Eternal Father, strong to save,Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deepIts own appointed limits keep;Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,For those in peril on the sea!
—“Eternal Father” (the Navy Hymn)
On a quiet scientific survey in the fall of 2014, one of the mysteries of the U.S. Navy was solved. The discovery of a deteriorating hulk of a ship in just 189 feet of water, 27 miles outside of San Francisco’s Golden Gate, resolved the question of what had happened and where lay the wreck of the USS Conestoga (AT-54), one of only 18 U.S. Navy ships that disappeared, never to be seen again in the years before World War II.
On 25 March 1921, the Conestoga had departed Mare Island Navy Yard with orders to proceed to Pearl Harbor. From there, she would steam to American Samoa to take up duties as station ship in that distant South Pacific outpost. Passing out of the Golden Gate that afternoon, the tug and 56 men never reached Pearl Harbor. A garbled radio message, a battered, drifting lifeboat discovered by a passing steamer off Mexico’s coast, and a single life vest with the lost tug’s name found cast up on a California beach were the only clues. Two extensive searches by sea and air failed to find any trace of the Conestoga through the summer of 1921.
The survey that ultimately discovered the wreck was part of a systematic scientific quest to learn more about what lies on the seabed and in the waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the Central California Coast. The sanctuary is believed to contain the wrecks of some 400 lost ships. Since 2014 the maritime heritage program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked to locate some of these ships, based on both archival records and sonar targets revealed by seabed mapping by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.
One of the first targets to be investigated was a shipwreck that lay 3.1 nautical miles off Southeast Farallon Island and was first identified by a 2009 sonar survey. For whatever reason, that specific patch of ocean had not been sonar-surveyed previously. The 2014 maritime heritage expedition decided to investigate the target because it lay where no historically recorded wreck was “supposed” to be. As the images of what gradually was revealed to be a steel-hulled, riveted steam tug were relayed to the surface as a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) traversed the wreck, the “mystery tug” sparked a quiet investigation that soon determined that this was a ship supposedly lost 2,000 nautical miles away. A 3-inch/50-caliber single-purpose gun and other features confirmed she was the Conestoga. Rather than lying off the coasts of either Hawaii or Mexico, where the Navy had focused the 1921 searches, the Conestoga had foundered within a day or two of passing through the Golden Gate.
A subsequent mission to the site with the Navy in the fall of 2015 revealed more about the wreck but did not conclusively pin down why the fleet tug had been lost. We surmise that the Conestoga foundered in the face of gale-force winds and heavy seas after turning back in what may have been a desperate run to the closest shelter, a tiny anchorage for the lighthouse and a naval radio station on Southeast Farallon. We will never know all the facts, but for the families of the crew, what we have heard, 95 years after the disappearance of the ship and all on board, is that in answering at least the question of where they are, we have brought for them a measure of resolution and peace.
As an archaeologist who works in the depths of the sea, I have encountered many lost ships. Not all of them have names, at least that we can discern. Some sailed so far in the past that the languages their sailors spoke, the cultures they belonged to, and the states to which they pledged their allegiance are long gone. Even the study of wrecks of more recent vintage does not always reveal a name. And yet we are certain, with some, that we likely have resolved mysteries and answered questions long forgotten.
In 2012, the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer investigated a sonar target of what looked to be a shipwreck lying in 4,300 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico. An ROV dive revealed the copper-clad ghost of a largely vanished wooden ship with cannon, muskets, navigational instruments, the ship’s china, and many other artifacts lying inside the remnants of the hull.
We returned to explore the wreck in 2013 with other scientists and archaeologists from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the Texas Historical Commission, the Maryland Historical Trust, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration, and Texas State University’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. The results of that investigation are still being processed, but the team’s conclusion is that this was a vessel that was knocked down and sunk by a violent storm in the early 19th century, with no survivors. The wreck lies in close proximity to two others that were discovered on the 2014 mission, and it is likely all three were lost together. We are certain that the discovery of the three wrecks would have answered the questions of many families 200 years ago, but technology and ongoing surveys of the ocean’s depths have just now begun to provide the means for us to do so.
What will ultimately come to pass, as the 90 percent of the oceans that remain unexplored are at last surveyed, is that while in many cases unanswerable questions will be posed by shipwreck discoveries, many other unsolved mysteries will be answered. Among them may be the final resting places of the U.S. Navy ships and submarines that went missing and that remain undiscovered. The first accounting of lost Navy ships appears to be a report to Congress on 14 March 1850, in which 7 of 29 losses were ships “never heard of” after sailing.
