Sunday, December 4, 2011

Top 5 Most Famous Shipwrecks

5. American Battleship U.S.S. Maine, 1898
Warships are usually sunk as a result of the outbreak of war; rarely are their sinkings the reason for starting the war in the first place, but that’s exactly what happened when the small but powerful little battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor shortly after dusk on February 15, 1898, killing 261 of her 355-man crew. Though the cause of the explosion—which literally blew the ship in half—remains a source for some debate even to this day (a coal bin fire setting off ammunition in one of the ship’s magazines being considered the most likely reason), within weeks of the disaster investigators announced that the ship appeared to have been destroyed by a mine attached to her hull. Since relations between the United States and Spain were already pretty dicey as a result of Spain’s iron-fisted efforts at putting down a large-scale rebellion in Cuba, most Americans quickly jumped to the conclusion that the Spanish had destroyed the ship (despite the lack of logic in doing so) and demanded retaliation. Buckling to public pressure and spurred-on by the jingoistic flavor of the press of the day, a few weeks later the McKinley administration declared war on Spain, resulting in one of America’s shortest and most successful conflicts (the Persian Gulf War being the other). Fortunately for the largely under-armed United States, Spain was already in decline as a world power and lacked the means to adequately defend its overseas colonies, forcing her to surrender after just three months and cede Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States. The victory marked America’s entrance onto the world stage and her ascension as a genuine colonial power and the rest is, as they say, history. So what became of the demolished battleship? What was left of it was raised from the muck of Havana harbor in 1911 and towed out to open ocean, where she was sunk—again—but this time on purpose and with full military honors. Not much left of her today, of course, other than her legacy and the rarely heard battle-cry “Remember the Maine!”
4. German Battleship Bismarck, 1941

Few ships manage to both sink on their maiden voyage and be one of the most dangerous vessels ever to sail the seas at the same time (as well as even have a song written about it), but the massive German dreadnaught managed to do all three. The pride of the German navy and a ship once described by Winston Churchill as, “a masterpiece of naval construction,” the fast and heavily armed warship ran roughshod over the Royal Navy for eight days in May of 1941, during which time she shocked the British by blowing the famous battlecruiser Hood out of the water and badly damaging the spanking-new battleship Prince of Wales off the Icelandic coast in a battle that lasted all of twenty minutes. Finally cornered off the coast of France on May 27th, 1941 by the British battleships King George V and Rodney, the damaged ship put up a furious fight against the overwhelmingly superior British force before finally succumbing to the onslaught and slipping to the bottom of the Atlantic, taking all but 115 of her 2,200 man crew down with her. The ship’s precise location remained largely a mystery until 1989, when she was located by Dr. Robert Ballard (the guy who eventually located the Titanic-see no. 1) and his team using side-scan sonar and submersibles. Remarkably, because of her heavy-duty construction, the ship remains largely intact on the seafloor despite the battering she took, and stands today as a silent reminder of the immense cost and futility of war.
3. British Liner Lusitania, 1915
While not quite as famous as the similarly sized liner Titanic, in some ways the sinking of the Lusitania was even more important in terms of historical ramifications than was the loss of her better known colleague. While the loss of life was less—1,200 men, women, and children drowned when it was sunk by a German submarine off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915—its loss served as a catalyst for America’s eventual entry into World War One, which likely changed the outcome of the war and ensured the allies victory. The sinking was not without other controversy as well: What was especially suspicious about the ship’s quick descent to the bottom was that it was done in by a single torpedo when smaller vessels often survived such a hit, leading many to suspect that the civilian liner was illegally carrying munitions on board. Though the charge was roundly denied by British authorities at the time, years later it was demonstrated that the British were, indeed, using civilian ships to carry munitions and other instruments of war in clear violation of international treaties. That doesn’t necessarily justify the killing of innocent civilians, of course, but it did make the British government somewhat culpable for the catastrophe—a prospect they are loathe to admit to even to this day.
2. American Battleship U.S.S. Arizona, 1941
What makes this wreck so famous is not only that its loss signaled the start of World War Two in the Pacific, but that it is the only shipwreck one can visit without diving equipment or even getting their feet wet. Sunk in the opening minutes of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 with a loss of nearly two-thirds of its crew, the ship served as a symbol American resolve that was to carry the country through the darkest days of World War Two. Today the ship remains the most famous war grave in the world and one that sees more than a million visitors each year, who come to visit the memorial built over the rusted remains of the once mighty battleship. Despite having been immersed in salt water for nearly seventy years, the ship is remarkably intact, however. It also remains an active gravesite, with the cremated remains of the surviving crewmen still being occasionally interned within the hull of the World War One-era dreadnaught as they pass on to join their long-dead shipmates.
1. British Liner Titanic, 1912
Selecting the most famous shipwreck is easy. In fact, more people know about this ship and its ill-fated maiden voyage—especially as a result of the 1997 James Cameron movie—than any other ship in history. Of course, everyone knows what happened by now: the White Star liner, fresh out of the shipyard and sparkling new, was on its maiden voyage from England to New York when it hit an iceberg just before midnight, April 14, 1912, opening her up like a sardine can and sending her to the bottom in just a few hours. While such a length of time should have given those onboard plenty of time to get off the doomed vessel, the ship carried fewer than half the lifeboats required, dooming over 1500 men, women and children (out of the over 2200 onboard) to a watery grave and giving the status quo quite the black eye. The only positive thing to come from the tragedy was improved safety and communications procedures being implemented throughout the maritime community (which, in the long run, probably saved more people over the next few decades than were lost on the Titanic). The ship’s precise location remained unknown for the next seventy years until it was located by a team of oceanographers led by the famous Dr. Robert Ballard in 1985, thereby opening the doors to renewed interest in the famous ship (and probably making the subsequent Cameron film, parts of which were filmed on the actual wreck nearly two miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, so popular).


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