What happened to the USS Cyclops? The ship that vanished without a trace
In 1918, the collier ship USS Cyclops left Rio de Janeiro bound for Baltimore. After an unplanned stop in Barbados, she headed north and was never heard from again. 306 people were onboard at the time of her disappearance - the largest loss of life outside of combat in US naval history. What happened to the USS Cyclops? Over 100 years after she vanished without a trace, we appear to be no closer to finding an answer.
The disappearance of the USS Cyclops
The 505-foot-long coal carrier was commissioned into the US Navy in 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I. She was mainly used to transport raw materials up and down the east coast of America, until January 1918, when she was sent to Brazil to pick up 11,000 tonnes of manganese to be used in armaments production.
Cyclops left Rio de Janeiro for Baltimore on 15th February. After her unscheduled stop in Barbados on 3rd March and an unconfirmed sighting of her off the coast of Virginia by a molasses tanker on 9th March, the ship was never heard from again. ‘Weather Well, All Fair,’ was her last communication. After that, there was silence.
The theories behind the disappearance
‘Usually a wooden bucket or a cork life preserver identified as belonging to a lost ship is picked up after a wreck, but not so with the Cyclops,’ reported the Santa Fe Magazine, two years after the ship vanished. ‘She just disappeared as though some gigantic monster of the sea had grabbed her, men and all, and sent her into the depths of the ocean, and the suddenness of her destruction is amplified by the absence of any wireless calls for help being picked up by any ship along the route.’
It was baffling that a ship of Cyclops’ size could simply disappear without a trace. Over the centuries, several theories have been put forward attempting to explain the ship’s fate. Some, such as the idea that the Cyclops was dragged under the waves by a giant octopus, are less plausible than others.
Writing in 1969, crew member Conrad A. Nervig (who left the ship after it arrived in Rio), suggested that the Cyclops could have sunk due to the mismanagement of its cargo. Nervig claimed that the only crew member who had experience storing manganese was an officer who had been locked in his quarters as a result of a ‘trivial argument’ with the ship’s notoriously temperamental captain, George W. Worley.
Nervig suggested that the cargo was stored entirely amidships, leading to uneven weight distribution that caused the ship to break apart. If this was the case, Nervig wrote, the water would have quickly rushed in to fill the ship and drag it under, leaving little to no time to lower the lifeboats.
While it’s certainly an interesting theory, it has to be borne in mind that it comes from the testimony of a man writing 50 years after the event who, by his own admission, was no fan of the captain.
German torpedo attack
America entered World War I on the Allied side in 1917, making its ships targets for German U-boats. There has always been speculation that the Cyclops was a victim of a torpedo attack after it left Barbados. However, no record exists of U-boats being in the area at the time of the ships’ disappearance and seeing as Germany was prepared to admit to plenty of other sinkings, such as that of the passenger ship Lusitania in 1915 resulting in the loss of over a thousand lives, it is highly unlikely that the Germans have covered up their involvement in the loss of a cargo ship.
Another interesting theory is that Captain Worley betrayed the Navy and handed the ship over to the Germans. Worley was originally from Germany, as were several of his crew. It has been suggested that the ship was secretly handed over because he remained loyal to his homeland after the outbreak of World War I. As they had done with the accusation of torpedo attack, the German authorities searched their records after the war to see if there was any truth to the rumour, but found nothing.
Lost in the Bermuda Triangle
It has also been suggested that the USS Cyclops fell prey to the Bermuda Triangle. Over the years, this infamous stretch of water between Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico has been blamed for the disappearance of several ships and aeroplanes, all of which vanished without a trace after entering the area. While most people believe the supposedly deadly Bermuda Triangle is nothing more than a conspiracy theory, there are still plenty of others who believe it is responsible for the loss of many craft, among them the Cyclops and her sister ships Proteus and Nereus, both of which disappeared in the Triangle during World War II.
Without a wreck to explore, the real reason why the Cyclops was lost over a century ago remains unknown. While the answer to the question of how she vanished remains tantalisingly out of reach, theories will continue to swirl around the mysterious disappearance of the ship and her ill-fated crew.