In July 1934, Constance Lathrop, Navy Department librarian, listed the 19 “vanished ships” of the U.S. Navy in Proceedings. “From time to time in the history of our Navy one of its ships has vanished at sea without trace. Impenetrable mystery shrouds their disappearance, as unfathomable in this day of steam, radio and well-charted sea lanes as in the day of ‘oak and hemp’ when the only means of communication lay in mail left at a port of call, or in one ship speaking another at sea.”
In answer to the question of which ships were “missing,” Lieutenant Commander Arnold S. Lott, head of the U.S. Navy Office of Information (CHINFO) Research Section (and a noted historian and later an editor with the Naval Institute) wrote a letter to the editors of All Hands in March 1958 listing losses that he drew from Lathrop’s article and CHINFO’s files. Lott’s roll of the lost begins in 1780 (with the Continental Navy sloop Saratoga [see “Historic Ships,” p. 14]) and ends in 1921. To that, one can add fleet boats that vanished on patrol. In all, the final locations are for now unknown for 15 out of the 52 U.S. submarines lost in World War II. Since the publication of Lott’s list, two of the unaccounted-for pre–World War II losses, the screw steamer Nina and the Conestoga, have been discovered.
The remaining roster of U.S. Navy ships lost without a trace prior to World War II follows. Weather and the power of the sea are what claimed most of them.
USS Pickering (1800)
The 187-ton, 77-foot topsail brig Pickering was built as a revenue cutter at Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1798. Loaned to the Navy at the outbreak of the Quasi-War with France, she headed to the West Indies and conducted a successful campaign in the Greater Antilles. There she captured or retook 15 vessels, including French privateers and captured American ships.
Returning to Boston, the Pickering re-equipped, clearing port on 10 June 1800. She sailed to Newcastle, Delaware, en route to Guadeloupe in the West Indies, where she was to join Commodore Thomas Truxton’s squadron. Leaving Newcastle on 20 August, the Pickering headed south and was never seen again.
Rumors of a capture and massacre by French forces proved false. Instead, a powerful hurricane on 20 September that swept from Florida to the Bahamas likely took the Pickering as well as the U.S. frigate Insurgent. As U.S. Coast Guard historian William Thiesen notes in his history of the Pickering, the storm nearly took the cutter Scammel, which survived by jettisoning anchors and guns in heavy seas, and while the same desperate actions doubtless took place on the well-run and -disciplined Pickering, it was to no avail. A December 1800 newspaper story, notes Thiesen, reported that a merchant vessel, sailing through the area after the hurricane had passed, reported “a large copper-bottomed brig, with quarter-boards and a range of ports, was seen bottom upwards.” That was likely the Pickering, but no definite proof was available, and the exact cause and location of the loss of the brig remain unknown.
USS Insurgent (1800)
The 1,726-ton, 175-ton, 148-foot, 36-gun frigate L’Insurgente was built for the French Navy at L’Orient and launched on 27 April 1793. Captured after a lengthy battle with the U.S. frigate Constellation, the vanquished vessel was sent to the United States. Repaired and purchased from the prize court by the U.S. Navy, the newly commissioned Insurgent sailed to the West Indies twice, making one cruise before being lost on the second. The Insurgent sailed for the West Indies under the command of Captain Patrick Fletcher on 22 July, via Norfolk, touching there on 8 August. The frigate and her 227-man crew were never seen again. In its official report to Congress in February 1802, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith wrote he presumed that the Insurgent and Pickering both were lost in the “equinoctial gale of September, 1800.”
Gunboat No. 7 (1805)
Constructed at New York, the 71-foot No. 7 was launched on 6 February 1805 and armed with two long 32-pounder guns. In response to the struggle with the Barbary pirates on the coast of North Africa, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith ordered ten of the new gunboats to sail across the Atlantic to join Commodore John Rodgers’ Mediterranean Squadron on 17 April 1805.
Heavily loaded with stowed guns and provisions, Gunboat No. 7 sailed from New York on 14 May under the command of Lieutenant Peter S. Ogilvie, but sprang her mast on 20 May and returned to port for refit, arriving May 30. All but three of the crew deserted, and Ogilvie complained to brother officers that the mast had not been “well seasoned.” With a new crew shipped (with some difficulty), Ogilvie and No. 7 sailed again from New York on 20 June. She was never seen again, although eight of the other gunboats did make it across (albeit with some harrowing experiences). For many in the Navy, there was no surprise, only sadness, with the disappearance of No. 7. As naval historian Edgar Stanton Maclay noted in 1893, “the fate of this gunboat only too plainly showed what great risk the men who commanded and manned the other vessels of its class took when they sailed across the Atlantic in them.”
