Two years ago I wrote about the mysterious disappearance of Flight 19 in 1945 near the Bermuda Triangle. This month’s Mystery Monday post takes us back to the Atlantic for another strange occurrence.
In March 1918, the biggest ship in the United States Navy vanished without a trace. The collier USS Cyclops was on a voyage between the West Indies and Baltimore with Lieutenant Commander George Worley serving as the ship’s captain.
The last known message from the ship said, “Weather fair, All well.” But sometime after March 4, 1918, the ship vanished without even an SOS. The deaths of the 306 crew and passengers remains the largest single loss of lives in the history of the United States Navy that didn’t involve combat. Here’s what we do know.
- At the time of her disappearance, the 550-foot-long vessel carried 11,000 tons of manganese ore. She was reportedly overweight as her capacity was only 8000 tons.
- The ship left Rio de Janeiro on February 16, 1918, with a stop in Salvador two days later. She left for Baltimore with no additional stops scheduled.
- Before leaving port, Commander Worley submitted a report the starboard engine had a cracked cylinder and wasn’t operative. This report confirmed by a survey board which recommended the ship return to the United States.
- The ship made an unscheduled stop in Barbados because the water was over the Plimsoll line, indicated it was overloaded. Investigations in Rio proved the ship had been loaded and properly secured.
- After setting sail for Baltimore on March 4, the ship was rumored to have been sighted by a molasses tanker, the Amoico near Virginia. This was denied by the Amoico’s captain. Because the Cyclops wasn’t due in Baltimore until March 13, it was unlikely to have been near Virginia on the 9th as that would have put her only one day from making port.
- On March 10, the day after the purported sighting, a violent storm swept through the Virginia Capes area.
Some suggested the combination of the storm, overload, and engine failure caused the ship to sink. An extensive Naval investigation concluded, “Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily account for her disappearance.”
That summation was written before two of Cyclops‘s sister ships, Proteus and Nereus, vanished at sea during World War II. Both ships were transporting heavy loads of metallic ore similar to that which was loaded on Cyclops during her fatal voyage. In both cases, their loss was theorized to have been the result of catastrophic structural failure. A more outlandish theory attributes all three vessels’ disappearances to the Bermuda Triangle.
Some believe an enemy submarine was responsible for the sinking of the Cyclops, but German authorities denied any knowledge of the vessel.
Others suggest Captain Worley, who was born Johan Frederick Wichmann in Sandstedt, Hanover, Germany conspired with the enemy to hand the ship over. After the end of WWI, German records were checked to ascertain the fate of the ship, but nothing was found.
Near the time the search was called off a telegram received by the State Department from Charles Livingston, the United States consul in Barbados.
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 Barbados 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.
On June 1, 1918, assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Cyclops officially lost and all hands deceased. One hundred four years later, the fate of the ship and her crew is still unknown.