Gregg Bemis, Lusitania wreck donor

Born: May, 1928;

Died: May 21, 2020,

GREGG Bemis, who has died aged 91, was a flamboyant American millionaire who became the owner of Lusitania, the Clydebank-built luxury liner that was torpedoed by a U-boat in the First World War. The wreck, off the coast of Ireland, became an obsession for him: he dived down to it when he was 76 and fought court battles over it; he was also fascinated about what treasures might have survived and what might have caused the mysterious second explosion that sealed its fate.

His link with the Lusitania began as a business opportunity. He owned The Ocean Corporation, which trains commercial divers, and Deep Ocean Engineering, which produces remote-controlled underwater vehicles, and in the Lusitania he saw a chance to salvage its cargo of copper and bronze and sell it for scrap. There were also reports that the art dealer Hugh Lane, who was on the Lusitania, was carrying artworks by Titian, Rubens and Monet encased in a lead tube.

However, as soon as Bemis acquired ownership of the ship in the 1980s, it became much more than a chance to make money. He wanted to know exactly why she sank so quickly. Could it be, as some claimed, that she was carrying arms to Britain in a breach of America’s neutrality?

The answer to that question has never been definitively answered over the years, although the Germans used it as the justification for their attack on May 7, 1915. The liner was travelling from New York to Liverpool with 1,959 passengers and crew and was off the coast of southern Ireland when she was hit. The torpedo struck on the starboard side, causing a huge explosion. Another heavier explosion followed shortly thereafter and the ship took only 20 minutes to sink; 1,118 people were drowned, including 128 US citizens. The theory was that the second explosion may have been caused by the munitions on board.

The day after the sinking, when details had yet to be confirmed, the Glasgow Herald said: “There is reason to believe that many lives have been saved, but the information we have received does not justify us in stating that the disaster will not affix the eternal stigma to the German name of having in cold blood re-enacted the tragedy of the Titanic”.

The sinking aroused anger and indignation in the US and it was expected that a US declaration of war against Germany would follow. In fact, the Americans stuck to their policy of neutrality for some time afterwards, although when they did eventually enter the war in 1917 they used the Lusitania as a justification. Bemis believed the theory that the ship had been carrying arms to Britain, although he never found absolute proof of the fact in all his years of investigations.

His efforts to gather evidence from the ship also came up against the opposition of the Irish government, which assumed jurisdiction over the wreck following a change in maritime laws in 1987. The two sides went to court over the issue. The government eventually placed a protective order over the vessel, which remains in force to this day, though Bemis’s emotional attachment to the wreck remained.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, his family had made a fortune in plastic packaging and at Stanford he studied economics, before spending two years with the US Marines, including a year in Korea. On his return, he studied at Harvard Business School and moved into business.

In 1968, he joined a friend who was developing an underwater breathing system that would allow divers to reach unheard-of depths and salvage the Lusitania. Although the project failed, Bemis and his friend retained the salvage rights and in 1982 Bemis bought his partner’s share for a dollar. He was a skilled scuba diver and made his first dive down to the wreck and brought up some silverware. “I finally said, Dammit, it’s my boat, and I’m going to go down and give it a big kiss.”

He descended to the wreck several times over the years and described it in vivid terms. “It was very dark,” he said after one dive. “There was virtually no light. Visibility was about 25 feet, but the stuff down there is absolutely beautiful. I could see fixtures from the ship, and railings. Nearly everything there should be brought up and preserved. It was just beautiful, beautiful.”

He also despaired of the attitude of the Irish Government, which said its responsibility was to protect the wreck. “Protect it from what? They are not protecting it from the ravages of the ocean, nor the fishermen’s nets, nor the pirates, but only protecting it from the owner and historical truth.”

By the end of his life, Bemis’s relationship with the Lusitania had changed and what had begun as a business opportunity ended as a strong emotional attachment to the liner and its fate.

In 2019, he signed the wreck over to the Lusitania Museum in Kinsale; he said that at his age, there was only so much more he could do with the project. Over the years, he had also invested much more into the project than the salvage rights were worth.

As well as the Lusitania, he also had an interest in the Estonia, a ferry that went down in rough seas in the Baltic in 1994 with the loss of 852 lives. He suspected foul play, based on evidence gathered during an unauthorised dive he made in 2000. He ran for Congress twice and three times for the New Mexico state legislature as a Republican. He was married with five children.