USS Wasp (1814)
The 509-ton, 117-foot sloop-of-war Wasp was built at Newburyport, Massachusetts, and commissioned in early 1814. A brief but distinguished career, marked by an epic battle with HMS Reindeer and the capture of prizes, ended sometime after 21 September 1814, when the Wasp captured the eight-gun brig HMS Atalanta and put a prize crew aboard. The Atalanta, under the command of Midshipman David Geisinger, left the Wasp’s company on the 22nd and reached Savannah, Georgia, in early November. It was the last “official” American sighting of the Wasp.
Throughout the first half of 1815, various newspapers reported rumors of Wasp sightings and even that the ship had been captured by the British. The Wasp never returned home, however, and it was soon apparent after the War of 1812 ended that the ship had never been captured, but had simply vanished at sea, perhaps victim of a storm. In June 1825, an article in Niles’ Weekly Register suggested that a tale told by Arabs on the coast of Africa may have been about the Wasp. The Arabs told the survivors of a whaling wreck in November 1824 of another shipwreck, some ten years earlier, the landing of hundreds of sailors they took to be British, and after a pitched battle, the death of all of the foreign sailors. That tale was then and still remains debated. Theodore Roosevelt sums it up in his history, The Naval War of 1812: “how she perished none ever knew; all that is certain is that she was never seen again.”
USS Epervier (1815)
Built at Rochester, England, for the Royal Navy, HMS Epervier was a 389-ton, 100-foot brig armed with 18 guns. Commissioned in January 1813, she had a distinguished career, capturing American merchant ships and privateers through April 1814. However, after leaving Havana for Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Epervier was engaged and captured by the U.S. sloop-of-war Peacock off Cape Canaveral on 29 April. The damaged brig was sailed to Savannah with a prize crew under the command of Lieutenant John Nicolson.
Repaired and commissioned into the U.S. Navy, the Epervier sailed for the Mediterranean to join Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron, then at war with the Dey of Algiers over his piratical attacks on American ships. The Epervier joined the squadron in two battles in June 1815 and in the capture of two Algerine warships, after which the Dey agreed to sue for peace.
Decatur dispatched the Epervier, under the command of Lieutenant John B. Shubrick, to carry the treaty and captured flags to the United States. With a crew of 132 sailors and two Marines, and three naval officers returning to the United States as passengers, the Epervier passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 14 July 1815—and was never seen or heard from again.
A vessel that some thought was the Epervier was spotted under double-reefed topsails, heading toward Charleston in stormy weather on 8 August. A powerful gale swept through on 9 August, and while rumors persisted that a British warship had encountered and sunk the Epervier, in the opinion of many it was the “disastrous gales” of August that claimed the brig.
USS Lynx (1821)
The 150-ton, 80-foot topsail schooner Lynx was built at Georgetown in the District of Columbia for the Navy in 1814 for War of 1812 service. The conflict ended by the time of the schooner’s commissioning in 1815, and so the Lynx instead sailed to the Mediterranean to join the action against the Barbary pirates. That conflict having also just concluded, after a brief stay with the squadron in a show of strength, the Lynx returned to the United States. After an 1817 tour of coast-survey duty, the schooner next sailed to the Gulf of Mexico to join the West Indies Squadron in the suppression of piracy.
Under the command of Lieutenant John Ripley Madison, the Lynx operated along the Gulf coast, ranging from Florida to Texas and from the Keys to Cuba. After a successful but brief career capturing pirates through the end of 1820, Madison and his 49-man crew sailed from St. Mary’s, Georgia, on 21 January 1821 for Kingston, Jamaica. The schooner was never heard from again. In May, Niles’ Weekly Register reported “serious apprehensions” when by April the schooner had not appeared in Jamaica. No other trace or record of the missing vessel was reported.
USS Wild Cat (1824)
The 48-ton, two-masted Wild Cat was built as a shallow-draft Chesapeake Bay schooner and purchased by the Navy in Baltimore in late 1822. Then the Wild Cat was part of a nine-vessel “mosquito fleet” organized by Commodore David Porter by order of Congress to tackle the persistent problem with pirates and to protect U.S. interests in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The Wild Cat departed Norfolk in February 1823 to commence an 18-month patrol of the waters between Puerto Rico and Cuba. After returning to Norfolk to replenish both supplies and crews decimated by yellow fever, the fleet in 1824 based itself at Thompson’s Island (present-day Key West).
