Lost at Sea
March 4, 1918: USS Cyclops leaves Barbados. The ship was a Proteus-class collier (a bulk cargo ship designed to carry coal – especially for coal-fired warships). She was built by William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia and launched on May 7, 1910. She was commissioned on May 1, 1917. The US Navy ship was named for Cyclops, the race of giants from Greek mythology. On February 16, 1918, the ship left Rio de Janeiro and entered Bahia on February 20. On the 22nd she left for Baltimore, Maryland without any stops scheduled. The ship’s cargo hold was filled with manganese ore, used in making ammunition. The ship’s maximum capacity was 8,000 long tons and the ship was thought to be overloaded and carrying 10,800 long tons of ore.
Commander Worley had been in command of the ship since she was commissioned. He submitted a report stating the starboard engine had a cracked cylinder and was not operative. The report was confirmed, but it was decided the ship should return to America regardless. There was an unscheduled stop in Barbados because the water level was over the Plimsoll line, also called the International Load Line, which would indicate the ship was overloaded. On this date, the ship left Barbados and was to have arrived in Baltimore on March 13. Instead, the ship and her 306 passengers and crew were never seen again. This is the single largest loss of life for a US Navy ship not directly involved in combat.
There are theories about what happened to the ship including that Cyclops was sunk by Germans. Others suggest that the overloaded ship, the broken engine, and bad weather conspired to sink the ship. Cyclops was one of four ships of the same type. Proteus and Nereus both vanished during World War I while transporting heavy loads of metallic ore similar to what Cyclops was carrying. It may simply have been a structural failure. The other two ships suffered from problems with the I-beams running the length of the ship having eroded secondary to the corrosive nature of the ores carried. There are others who note the ships were all lost in the Bermuda Triangle and some mysterious other-worldly cause could be possible.
Another interesting thing about the ship was the Captain. Worley was born Johan Frederick Wichmann in Hanover, Germany in 1862. He entered America in 1878 when he jumped ship in San Francisco. By 1898 he had changed his name to Worley after a seafaring friend and was running a bar in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. He qualified to become a ship’s master and commanded several civilian merchant ships, delivering both legal and illegal cargo. He was compared to Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty fame. Worley was commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve on February 21, 1917. With the US Navy, he continued to be abusive and was noted as being pro-German. The possibility of Cyclops being handed over to the Germans was denied then and there is no plausible reason to believe it is true today. The ship simply vanished without a trace.
Inaction will cause a man to sink into the slough of despond and vanish without a trace. – Farley Mowat
Suddenly, as rare things will, it vanished. – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
But everyone disappears, no matter who loves them. – Dave Eggers
The rain fell with such fervor that the world disappeared. – David Guterson
Also on this day: I’ll Drink to That – In 1634, the first tavern opened in the American colonies – in Boston.
Three Ships Go Sailing – In 1493, Columbus’s ship returns to Lisbon, Portugal.
Collingwood School Fire – In 1908, the Collinwood school fire occurred.
France – In 1790, France was divided into 83 departments.
Forth Rail Bridge – In 1890, the bridge opened.