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History's Headlines: Lusitania's sinking shatters myth of America's neutrality

History's Headlines: The Great War Begins

One hundred years ago this month, June 28, 1914 - a beautiful early summer day in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia- Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia, a bouquet of red roses in her lap, were gunned down by a crazed Serbian nationalist student Gavrilo Princip. The world has never been the same since.

At that time most Americans, though shocked by the bloody crime, thought it had nothing to do with them. "To the world, or to a nation, an archduke more or less makes little difference," wrote one newspaper editor of the next day.

And although the Lehigh Valley press gave it some attention, one paper even putting the event on page one, local concerns drew far bigger headlines. "Rain Fails To Mar Catasauqua's Homecoming Parade," was the headline over the lead story, a celebration the Iron Borough was having.

As the summer wore on and it was clear a general European war was about to break out, the newspapers followed it closely. "Peace Hangs By a Thread," was the headline in one paper.  Ethnic communities in Allentown's Sixth Ward and Bethlehem's South Side began to see a steady exodus of men being called up to join their regiments in Europe.

By 1914's end, Allentown's Barb Wire Works could barely keep up with the demands by both sides on the fiercely warring continent.

But even then most people in the United States were convinced that Europe's war was not their fight. Bethlehem Steel, in violation of the country's strict neutrality laws, might be providing submarines to the British by shipping the parts to Canada, and a newspaper might print a letter from a young man to his Allentown family who was with the Kaiser's Army in France, but pianos were still tinkling the popular song, "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier."

In the spring of 1915 that complacence was shattered. On May 1st a small notice appeared on the shipping page of the New York Times, directly under the announcement of the sailing that day of the Cunard liner Lusitania.

Headed "Notice," and placed by the German Embassy, it stated that "a state of war existed between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies," and that a war zone existed around the British Isles. Furthermore, British ships were "liable to destruction in those waters." Those sailing on those ships "do so at their own risk."

It is impossible to know if anyone was put off by the notice. Submarine warfare was new and so far mostly restricted to warships or merchant ships carrying munitions. It was only many years later that anyone knew that on its voyage the Lusitania was carrying ammunition from Bethlehem Steel.

But the notice didn't seem to bother the passengers who listened to the ships band play foxtrots as they boarded. One of the fastest ships afloat it was assumed the big liner could outrun any German.

Among the passengers was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, millionaire sportsmen who was taking his hunting dogs to England and was also on a business trip. Four years before he had cancelled a passage on the Titanic. His valet took the ticket and died in the sinking.               

The weather was perfect and the crossing totally without incident. Shortly after lunch on May 7, passengers came on deck to admire the green hills of Ireland coming into view on the horizon.

What they could not know is that they were being watched through a U-boat periscope by Commander Walter Schwieger. He ordered a torpedo fired that hit the liner. "The ship stops immediately," he wrote, "and quickly heels to starboard. Great confusion …Lifeboats being cleared and lowered to water, many boats crowded…immediately fill and sink."

According to one source on the sloping deck of the Lusitania, Vanderbilt turned to a friend and said, "I have to see to the dogs," and was not seen again. Others say he spent his time aiding women and children into lifeboats, giving up his own life vest, even though he could not swim. His body was never found. 

It took only 18 minutes for the great liner to sink, taking 1,198 people, including 128 Americans, to their deaths. Commander Schwieger received a medal from his government for the sinking. "The death of the Americans might have been avoided if our warning had been heeded," a German official wrote later. "Anybody can commit suicide."

Americans had a different reaction. Innocent men, women and children were killed, citizens of a neutral nation going about their legitimate business sailing on an ocean liner that was a peaceful ship. It was a clear violation of international law. Some among them, in particular former president Theodore Roosevelt, insisted that this was an act of war and that America should join the Allies.

In the Lehigh Valley, tensions were raw. In Allentown a fist fight broke out over the sinking. Before a policeman could break it up, reported one newspaper, "Germany was on top and seemed to have the advantage."

Thanks to local entrepreneur James Bowen, who ran a movie theater, Allentown was the second place in America to show film footage of the Lusitania departure. Several local people who had sailed on her recalled for the press the immensity and speed of the liner.

It took one newspaper editor to put the pieces together. President Wilson should "weigh well and act firmly when the right course is given," he wrote, "but the incident cannot pass by unnoticed."  Two years later America was at war with Germany.              

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