Ordinarily under the command of Lieutenant James E. Legaré, the Wild Cat was engaged in biweekly convoy duties to and from Cuba under the temporary command of Midshipman L. M. Booth in the summer of 1824. Sailing for Havana on 25 August, the schooner headed into “violent gales” and failed to reach port. A 24 November article in Niles’ Weekly Register noted that “there is now very little doubt that the U.S. schooner Wild Cat, long missing, was lost . . . probably she went ashore near Carysford [sic] Reef, about which her arm chest &c. have been found, and that everyone on board perished.” Lying east of Key Largo, Carysfort Reef is now part of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It has been the setting for many wrecks, and if the account in Niles’ Register is correct, the broken bones of the Wild Cat lie embedded in its coral and buried in its sands.
USS Hornet (1829)
The 440-ton, 106-foot brig Hornet was launched in Baltimore on 28 July 1805 and commissioned on 18 October by Master Commandant Isaac Chauncey. Armed with two long 12-pounders and 18 32-pounder carronades, the Hornet briefly patrolled the coast until dispatched to join the Mediterranean Squadron in March 1806. After returning to the United States at the end of November 1807, the brig was decommissioned. Brought back into service a year later, she was actively employed until re-rigged as a three-masted sloop-of-war at the Washington Navy Yard through much of 1811.
After a distinguished battle record in the War of 1812 and postwar cruises in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, the Hornet was posted to the West Indies Squadron to suppress piracy and illegal slave trading while based out of both Key West and Pensacola.
The Hornet cleared Pensacola for Mexico in March 1829 and disappeared. Rumors and false reports came through the summer of 1829, and a search by the Peacock discovered no wreckage or other trace. However, in October news reached the West Indies Squadron that the Hornet had been dismasted and sunk with all hands after leaving in the face of a growing gale, or “norte,” on 29 September. Other accounts suggest the date was 10 September.
USS Sylph (1831)
The 41-ton schooner Sylph was built at Fell’s Point, Baltimore, by shipbuilders Durgin & Bailey, who later gained fame as the employers of enslaved ship’s carpenter Frederick Douglass. Launched as the Sarah Ann, the schooner was renamed when purchased by the Navy in April 1831. After fitting out, the schooner was commissioned in May. On 3 June, after being reported “ready for sea,” the Sylph and the schooners Shark and Fourth of July sailed for Norfolk. The three vessels were bound for the “southern coast” of the United States to be “employed in the protection of timber.” The commitment was no small matter; live oak (Quercus virginiana) was a strategic resource as a vital component in wooden shipbuilding.
Under the command of Lieutenant H. E. V. Robinson, the Sylph departed Norfolk on 29 July and reached Pensacola to take up duties in what was designated as District 7 of the timber protection patrol. The Sylph’s area of operations was the Gulf Coast from the Perdido River, just west of Pensacola, to the mouth of the Sabine—what is now the Texas-Louisiana border. The schooner was lost on what appears to have been its first cruise in August 1831, disappearing with all hands. A strong storm likely capsized and sank the Sylph near the mouth of the Mississippi, according to a nearby vessel’s report of a ship in distress believed to be the schooner.
USS Sea Gull (1839)
A former New York pilot boat, the 110-ton schooner New Jersey was purchased by the Navy on 3 August 1838 and renamed the Sea Gull. The 96-ton schooner Independence, also described as a New York pilot boat, was bought by the Navy at the same time and renamed the Flying Fish. Both vessels were to serve as tenders for the U.S. Exploring Expedition, which had been ordered to chart and explore Antarctica and the Pacific.
The expedition departed on 18 August. After reaching the tip of South America, the ships of the expedition explored the area in the face of heavy seas, gales, and snow. They remained there, working out of Bahía Orange (Orange Bay) near Cape Horn. The expedition sailed for Valparaíso, Chile, on 17 April, leaving the two tenders to wait for the supply ship Relief. They left the bay on 28 April and sailed into a gale. The Flying Fish last saw the Sea Gull in the lee of Staten Island, off the Horn, at midnight on 28 April, and by the morning, as the Flying Fish beat back to Orange Harbour, the crew reported it was “blowing furiously.” They rode out the storm at anchor until it subsided on 1 May.
