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By William H. Benson

Maritime Losses


April 27, 2022 | View PDF

Maritime disasters can happen during either war or peace, but either way the loss in terms of human lives hits hard.

A bomb, an explosion, a torpedo, a missile, an iceberg, no matter the cause, each translates into a statistic, the number of men and women whose lives were cut short.

On February 15, 1898, the American battleship, the Maine, exploded in Havana, Cuba’s harbor, killing 260 U.S. Navy sailors. Americans blamed the Spanish, who owned and controlled Cuba then, but no one since has determined the explosion’s actual cause.

The result though was that the Americans declared war on Spain. “Remember the Maine” was the American soldier and sailors’ battlecry. The Americans won that war and claimed several of Spain’s colonies, including the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

The sinking of the Titanic is the most well-known maritime loss ever. A passenger ship on her maiden voyage, she sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on the morning of April 15, 1912, one hundred and ten years ago this month. Of her 2,224 passengers and crew, only 706 survived.

The Titanic struck an iceberg that buckled her hull plates on her right side, and left five of her sixteen watertight compartments open to the sea. The ship listed, foundered, then broke into two, and both pieces fell to the bottom of the Atlantic, to a depth of 12,415 feet.

The outcry for better maritime safety measures resulted in the establishment in 1914 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the governing body still today.

The Lusitania sank on May 7, 1915, near the beginning of World War I, just eleven miles off Ireland’s coast. A German Navy U-boat had fired a torpedo without warning at the cruise liner, and within two minutes the ship sank, ending the lives of 1,195 people, including 128 Americans.

Then, on May 27, 1941, one and a half years into World War II, the British navy, with air support, sank the Bismarck, a German battleship. British warships rescued 111 survivors, but then the warships fled the scene, fearing that a German U-boat was approaching.

The Bismarck was named after Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian politician who unified Germany’s 39 principalities into a single German nation. He became Germany’s first-ever chancellor in 1871, and was revered by the German people. To lose the Bismarck was symbolic, a serious emotional blow.

Near the end of World War II, on January 30, 1945, a Soviet Union submarine torpedoed a German cruise liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff, then carrying an estimated 10,000 passengers, mainly civilians, but nearly 1,000 military personnel, as well as some weapons.

“Only 1,239 survived, making this sinking the highest death toll in maritime history.”

A deadly peacetime maritime disaster occurred aboard the Doňa Paz, on December 20, 1987, in the Philippines, when she struck another ship, the MV Vector. The latter ship had no lookout, was operating without a license, and was not seaworthy. Only a few crew members were aboard the Vector.

But the Doňa Paz was overcrowded. The official manifest listed 1,493 passengers, and 59 crew members, but officials looked away when thousands more bought a ticket and crowded onboard.

Only 25 survived the crash, but an estimated 4,386 lost their lives, each when traveling home for Christmas.

On April 13, 2022, earlier this month, Russia’s Moskva sank in the Black Sea, about eighty miles south of Odessa, a city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

Ukrainian military officials claim that their personnel fired two land-based R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles at the Moskva, flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, that one or both struck, and that the ship sank the next day. American military officials concur with the Ukrainians’ account.

Russian officials deny that. They countered that a fire had broken out on board the Moskva, of an unspecified origin, that the ship was being towed to port, but that it sank in rough seas.

On April 22, Russia’s defense ministry issued a statement that, “one sailor was killed, another 27 are missing, but that 396 crew members were rescued.”

One wonders, what is the truth? But the loss of the Moskva must have hit Russian officials hard.

Some comments, “It is more about psychological damage than material damage.” “The Moskva was the ship in the fleet which had long-range air defenses onboard.” “This has a huge impact, and is very embarrassing.” To lose the Moskva, named after their capital, was symbolic, a serious emotional blow.

Any maritime loss is difficult. Any loss of human life at sea is devastating, whether during a war or peacetime. It matters not whose lives our lost, friend or enemy. Each are human beings, deserving of better things than a life cut short on the high seas. Do we dare hope that this war will end next month?


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