USS Cyclops was one of four Proteus-class colliers built for the United States Navy prior to World War I, and the second ship to bear the name. The loss of the ship and 306 crew and passengers without a trace sometime after March 4, 1918 remains the single largest loss of life in the history of the Navy not directly involving combat.
Cyclops was launched May 7, 1910, by William Cramp and Sons, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and placed in service November 7, 1910, with Lieutenant George W. Worley, Master, Naval Auxiliary Service, in charge. Operating with the Naval Auxiliary Service, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, she voyaged in the Baltic Sea from May to July, 1911 to supply Second Division ships. Returning to Norfolk, Virginia, she operated on the east coast from Newport, Rhode Island, to the Caribbean, servicing the fleet with deliveries of coal, which was the standard fuel for ships during that period of time. During the troubled conditions in Mexico in 1914 and 1915, she coaled ships on patrol there and received the thanks of the U.S. State Department for cooperation in bringing refugees from Tampico to New Orleans, Louisiana.
With American entry into World War I, Cyclops was commissioned on May 1, 1917, and her skipper, George W. Worley, was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. She joined a convoy for Saint-Nazaire, France, in June 1917, returning to the U.S. in July. Except for a voyage to Halifax, Nova Scotia, she served along the east coast until January 9, 1918, when she was assigned to Naval Overseas Transportation Service. She then sailed to Brazilian waters to fuel British ships in the south Atlantic, receiving the thanks of the U.S. State Department and CINCPAC.
She put to sea from Rio de Janeiro on February 16, 1918. On February 20, Cyclops entered Bahia. Two days later, she departed for Baltimore, Maryland, with no stops scheduled. She made an unscheduled stop in Barbados on March 3-4, where Worley called on the United States consul and took on additional supplies. Cyclops then set out for Baltimore, and was never seen or heard from again.
At about the time the search for the Cyclops was called off, an alarming telegram was received by the State Department from Brockholst Livingston, the U.S. consul on Barbados, strongly hinting that treachery was involved in the loss of the ship:
- Secretary of State
- Washington, D.C.
- April 17, 2 p.m.
- Department's 15th. Confidential. Master CYCLOPS stated that required six hundred tons coal having sufficient on board to reach Bermuda. Engines very poor condition. Not sufficient funds and therefore requested payment by me. Unusually reticent. I have ascertained he took here ton fresh meat, ton flour, thousand pounds vegetables, paying therefore 775 dollars. From different sources gather the following: he had plenty of coal, alleged inferior, took coal to mix, probably had more than fifteen hundred tons. Master alluded to by others as damned Dutchman, apparently disliked by other officers. Rumored disturbances en route hither, men confined and one executed; also had some prisoners from the fleet in Brazilian waters, one life sentence. United States Consul-General Gottschalk passenger, 231 crew exclusive of officers and passengers. Have names of crew but not of all the officers and passengers. Many Germanic names appear. Number telegraphic or wireless messages addressed to master or in care of ship were delivered at this port. All telegrams for Barbadoes on file head office St. Thomas. I have to suggest scrutiny there. While not having any definite grounds I fear fate worse than sinking though possibly based on instinctive dislike felt towards master.
- LIVINGSTON, CONSUL.
Investigations by the Office of Naval Intelligence revealed that Captain Worley was born Johan Frederick Wichmann in Sandstadt, Hanover Province, Germany in 1862, and that he had come to America by jumping ship in San Francisco in 1878. By 1898 he had changed his name to Worley (after a seaman friend), and succeeded in owning and operating a saloon in San Francisco's Barbary Coast, getting help from his brothers whom he had convinced to emigrate. During this time he had qualified to the position of ship's master and had commanded several civilian merchant ships, picking up and delivering cargo (both legal and illegal; some accounts say opium) from the Far East to San Francisco. Unfortunately, the crews of these ships reported that Worley suffered from a personality akin to that of HMS Bounty’s captain William Bligh; the crew was often brutalized by Worley for trivial things.
Naval investigators discovered information from former crewmembers about Worley's habits. He would berate and curse officers and men for minor offenses, sometimes getting violent; at one point, he had allegedly chased an ensign about the ship with a gun. Saner times would find him making his rounds about the ship dressed in long underwear and a derby hat. While in Rio de Janiero Worley had an inexperienced officer in charge of loading manganese ore on board - a type of cargo which Cyclops was not built to carry - while the officer with more experience was under arrest and confined to quarters; in this instance the ship was overloaded, which may have contributed to its sinking.
