The R.M.S. Lusitania, a fast merchant and passenger ship, left its port in New York on May 1, 1915, to sail to Liverpool. World War I was raging in Europe, but the United States had remained largely isolated, avoiding active intervention in the war. The sinking of the Lusitania would change public opinion and action in the U.S.
The U.S. papers published warnings in newspapers regarding the German intent to attack the Lusitania that very morning. The Germans had already sunk a number of British merchant ships in the preceding months. The Lusitania was, however, deemed relatively safe. It was a remarkably fast ship, and its speed was thought likely to protect it from German attack by U-boats.
On May 7, 1915, as the ship approached Ireland, having safely and quickly made most of its journey, three British ships were sunk by U-boats off the coast of Ireland. The captain of the Lusitania was warned, but slowed his course, perhaps due to patchy fog. Captain Turner actively ignored most of the standing orders for British ships. He was too close to the coast of Ireland, sailing at less than top speed, and maintaining a straight course, rather than sailing in a zigzag pattern.
A single torpedo from the German U-20 sank the Lusitania in only 18 minutes. Captain Turner survived but spent several hours in the water. There were more than 1,900 people on board, between passengers and crew. More than 1,100 died on the Lusitania, including 120 Americans. While these deaths were tragic, the deaths are not the most important impact of the sinking of the Lusitania. The sinking of this ship was a key factor in the U.S. entry into World War I, and thus an essential moment in the eventual Allied victory over Germany.