The Sea Gull and the 16 men on board were never seen or heard from again. The officers of the expedition contributed funds for a monument to their lost shipmates. An obelisk, it stands at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and bears the name of two officers killed in a skirmish in Fiji, and to Passed Midshipmen James W. E. Reid and Frederick A. Bacon, “lost at sea off Cape Horn, May, 1839.”
USS Grampus (1843)
The 171-ton, 97-foot two-masted topsail schooner Grampus was built at the Washington Navy Yard and launched on 21 August 1821. The Grampus was one of five new schooners that joined the Navy’s newly formed West Indies Squadron. She and the rest of the squadron gradually asserted control of seas that had been roiled by the War of 1812, the decline of the Spanish Empire, and the rise of newly independent states in Central and South America. Wartime privateering had given way to outright piracy, with some vessels falsely carrying papers denoting them as privateers. These included some Americans, but also ships and men from Spanish Cuba, Puerto Rico, and independent Venezuela.
The Grampus served with distinction in the West Indies and African Squadrons until January 1843, when she was ordered to Norfolk. On 20 February, she sailed from Norfolk for the Gulf of Mexico. On 13 or 15 March (accounts vary), the Grampus was spoken by another ship off St. Augustine, Florida, sailing into a gale, never to be seen again. The Navy struck the schooner from the Naval Register on 1 August 1843, with the notation, “she is supposed to have foundered in the Gulf Stream.”
USS Porpoise (1854)
A 224-ton, 88-foot brigantine (later brig), the Porpoise was launched in May 1836 and, like the ill-fated Grampus, served on anti-piracy patrols and for the U.S. Coast Survey before joining the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1838. After returning from a global cruise in 1842, the refitted Porpoise was employed in anti-slavery cruises off Africa and in Gulf of Mexico operations. She saw service in the Mexican War in 1847 before returning to anti-slavery patrols through 1852. In 1853 she joined the squadron of ships attached to the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition, which charted the coast and islands of Southeast Asia and the Chinese coast. In September 1854, having left Hong Kong to explore and chart islands off Guandong Province, the Bonins (which include Iwo Jima), and the Marianas, the Porpoise was lost while transiting the Taiwan Strait in the midst of a typhoon. Last sighted by the U.S. sloop-of-war Vincennes on 21 September, the brig disappeared without a trace.
USS Albany (1854)
The 1,064-ton, 163-foot, 22-gun Albany was built at the New York Navy Yard between 1843 and 1846. Rushed to completion and quickly put into service with the outbreak of the Mexican War, the Albany served in the Home Squadron on the Mexican Gulf coast. From 1849 through 1854, she remained in the Home Squadron, but largely patrolled the Caribbean and the West Indies. In June 1854, the Albany departed with orders to visit the Caribbean coast and nearby islands in the interest of protecting American interests there with special instructions to “show our flag along the whole coast of Central America.” The final port of call was to be the newly established terminal of the Panama Railroad in Aspinwall (Colón).
Reaching Aspinwall on 25 September 1854, the Albany departed for New York on the morning of the 29th, leaving dispatches from her captain, Commander James Thompson Gerry, to be forwarded. They were the last communications from the Albany. After a failed search lasting some 15 months, in January 1856 the Navy declared the Albany lost with 193 men.
USS Levant (1860)
The 792-ton, 132-foot second-class sloop-of-war Levant was built at the New York Navy Yard and launched on 28 December 1837. Between 1838 and 1842, the 22-gunner served in the West Indies Squadron and then served in the Pacific Squadron through 1847. Her service there included taking part in the capture of California during the Mexican War. After a five-year lay-up, the Levant cruised to the Mediterranean and then returned to the Pacific to join the East Asiatic Squadron. In China, the Levant joined the fleet in protecting American interests in the face of British-Chinese hostilities that blossomed into the Second Opium War.
In 1859, under the command of Commander William E. Hunt, the Levant returned to the Pacific as flagship of the Pacific Squadron. After arriving in October, the ship patrolled the coast between Chile and Panama until dispatched in May 1860 to Hawaii. Arriving at Oahu in May, the Levant remained in the islands until she cleared Hawaii for Panama on 18 September 1860. She never reached port.
Searches at sea found no trace of the Levant. The only clue was the discovery of a mast and a lower yardarm believed to be from the ship that washed ashore at Hilo nine months later. Spikes driven into the wood suggested to some that an attempt had been made to fashion the wreckage into a raft, and that perhaps the Levant had foundered in a September hurricane.