But the phrase "damned Dutchman" (from Deutch, i.e. German) stood out immediately, leading to the most serious accusation against Worley: that he was pro-German in war time and may have colluded with the enemy; indeed, his closest friends and associates were either German or Americans of German descent. "Many Germanic names appear" Livingston stated, speculating that the ship had many German sympathizers on board. One of the passengers on the final voyage was Alfred Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the consul-general in Rio de Janeiro, who was as roundly hated for his pro-German sympathies as was Worley, and Livingston stated he believed Gottschalk may have been directly involved in collaborating with Worley on handing the ship over to the Germans. After World War I, German records were checked to ascertain the fate of the Cyclops, whether by Worley's hand or by submarine attack. Nothing was found.
Despite these accusations, both Naval records and Worley's widow stated that Worley was pro-American not only during the war, but in the previous twenty-five years of Naval and merchant service. Gottschalk, sources indicate, had resigned his post in Rio for the sole purpose of enlisting in the Army.
Prisoners of the Cyclops
Several months before the Cyclops had arrived in Rio, a murder was committed onboard the armored cruiser USS Pittsburgh while at anchor with the South American Squadron; a 3rd-class fireman named Oscar Stewart was the victim, found in a pool of blood in one of the boiler rooms. Court-marshaled for the offense were Bernard DeVoe, Moss Whiteside, James Coker, and two others; Whiteside received 15 years, DeVoe life, and Coker death. With the exception of Coker, the others were taken aboard the Cyclops as passengers, albeit in irons. Livingston hinted in his letter that one of these men may have been executed on Worley's orders before they reached Barbados.
Bermuda Triangle connection
The loss of USS Cyclops with all 306 crew and passengers without a trace is one of the sea's great unsolved mysteries, and is often "credited" to the Bermuda Triangle. In his 1975 book The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved, author Lawrence Kusche investigated this mystery. He revealed that in 1968 a Navy diver off Norfolk, Virginia reported finding the wreck of an old ship in about 300 feet of water, stating that the bridge "appeared to be on stilts." He was later shown a picture of Cyclops (which had that peculiar bridge structure) and was convinced it was the ship he had seen. This would have put Cyclops to within 60 miles of the Virginia Capes - she was actually sighted on March 9 by a merchant vessel, S.S. Amalco near the Capes - and into the teeth of a major storm that hit the area on March 9-10, 1918, a storm recorded in history but never mentioned by the various Triangle authors. This storm, which had earlier done extensive damage between Indiana and Washington, D.C., and combined with Cyclop's unusual cargo of manganese, may have sunk her.
Most who link the disappearance to the Bermuda Triangle cite the fact that the vessel disappeared having sent out no distress signal. However, ship-board communications were in their infant stages in 1918, and it would not be unusual for a vessel, sinking fast, to have little or no opportunity at a distress call. To date, no trace of the wreckage has been found.
The Cyclops was the sister ship of USS Jupiter (AC-3), USS Proteus (AC-9), and USS Nereus (AC-10). Proteus and Nereus served in the Navy until decommissioned in 1924, remaining in mothballs until sold to Canadian firms in 1940. Both were lost at sea from unknown causes in 1941. Jupiter was stripped of her coaling booms in 1920 to make room for a wooden flight deck, becoming the Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley.
Some of the text was incorporated from the Dictionary Of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain.
- "Cold High Winds Do $25,000 Damage'" Washington Post, March 11, 1918.
- "Collier Overdue A Month," New York Times, April 15, 1918.
- "More Ships Hunt For Missing Cyclops," New York Times, April 16, 1918.
- "Haven't Given Up Hope For Cyclops," New York Times, April 17, 1918.
- "Collier Cyclops Is Lost; 293 Persons On Board; Enemy Blow Suspected," Washington Post, April 15, 1918.
- "U.S. Consul Gottschalk Coming To Enter The War," Washington Post, April 15, 1918.
- "Cyclops Skipper Teuton, 'Tis Said," Washington Post, April 16, 1918.
- "Fate Of Ship Baffles," Washington Post, April 16, 1918.
- "Steamer Met Gale On Cyclops' Course," Washington Post, April 19, 1918.
- NUMA site and Clive Cussler's brief report on the Cyclops.
- The Disappearance of the U.S.S. Cyclops
- A squadron of the United States Navy : on a friendly cruise around Latin America, by William Wallace Swinyer (1918); author lists the entire crew of USS Pittsburgh, including the prisoners taken aboard Cyclops
- "Strangest American Sea Mystery Is Solved At Last", by Alfred P. Reck, Popular Science, June 1929