By M.P. Pellicer | Eerie.News
In a foreshadowing of things to come, in early March 1918, it was reported by the Navy that Willie J. Nettles, coxswain on the U.S.S. Cyclops was drowned on February 10, when he was swept overboard. His body was never recovered from the waters off Brazil.
The U.S.S. Cyclops was the biggest ship in the U.S. Navy. Powered by steam, she was 550 feet long and since 1910, she traveled between the Caribbean, Mexico and the Baltic Sea moving coal and refugees from port to port.
In 1917, due to WWI she transported troops and coal to fuel ships around the world.
In February 1918, she left Rio de Janeiro loaded with tons of dense manganese ore. Two days later she stopped at Salvador, Brazil. On February 22, the ship left for Baltimore, with no stops planned. However the Cyclops docked in Barbados because the water level was over the the Plimsoll line, used to indicate if a ship is overloaded.
When she left Brazil it was thought the ship was overloaded, and before leaving for Baltimore, Commander Worley reported the starboard engine was not operating due to a cracked cylinder. The survey board recommended that repairs would be made when the vessel returned to the United States.
On March 3, a telegram was sent to the West Indian Steamship Co. in New York City. "Advise charterers USS CYCLOPS arrived Barbadoes Three March for bunkers. Expect to arrive Baltimore Thirteen March. Opnav." The next day, the collier departed Barbados.
No distress call was ever received. The last message was "Weather fair, all well." This was the last ever heard of the Cyclops.
Later, investigations completed in Rio de Janeiro confirmed the ship was properly loaded and secured, but conflicting reports found that Captain Worley, left inexperienced crew to load the ship while in Brazil.
Initially the Navy denied the vessel had disappeared, but less than 30 days later, the news stories had become more grim. It seemed the U.S.S. Cyclops a naval collier could not be located. By the end of April hopes were fading the vessel could be found, or at least an explanation of what happened.
President Woodrow Wilson announced, "Only God and the sea know what happened to the great ship."
The Navy sent in personnel to question fishermen along the coasts of the West Indian islands along the route taken by the ship two months before when she sailed from Barbados, hoping they could provide a clue.
Ships scoured the waters the Cyclops would have taken, and no trace of wreckage was found. The thought was that she had been captured or sunk by a German submarine or raider. The ore she carried could be used to produce munitions.
The German authorities then and after the war denied any knowledge of having intercepted the Cyclops.
There were 57 passengers, mostly navy personnel, 5 prisoners, 21 officers and a crew of 230. The total number lost has been estimated from 297 to 309.
Between March 9 and 10, a storm covered the Virginia Capes area. Captain E. C. Hilliard the captain of the Amalco, sighted the Cyclops on March 9, 1918. He later told the Navy, "If I had been carrying manganese ore, I could not have survived the gale." This report was discounted since it was estimated that since the Cyclops was not expected in Baltimore until March 13, it would not have been in the waters off Virginia on March 9.
Questions abounded, however there were no answers. Did her cargo break the Cyclops in two? Did her cargo shift and capsize her? Was she sunk by an internal explosion? Was she sunk by a submarine or a mine? Was she captured by the Germans? Was she surrendered through treachery? Or was she "spurlos versenkt" (sunk without a trace)?
In the months that followed, without proof of her fate, the Navy stated, "Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance." One June 1, 1918, the ship was declared officially lost, with all hands.
Strangely her sister ships eventually shared the same fate, three of them in the same year.
The USS Proteus became part of the Canadian Merchant Navy in 1941, and was lost at sea seven months after, while she traversed the Caribbean Sea. A crew of fifty went down with her, and the ship has never been found.
The USS Nereus was sold to the Aluminum Company of Canada in 1941, and was lost 10 months later after she departed the US Virgin Islands with a load of Bauxite ore. The wreck has never been located. She was following the same route as the Cyclops.
Their loss was blamed on catastrophic structural failure.
The Cyclops and these two sister ships disappeared while traversing the Bermuda Triangle.
The fourth collier of the group, USS Jupiter, was converted in 1920 into the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, and was renamed the USS Langley. She was later converted into a seaplane tender, and was finally sunk by Japanese aircraft in the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, within months of the loss of the Proteus and the Nereus. Most of the survivors were transferred to another ship, the USS Pecose, and this was also later bombed and sunk, with the Japanese machine-gunning the survivors in the water.
