On 21 February 1918, the USS Cyclops steamed into the harbor of Bahiai Brazil, took aboard mail from the naval vessels at anchor there and at 6:00 p.m. departed, bound for Baltimore, Maryland. This was the last ever seen of the Cyclops. She never arrived at her destination nor was any trace of her ever reported, thereby adding her name to the unsolved mysteries of the sea.
In the capacity of a watch officer, I served on board this vessel on the voyage that took her from her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia to Rio de Janeiro, at which port, I was detached and ordered to the USS Glacier. The Cyclops disappeared on the voyage returning to the United States.
Throughout the years that have elapsed since that event, many theories have been advanced as to the probable cause of the catastrophe, though none, in my opinion, even slightly approaches a solution of the mystery.
In writing this, I am motivated by a desire to set down various facts and incidents as I saw them in the hope that some light may be thrown on the subject. While some of these I may appear to be somewhat inconsequential, they may have had some bearing on the disappearance of the Cyclops. For the compiling of this record, I have had to rely solely on memory and the few terse entries in a diary containing little except dates, ports, and ship movements. The day-to-day story of events was more fully covered in letters to my wife, which were in the mail on board the Cyclops when she went down.
The USS Cyclops was a twin-screw, naval auxiliary vessel of the latest type, designed and built by the Navy for service as a Fleet collier. She was commanded by Lieutenant Commander George W. Worley, U. S. Naval Reserve Force.
Commander Worley was a gruff, eccentric salt of the old school, given to carrying a cane, hut 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.
Prior to the entry of the United States into World War I, Captain Worley was a member of the U. S. Naval Auxiliary Service. In this hybrid organization, the ships were operated for the Navy and took orders from the Bureau of Operations. This service comprised the colliers, cargo, refrigerator, and hospital ships and was, as the name implies, auxiliary to the fleet. The personnel was civilian under the Jurisdiction of the Navy Department. In 1917, shortly after the declaration of war, the ships of the Auxiliary Service were taken into the Navy, the officers being enrolled in the U. S. Naval Reserve Force.
The Cyclops departed from the Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia, on 8 January 1918, loaded down to her Plimsoll mark with a cargo of coal, mail, and miscellaneous stores destined for the South American Patrol Fleet, then operating on the east coast of South America. The day had dawned overcast and cold, with a light snow falling. For days the harbor had been completely frozen over. Liberty parties from ships at anchor walked on the ice that morning returning to their ships. In plowing through the ice floes in the ship channel, the Cyclops narrowly averted a collision with the USS Survey, outward bound to the Mediterranian for patrol and antisubmarine duty. This was the first of the untoward incidents that dogged her on that final voyage. By nightfall, she had cleared the Virginia Capes and headed southward, breasting the heavy winter seas with a speed and ease amazing for such a heavily loaded vessel.
About 8:00 p.m., as I groped my way forward on the darkened deck to relieve the officer of the watch, I was mystified at hearing a sound not unlike that caused by metal plates being rubbed together. Upon investigation, I found this to be the case. The ship was working to the extent that where steam or water pipes passed through web irons, or were in contact with portions of the hull, the movement could be distinctly seen. Later, in daylight, by sighting fore or aft along the well deck, the movement was very perceptible; the deck amidships rising and falling as if the ship were conforming to the contour of the seas. Later that day when I called it to the Captain’s attention, he shrugged it off with a superior, “Son, she’ll last as long as we do”—which was, indeed, partly true.
On the fifth day out, the Captain ordered Lieutenant Forbes, the executive officer, to his room under arrest following a trivial disagreement about ship’s work. From all reports, this seemed to be a routine matter in ships commanded by Captain Worley.
In the evening of this same day, Ensign Cain, one of the watch and division officers, apparently in good health, was placed on the sick list and ordered to bed by the doctor. It was the general opinion in the wardroom that this was done to save Mr. Cain from being a victim of the Commanding Officer’s unreasoning temper. I do not recall that the doctor made any comment nor that he was in any way questioned regarding the matter; his act and motive were taken for granted.
At this time Mr. Cain’s watch duty had been the mid-watch and it fell my lot to relieve him. I do not remember being at all unhappy with the assignment. The balmy, tropical nights under a full moon were a pleasant escape from the gloomy atmosphere of the wardroom. During this period of duty, I became very well acquainted with Commander Worley.
Directly below the navigation bridge, on the starboard side, was a small cabin which the Captain occupied when at sea. Shortly after taking over the watch at midnight, I was somewhat startled to see him coming up the starboard ladder dressed in long woolen underwear, a derby hat, and a cane. I frantically searched my memory for something I had done wrong or had neglected to do. He neither apologized for his attire, nor even so much as mentioned it, and my salute and “Good morning Captain,” could not have been more correct or military. His affability soon relieved my anxiety, as I realized this was no official call, but a purely social one.
This visit lasted some two hours, and as we leaned against the forward bridge rail, he regaled me with stories of his home and numerous incidents of his long life at sea. He had a fund of tales, mostly humorous. These nocturnal visits became a regular routine, and I rather enjoyed them. His uniform, if it could be so called, never varied from what he had worn on that first occasion. I have often wondered to what I owed these visits—his fondness for me or his sleeplessness. That he liked me, I was sure, for when in Rio de Janeiro I received orders detaching me from the Cyclops, he sought to have those orders revoked. Fortunately, for me, he was unsuccessful.
