Jun 14

USS Cyclops – The Deadliest Unsolved Mystery in the Navy

Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:01 AM

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One hundred years later, the mystery of the USS Cyclops (AC-4), the greatest noncombat loss of life the Navy ever experienced, remains unsolved. What happened to her? Where did she go?

The USS Cyclops was built in Philadelphia; she was 54o feet long and 65 feet wide. The ship was a Proteus-class collier and could carry 12,500 tons of coal while making 15 knots with her twin screws. When the United States declared war on Germany and its allies in April 1917, support ships such as the Cyclops fell under the command of the Navy. The administrative change greatly affected the crew of these support ships. Instead of being run by civilians, the officers were now members of the Naval Reserve Force.

The Cyclops’ final mission was to transport 9,960 tons of coal from her home port in Norfolk, Virginia, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and bring back 11,000 tons of manganese ore. She departed on 9 January 1918 and arrived in Rio on 28 January, where she stayed for two weeks unloading and loading cargo. On 15 February, 309 souls departed for Bahia, Brazil, the only scheduled stop before Baltimore, Maryland. Two days later, at 1800 on 22 February, the ship embarked for Maryland; she was expected to arrive on 13 March. The last known location of the Cyclops was an unplanned stop made on the Island of Barbados on 3 March, with 1,800 nautical miles (nm) to go on a 4,844 nm journey.

(Photo: Google Maps)

(Photo: Google Maps)

After the unscheduled stop on Barbados, the passengers and crew were never seen again. The cause is still a mystery. Even after 100 years, the fate of these souls remains unknown.

Regardless of evidence, people are always willing to speculate. Fifty-one years after the incident occurred, one officer who was transferred off the ship in Rio, Conrad A. Nervig, recounted his experience on the Cyclops. Nervig wrote an article for Proceedings in 1969 about the problematic ship and its equally concerning crew. He described the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander George W. Worley, as a “gruff, eccentric salt of the old school, given to carrying a cane, but possessing few other cultural attainments. He was a very indifferent seaman and a poor, overly cautious navigator. Unfriendly and taciturn, he was generally disliked by both his officers and men.” Nervig recounts an incident where one of the engines was turned over while a sailor was nearby. The force of the propeller drew in the boat and knocked the sailor overboard, and he drowned. Nervig blamed this tragedy on a captain who created a “thoroughly demoralized and disorganized” crew because of his “irrational methods of command.”[1]

Anchored in the Hudson River, off New York City, on 3 October 1911. (Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command taken by the New York Navy Yard.)

The USS Cyclops anchored in the Hudson River, off New York City, on 3 October 1911. (Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command taken by the New York Navy Yard.)

The greatest mystery is the cause. Even a bad commanding officer and a crew with low morale can usually transit on a standard voyage through peaceful waters, but something in those calm, temperate waters brought down this vessel. Nervig theorized the Cyclops was split down the middle and quickly sank. He believes the manganese ore could have been stored only in the holds amidships, therefore accentuating the vessel’s inherent weakness. This mis-storage was probably because the only officer on board with experience storing manganese ore was the executive officer, who was placed under arrest and confined to his room due to a “trivial disagreement” with the captain.[2] Nervig then explained how the stress at sea could break the ship in two, quickly filling the spaces with water as the ship went vertical. He believed this happened too quickly for lifeboats to be deployed. Nervig’s theory is one of many regarding this tragedy.

Another speculative layer is added because the ship reportedly was lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Richard Winer investigated the Cyclops disappearance for his 1973 documentary The Devil’s Triangle. He suggested a failed mutiny and implied that there were problems on the ship, supporting Nervig’s claims. Other theories range from the manganese exploding, to capsizing, to a giant octopus rising from the sea and dragging the ship down.[3] Other theories speculate the ship was sunk by a German U-boat, but postwar records indicate there were no U-boats in the area at the time.[4] Another theory contended they were operating using a single engine because a cylinder broke. This would have made the ship more susceptible to other engineering casualties. There also were reports of hull damage and separation of pipes that were not readily addressed by the captain.[5] Some of these theories are more likely than others, but the true cause remains unknown.

The world may never uncover the truth behind this unfortunate tragedy. Was the ship fated to tragedy because of horrible leadership, or was she just another mysterious victim of the Devil’s Triangle? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think happened to the USS Cyclops.

 

Citations

[1] Conrad A. Nervig, “The Cyclops Mystery,” www.usni.org/document/nervig-conrad-1969-95-7-797pdf?magazine_article=56957

[2] Nervig, “The Cyclops Mystery.”

[3] Howard L. Rosenberg,”Exorcizing the Devil’s Triangle,” www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/e/exorcizing-the-devils-triangle.html

[4] Nervig, “The Cyclops Mystery,”

[5] CAPT Lawrence B. Brennan, USN (Ret.), “The Unanswered Loss of USS Cyclops- March 1918,” www.navyhistory.org/2013/06/unanswered-loss-uss-cyclops-march-1918/.
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