. The British can't deny anymore that there was no ammunition on board. And that raises the question of what else was on board that shouldn't have been there.
SIDES: Bemis is a sport diver who's been down to the Lusitania himself -with good reason. He owns it. Bemis and a partner bought the wreck in 1969. In 1982, after Bemis became the sole owner, he mounted a salvage operation that hauled up three propellers, watches, cutlery and other artifacts that were given to museums or sold at auction. But the enigma of the Lusitania's precipitous sinking remained unsolved.
Mr. BEMIS: It's almost impossible to sink a ship 790 feet long in 18 minutes, almost impossible.
SIDES: With its historical intrigue and forensic cul-de-sacs, the Lusitania is a magnet for a colorful cast of obsessives who've gone broke, gotten bent, turned to drink, landed in mental institutions, even committed suicide. For his part, Bemis says he's been crazy enough to spend a small fortune, doggedly defending his title as salvor-in-possession, which still only entitles him to the ship itself and anything that was Cunard's property.
Mr. BEMIS: This is a major piece of history, and it really needs to be resolved.
SIDES: The sooner the better. Bemis is 80 years old now. Ninety-three years of pressure, tides, corrosion, microbial digestion and target practice have made the Lusitania as fragile as lace. For Bemis and his beautiful, rotting ship, time is running out. For NPR News, I'm Anne Goodwin Sides.
SIMON: And that story was produced in conjunction with an article from Men's Vogue. It's available on newsstands today.