On the 12th day, we came in sight of the coast of South America off Pernambuco, at a distance of about 20 miles. The Captain immediately changed course to take us farther out. We came to anchor off the city of Bahia on 22 January 1918, after running 48 miles past the entrance to the harbor. Three more hours of darkness, steaming on that course, would have had her aground. The navigator had protested, pointing out the error of these decisions, but had been brusquely overruled.
While in this port, we supplied coal and stores to that venerable veteran of Manila Bay, the USS Raleigh. The Cyclops, upon getting underway from alongside, twice fouled her, fortunately with only slight damage.
On the voyage south to Rio de Janeiro, the head of the starboard engine high pressure cylinder blew off. The remainder of the trip was made running on one engine. At Rio, the balance of the cargo was distributed to the various vessels of the South American Patrol Fleet at anchor there. I was detached and ordered to the USS Glacier, greatly relieved that my tour of duty in the Cyclops had finally terminated without any unpleasant personal incidents.
For her return voyage, the Cyclops proceeded to take aboard a cargo of manganese ore. It was during this period that her most tragic accident up to that time occurred. One of the ship’s boats, a motor sailor with a seaman on board, had been tied up to the quarter boom, when, without warning one of the engines was turned over, resulting in the boat being drawn into the propeller. The man was injured, knocked overboard, and t drowned. This negligence, I feel, can be laid squarely at the feet of the Commanding Officer, who by his irrational methods of command had so thoroughly demoralized and disorganized the officers and men of the Cyclops.
On 15 February, the Glacier got underway and proceeded out of the harbor with a Brazilian pilot boat leading the way through the mine fields guarding the entrance.
Excerpt from my diary:
February 21, 1918 Bahia, Brazil, USS Cyclops stood in from the North. Took mail aboard and departed at 6:00 P.M. for Baltimore.
As Bahia lies north of Rio de Janeiro, the Cyclops should have been seen coming from the south. Again the familiar example of navigation as practiced on board that vessel.
During her short stay in Bahia, the Cyclops' paymaster, Carrol G. Page, my best friend, came aboard the Glacier on official business. (He was a grandson of Senator Page, Chairman of the Senate Naval Committee.) At his departure, I, as officer of the deck, escorted him to the gangway. On leaving, he grasped my hand in both of his and said very solemnly, “Well, goodbye, old man, and God bless you.” I was deeply impressed with his finality, which was truly prophetic in its implication.
When the Cyclops steamed out that evening, she was taking her last departure. She was never seen again.
There have been many theories put forth as to the cause of the disaster that overtook the Cyclops. I will enumerate some of the ones previously written up as most likely; also, the one I am firmly convinced was the real one.
(1) Storms. This can be discounted as there were no storms of any great intensity recorded during the period of her disappearance.
(2) She was torpedoed. This we can also discount as it is highly improbable the entire crew would have perished. The coast was not so distant it could not have been safely navigated in a ship’s boat. During the submarine sinkings in the Atlantic, wreckage from sunken vessels was quite common. Not one scrap identified as being from the Cyclops has ever been found. During convoy service, I saw two abandoned life boats from different vessels plainly marked with their ship’s names. In view of this, I am firmly convinced that the Cyclops went down with all her boats in their cradles, or at their davits, firmly secured for sea. Furthermore, the German authorities after the war had ended declared that none of their submarines had been in that area during the period in question.
(3) Her cargo shifted; she rolled on her beam ends, and then filled and sank. This I consider highly improbable, as manganese ore by reason of its weight and shape would shift very little, if at all.
(4) She broke in two. This, in view of the known evidence, I am forced to accept.
It will be recalled that the Cyclops loaded a cargo of manganese ore; we have no knowledge of the manner in which that cargo was stowed. The only other officer with experience in cargo-handling, the executive officer, was confined to his room under arrest, so it is quite probable the task of supervising the loading was assigned to some young, inexperienced officer.
With the weight of manganese ore, and its lack of bulk, the holds would be only partially filled when the vessel was down to her load line. Now, if this weight was confined to only two or three holds, and those holds in the amidship section, the vessel’s inherent weakness would be greatly accentuated. Properly stowed, this cargo would be distributed in several holds throughout most of the length of the ship.
Assuming that the vessel under stress at sea broke in two, probably in the region just forward of the engine and boiler room spaces, the inrushing water and weight of the cargo would cause the two sections, as they sank lower in the water, to assume a vertical position. Then, as the holds filled, they would go down carrying all evidence with them. This would have happened in the course of a very few minutes and would account for the fact that no SOS call was heard nor, so far as we know, were there any lifeboats launched from the ill-fated ship.
As I recall, the deck of the Cyclops had few articles that would float and support a man. It is questionable that any of the crew surviving the sinking was able to reach one of these; it would only have served to prolong his life, not to save it.
Of all the officers and men who lost their lives in that disaster, only three can be said to have had little to lose: three General Courts Martial prisoners convicted of the horrible murder of a shipmate and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 50 to 99 years. These men undoubtedly died, locked in their cells, when the ship sank with all her secrets.
*See also M. S. Tisdale, “Did the Cyclops Turn Turtle?” January 1920 Proceedings, pp. 55-59.
I. I. Yates, Discussion, April 1920 Proceedings, pp. 603-607.
Professional Notes, “Collier Cyclops Mystery Still Causes Speculation,” September 1923 Proceedings, pp. 1569-1570.
Brockholst Livingston, “Old Naval Auxiliary Service,” January 1929 Proceedings, pp. 50-51.