USS Cyclops (1918)
Undeniably the most famous “mystery ship” of the U.S. Navy, the 19,369-ton, 542-foot collier Cyclops (AC-4) was built by William Cramp & Sons in Philadelphia. Launched 7 May 1910, she was placed in Naval Auxiliary Service six months later on 7 November, under the command of Captain George W. Worley. The Cyclops accompanied the Atlantic Fleet to the Baltic and the Caribbean. With the United States’ entry into World War I, the Navy commissioned the Cyclops on 1 May 1917. The Cyclops made a wartime crossing to St. Nazaire and then returned, working on the U.S. East Coast with the exception of one voyage to Halifax.
Assigned in January 1918 to the Naval Transportation Service, the Cyclops was dispatched to Brazilian waters to fuel allied British ships in the South Atlantic. On her final voyage, the collier was loaded with 10,800 long tons of manganese ore, a strategic mineral used in munitions. She carried 56 personnel embarked as passengers, including the U.S. consul for Rio de Janeiro, with orders to return to the United States. Steaming from Rio on 16 February 1918, the Cyclops proceeded—but with engine damage from a cracked cylinder. After a brief stop in Barbados to load more water and coal, and with Worley telling the consul there of his concerns over his ship’s engine and some of his crew, the Cyclops left Barbados on 4 March and was expected to arrive at Baltimore on 13 March. There was no further contact, despite the fact the collier carried a wireless radio. Naval officials began to make inquiries to Barbados and at various naval bases and ships on 20 March, with the Cyclops then overdue by a week. Ships from Guantanamo and Key West were dispatched to search for her, but no trace was found.
The news of the ship’s disappearance broke on 15 April. With the war still raging, and in the face of German U-boat activity on the American coast, as well as the fact that German raiders were masquerading as merchant ships, it was thought that the Cyclops “may be raider victim,” according to some headlines. The New York Times’ headline was one of the more responsible ones, noting “Collier Overdue a Month.” Others stated, given weather reports, she had foundered in tropical storm. Rumors were rampant. The fact that Captain Worley was a naturalized German who had changed his name from John Frederick Wichmann suggested to some he was a German sympathizer who had either surrendered his ship or scuttled it. Investigations by naval intelligence into Worley, as well as reports for years that members of the missing crew had communicated with their families, were all found to be false. By December, however, with the war over, discussions with German naval officials made it clear “neither German U-boats nor German mines came into question.”
On 1 June 1918, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the Cyclops was now officially listed as lost with all hands—15 officers, 221 crew, and 56 passengers. The Cyclops remains the single largest loss of life in a U.S. Navy peacetime disaster. Rumors and fanciful tales continued and still do, with the Cyclops often cited as the most famous “victim” of the “Bermuda Triangle.”
Author Marvin W. Barrash, whose great-uncle, Fireman Second Class Lawrence Merkel, was lost with the ship, published a voluminous and comprehensive history of the Cyclops. In it, he not only offered a detailed account of the ship’s life and crew, but also summarized all rumors and stories. Barrash’s focus ultimately was on the cargo of manganese and the Cyclops’ stability, a factor also considered a likely cause by naval investigators, although officially the Navy’s position was that despite many theories about the loss, none “satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance.”
Barrash believes there is “no standalone cause” for the loss of the Cyclops, rather a combination of unfavorable weather, heavy seas, a damaged engine, insufficient power, shifting manganese, and ultimately a ship that suddenly capsized and sank in deep water or broke apart. Barrash suggests the wreck may lie deep in the Puerto Rico Trench. Others believe she lies off the coast somewhere between Cape Hatteras and Cape Henry and that a sudden, catastrophic loss would explain why there was no final radio message, or drifting wreckage—but for many, the lure of a supernatural cause or other fantastic explanations continue to have appeal.
Through all these unresolved fates, what becomes apparent is that one of the greatest battles any warship ever faces is with the sea itself, and naval and maritime history are replete with tales of ships battered and lost to hurricanes, typhoons, sudden gales, tsunamis, and rogue waves. What is also apparent, beyond any listing of ships’ names, is that what have been left behind are more than mysteries, but friends and families who were burdened with the lack of closure that ambiguous loss brings. The passage of time makes little or no difference to families forever changed when their loved ones simply vanished. In many cases, there are descendants who still wonder, and who can find a measure of closure when accidental encounters or modern technology at last resolve at least the mystery of where these ships came to rest. We certainly found that to be true this past March with the announcement that the USS Conestoga, at least, was no longer lost, but found.