Captain of a Sinking Ship

April 30, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Seawise_University_wreckOn May 7, 1915 a German U-boat fired a lone torpedo off the coast of Ireland. Within seconds it struck the hull of a British passenger liner called the Lusitania. Just eighteen minutes later over 45,000 tons of metal, wood, coal and humanity sank into the North Atlantic. Of the 1,959 passengers that first boarded the ship in New York, only 764 survived. The bodies of 600 passengers were never found, and just 6 of the 33 infants aboard lived to tell about it.

But there was also one man standing on the deck of the Lusitania that day who wished he had simply just settled down into the depths of the sea along with the ship; the captain.

While much has been written about the life of Captain William Thomas Turner in the years since the Lusitania was destroyed, all of his biographers agree on one key moment that occurred in the Lusitania tragedy; Captain Turner went down with the ship. Despite the fact that Turner emerged as one of the unlikely survivors, the truth remains that as the passengers clamored for lifeboats or jumped the rails, Captain Turner remained fixed in the boat’s command room until the freezing Atlantic carried his body into the deep.

Writing of the entire ordeal years later a survivor named Leslie Morton confessed that one of his lone memories of the event was looking back at the ship from the icy water and seeing “Captain Turner, in full dress uniform still on the bridge as the Lusitania began it’s final dive.”

In the months that followed, Captain Turner became a scapegoat for governments, victims, survivors and families. In the absence of an ability to enact revenge against Walther Schwieger, the German U-boat captain that attacked the ship, leaders from both sides of the Atlantic turned their frustration towards a man whose character kept his feet planted on the deck of a boat until there was no deck left to stand upon.

Such is the incredible story retold in the new book by Erik Larson called “Dead Wake” that attempts to correct longstanding misinformation about the Lusitania and it’s final voyage. In particular, Larson unveils a truer image of Captain Turner whose reputation has remained largely hidden by years of calculated lies and mudslinging. However, despite the very best efforts and the full weight of leaders in powerful positions, no one has been able to taint the fact that when all hell broke loose, Turner stayed at the wheel until every survivor had made their way off the ship.

Rather than dismiss the act quickly as nothing more than the proper response of any dutiful captain, consider the stories that have emerged in more recent times of cowardly leaders such as Captain Schettino who fled the Costa Concordia after it ran aground on January 13, 2012. Despite direct orders from the Coast Guard to return to his post, Schettino remained on land and watched 16 people on board die. Or more recent still is the story of Lee Jun-seok, the Capatin of a South Korean ferry called the Sewol that sank and killed 300 students on April 16, 2014. Lee Jun-seok was convicted of deserting his ship and was sentenced to 36 years in prison. The parents of victims released a joint statement that summarized the nature of the Captain’s ultimate crime:

“one cannot keep his own life if he betrays his duty to protect other lives and sacrifices hundreds of people in order to save his own.”

In my own reading of Larson’s work I was often tempted to ponder what my reaction may have been to the Lusitania nightmare had my family and I been aboard the vessel that day. Would I have lunged for the first lifeboat available? Would I have dashed past women and children in desperate need of help in order to find my own wife and children? Would I panic? Would I have cared for my survival alone. 

Perhaps most persistently however was the constant vision in my mind of Turner on the deck. It is no wonder to me that for so many victims his steadfast refusal to abandon his ship is a solitary memory affixed in their minds above all others. In the chaos of smoke and fire, screaming and hysteria the image of Turner fastened to the splintering Lusitania in order to conduct the rescue of as many as possible is almost beyond comprehension. Certainly Turner possessed no less of a natural instinct to survive, no less of an internal voice that was screaming for him to jump, and yet he remained.

The scene for me is not at all unlike the Gospel writer’s vision of a Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane who simultaneously cries out “if there is any other way…let this cup pass” and “not my will, but yours be done.” The vision of a Messiah who remains fixed to the mast of a wooden cross while all of Hell is unleashed upon him; a savior who desires that “none would be lost, and all would be saved;” a lamb that became a scapegoat for a world too consumed with trying to save themselves that they have never noticed the Captain on the deck holding fast to the controls while the ship went down; a Captain who remains at the controls today until every survivor is rescued.