After the Proteus and Nereus were lost, the disappearance of the Cyclops is now theorized to also be a result of structural failure, where the I-beams that ran the length of the ship eroded due to the contents of her cargo, however unless her wreck is ever found this could not be confirmed.
During the investigation of the Cyclops, her captain Lieutenant Commander George W. Worley came under scrutiny.
He was born John Frederick Wichmann in Germany in 1862. He jumped ship in San Francisco in 1878. Twenty years later he changed his surname to Worley and he ran a saloon on the Barbary Coast. By then, some of his brothers had also immigrated. He gained a qualification as a ship's master, and commanded several merchant ships, transporting cargo. Some legal, and it was rumored that when he voyaged to the Far East, he brought opium back. Worley developed a reputation as being a harsh captain that brutalized and berated his crew including officers for minimal transgressions.
On February 21, 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve.
Later it was determined he would leave inexperienced men to oversee the loading of the cargo.
Whether deserved or not there were those who suspected he was a German sympathizer.
Prior to the declaration the Cyclops had been lost, Worley's wife Selma visited newspaper offices requesting the suppression of an interview she had given about her husband's change of name and his birth in Germany. She said he came as a child, and changed his name to honor his foster father. However he was 16 years old when came to the United States. He changed his surname in Washington, prior to entering the navy.
Her sister-in-law, Anna M. Angermann confirmed to newspapers their family name was Wichmann. This information prompted an investigation by the Navy which examined Worley's records where he listed San Francisco as his birthplace.
There was a brother, Hermann Wichmann who never altered his surname.
Near the time the search for Cyclops was called off, a telegram was received by the State Department from Charles Ludlow Livingston, the U.S. consul on Barbados:
Secretary of State
The letter dated December 31, 1917, was written at the YMCA located in Norfolk Navy Yard, prior to the ship leaving on its last voyage. It was written by Edward Scott Morgan Jr., age 23. His mother Ida passed away in September, 1919 at the age of 53. Perhaps the heartbreak was too much. She'd already lost a daughter in 1891, age 8, from croup.
In January, 1922, The Greensboro Daily News described "that within two weeks after the Cyclops sailed and at least a month before she was reported as missing, a notice appeared in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper stating that a requiem mass would be celebrated for the American consul-general 'lost at sea in the American collier Cyclops'".
Americans in Brazil questioned the announcement and inquired about it, however the newspaper in question disclaimed any knowledge of the person who had inserted the notice. American Secret Service agents tried to trace the clue of the newspaper clipping, but by then it was too late. The man who brought it for publication had disappeared.
This fed into the theory that one of the Cyclops' passenger, Alfred Louis Moreau Gottschalk, American consul-general at Rio de Janeiro was instrumental in "stirring up sentiment throughout Brazil in favor of the allied forces." Anonymous messages were made threatening his life prior to his return to the U.S.
There was also the belief that if not sunk by the Germans she was taken in order to use her large cargo of manganese. After the signing of the armistice, American authorities examined all naval German records and there was no reference to the Cyclops. The only exception to this theory was that the ship was sunk by a submarine who itself failed to return to port.
It was also noted that among the ships that had disappeared in those years, the Cyclops was the only one equipped with "wireless".
In 1922, a supposed message in a bottle from a member of the Cyclops washed up on the North Carolina coast. It was found near where the Carol A. Deering was last seen before she beached on Diamond Shoals. The Navy investigated, and it was discredited when it turned out the message was found on an island off the coast of Washington and "supposedly emanated from Japanese sources."
This was not the first time a message in a bottle was discovered. There was a report from August, 1918, when another message in a bottle washed ashore at Quarantine Island at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. The message written in a hurried hand read: "Our collier, Cyclops, captured by German submarine off Virginia coast."
This was not the end of these discoveries. In October, 1926, another message scratched on a scroll of birch bark was found in a sealed bottle, entangled in a heap of seaweed on the coast of Massachusetts. Its sealed cap was oxidized from exposure. It read, "S.S. Cyclops is sinking 161 men on board 10 degrees six minutes, 10 degrees 40 minutes, G.P. Arm U.S.N." Parts of the message were indecipherable, however it was noted that among the roster of the missing crew, there were two names resembling the scrawled signature. One was George Jones Arminger, and the other Robert Armstrong.
