Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Mr. Larson has done it again–he’s written a great historical story about an important event in America’s past. He also wrote “Devil in the White City,” about a mass killer at work in Chicago during the 1899 World’s Fair. This one is about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The Lusitania was a huge passenger liner, and the pride of England in that era, and like the Titanic, it was billed as “unsinkable.” Unfortunately, this turned out to also be untrue.

The telling is fascinating, because like “Devil in the White City,” there are many interesting historical intersections. Like the fact that Germany had just started using submarines (u-boats) as an offensive weapon for the first time, which played a monumental role in World War I. Or the fact that one of the u-boat commanders was named Georg von Trapp, Of “Sound of Music” fame. How about this one–England’s Winston Churchill was quoted several times as hinting that he wouldn’t mind seeing some American ships sunk by u-boats in order to force America into the war.

Part of the rationale for Germany sinking civilian craft was that they aided Britain (the U.S. had not entered the war yet) by sometimes carrying weapons and ammo. An interesting quote between two passengers joking about going down from a torpedo–“we would not go down, but up, as we were well loaded with munitions.”

And, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be on a submarine during war, Larsen devotes some time to that ordeal, too. That’s the thing I like about Larsen’s books–they don’t just tell a story–he includes asides that really make you feel like you were there.

Did the  commander of the u-boat express any regret afterwards? He knew it was a civilian passenger ship before he gave the fire order. Well, that’s part of the story that you’ll have to read for yourself.

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