According to NUMA, in 1968, Master Navy diver, Dean Hawes found a large wreck in 180 feet of water about 40 miles northeast of Cape Charles while he was searching for a lost submarine named the Scorpion. He surfaced with the intention of returning with a dive team but bad weather forced them to abandon the endeavor and return to Norfolk. The Scorpion was located near the Azores, and the Navy decided not to return where a solitary buoy had been left to mark Hawes' discovery.
Dean Hawes returned years later, and by then he had compared a picture of the Cyclops to what he had seen, and he believed they were the same ship. On that trip, they found a different wreck, not the Cyclops.
Hawes believed that due to the storm and operating only on one engine, the ship went off course and ended up northeast of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Dean Hawes has since passed away.
In 1931, The Brooklyn Daily printed a story titled, "Sabotage on Cyclops before Fatal Voyage Bared by Ex-Officer".
Henry Charles Ryder, originally from Brooklyn was once an ensign engineer on the Cyclops up to the evening before her last voyage. The day before the Cyclops left from Norfolk for Rio de Janeiro, Ryder was transferred to the USS Azama, and escaped the fate of his shipmates.
When he came to the Kings County American Legion seeking employment he told a story of mysterious happenings on the ship. He believed the ship was deliberately sunk by German agents who destroyed all flotsam. The soft-spoken Ryder was allegedly pressed to tell a story of strange signal light and intrigue. He retold of a prior voyage, from France to New York.
There was a general spirit of uneasiness among the crew, there was talk of five German spies being on board. Suspicion was rampant, the more disturbing because nothing could be found at first which seemed to warrant it. Then came the direct evidence.
The same article described where a year before a former marine sergeant said that a man with who he chanced to room in Texas with had left behind a diary.
The entries told of a story of how the writer along with four other men "packed dynamite around the engine of the Cyclops" with plans to escape to a waiting German vessel; only two of them made it. The writer of the diary, who was supposed to be a chance acquaintance of the marine, was never found.
The news story went on to describe that Lt. James M. Hays, navigating officer on the collier Orion, a month after the Cyclops was lost, sighted a life preserver and raft which he suspected belonged to the Cyclops. He reported it to the captain, but he refused to put the ship off her course to pick up what Hays had seen.
In February, 1920, Donald Fraser a Chicagoan reported that on Gun Key in the Bahamas he had found fragments of a lifeboat with the "U.S. Cyclops" stenciled on it. He also described a sunken hull of a ship, 2000 yards off the key. The Navy never found the wreckage.
…Not a bit of the wreckage nor sign of any description has been found. Usually a wooden bucket or a cork life preserver identified as belonging to the lost ship is picked up after a wreck, but not so with the Cyclops. 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 sadness of her destruction is amplified by the absence of any wireless calls for help being picked up by any ship along the route that the Cyclops followed.
On December 1917, Oscar Stewart, age 17, a 3rd class fireman was murdered as a result of an altercation on the armored cruiser USS Pittsburgh while at anchor with the South American Squadron off the coast of Brazil. He was found in a pool of blood in one of the boiler rooms.
Court-martialed for the offense were Bernard DeVoe, Moss Whiteside and James Coker. Whiteside received 15 years, DeVoe life in prison, and Coker death. With the exception of Coker, the others, including two deserters, were taken aboard the Cyclops as passengers, albeit in irons, bound for the brig at Portsmouth, N.H.
U.S. Consul to Barbados, C. Ludlow Livingston hinted in his letter that one of these men may have been executed on Worley's orders before they reached Barbados. It's unknown if this person was Coker since his name does not appear on any of the Cyclops' lists.
In addition to the prisoners, forty-two men from the Pittsburgh were sent stateside on the Cyclops for reassignment.
After the loss of the Cyclops, a rumor circulated, one of many, that some of the men from the Pittsburgh were said to be friends of those convicted in connection with the murder. James Coker would be transferred to the Cyclops for his execution; their friends would mutiny to free his accomplices; the crew would mutiny to free Lieutenant Harvey Forbes; with a captain known as the "damned Dutchman", who was going insane losing command of the ship.
Whether these rumors were grounded in truth will never be known, as all those who could say otherwise took their truths, secrets and regrets to their watery grave.
Perhaps the Cyclops was cursed along with her sister ships, or claimed by a mysterious force that exists between those three points of the Devil's Triangle.
Although the ship disappeared on March 4, 1918, the designated date of death for every one on board is June 14, 1918. The loss of the Cyclops is often described as the single largest loss of U.S. Navy lives not directly involving combat.
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