Embarking on what was to be a routine voyage from Brazil to Baltimore, the USS Cyclops, along with its 306 crew and passengers, seemingly dissolved into the mists of the Atlantic, never to be seen or heard from again. This disappearance is not only believed to be the single largest loss of life in US Naval history outside of combat, but also a pivotal narrative in the lore surrounding the mysterious Bermuda Triangle.
There are many questions about the USS Cyclops disappearance. How could one of the US Navy’s biggest ships simply disappear? Why was there not a single piece of the USS Cyclops’ wreckage recovered? Why was there no distress call? And ultimately, did the USS Cyclops disappear due to quantifiable disaster, human error or was there something more sinister afoot?
The Cyclops mystery is one that has left the world baffled for over a century. Let’s dive into the cold waters of maritime history as we attempt to shed light on one of the twentieth century’s most perplexing naval conundrums.
A Short History of USS Cyclops
Launched in May 1910, the USS Cyclops was a Proteus-class coal-carrying ship known as a collier. The ship was named after the giant one-eyed creatures from Greek, and later Roman, mythology.
In terms of size, the Cyclops was large for ships of the time – 165 metres long and 20 metres wide, she displaced almost 20,000 tonnes. The ship had a normal maximum capacity of 8,100 tonnes and a maximum overload capacity of 11,000 tonnes.
In her years of operation, she coaled ships in the Baltic, the Caribbean and in Mexico. When the United States entered World War I, the USS Cyclops found deployments in France and Nova Scotia, as well as serving the US East Coast.
In January 1918 the ship was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service, the arm of the Navy responsible for the transport of goods and materials during World War I. Its fleet grew rapidly throughout the conflict, and it played a crucial role in ensuring the flow of supplies to American and allied forces overseas.
The Disappearance of the USS Cyclops
The USS Cyclops left Norfolk, Virginia on January 8, 1918, with a cargo of 9,035 tonnes of coal bound for the South American Patrol Squadron based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
After reaching Rio de Janeiro, the ship also stopped at Santos in Brazil, before heading to Salvador (also in Brazil) to load up with almost 10,000 tonnes of manganese ore for the return voyage, vital for the production of steel. The return leg from Salvador to Baltimore began on February 22, 1918 with 306 crew on board.
The USS Cyclops was Never Seen Again
What happened on the return journey? After the ship left Brazil with no further stops scheduled. Yet the Cyclops did in fact make an unscheduled stop in Barbados, believed to be on March 3, but got underway again shortly after.
Sometime between leaving Barbados on March 4 and the ship’s scheduled arrival in Baltimore on March 13, the USS Cyclops vanished. It was never seen or heard from again.
What Happened to the USS Cyclops?
The unexplained disappearance of the USS Cyclops has led to a wide range of theories about the ship, each attempting to offer an answer to this maritime mystery.
One Cyclops theory suggests that the ship encountered a sudden and violent storm which, given the heavy manganese ore cargo the USS Cyclops was carrying, could have caused it to capsize and sink rapidly. Some have also speculated about underwater geological phenomena, such as underwater landslides or even a rogue wave. Further theories have posited that if the ore got wet and turned into a thick liquid slurry, it may have caused the ship to catastrophically list.
The USS Cyclops was a large ship, and some reports suggest that it may have had structural issues. Before leaving Brazil, the ship’s captain, Commander George Worley, had reported a cracked cylinder on the starboard engine. It’s possible that a combination of this existing weakness and the heavy cargo stored fore and aft might have led to a fatal compromise of the ship’s integrity, stressing the hull’s centre point and splitting the ship in two.
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Given the disappearance occurred during World War I, there has been speculation that the ship might have been sunk by a German U-boat. However, this theory isn’t universally accepted and no German records found after the war indicated any engagement with the ship.
Sabotage or Human Error
There were rumours and speculation about internal sabotage. Given the tense geopolitical situation, it’s been suggested that a spy or saboteur might have been on board. Other theories have suggested that the ship’s captain, George W. Worley – described at times as erratic and disorganised – was the victim of a mutiny or that some catastrophic navigational error occurred under his leadership. However, it’s important to note that this remains sheer speculation, and no concrete evidence has ever been found linking Captain Worley as having caused the disappearance of the USS Cyclops. Like many aspects of this story, the true role, if any, of Captain Worley in the event remains one of the many unanswered enigmas.
The Bermuda Triangle
The USS Cyclops disappearance has often been linked to the Bermuda Triangle, a loosely defined region of the North Atlantic Ocean where a number of aircraft and ships are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Although the exact boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle are debated, some argue that the USS Cyclops found its way through or near this region.
The Official Investigation into the Loss of the USS Cyclops
Given the size of the ship, its cargo, and the number of personnel onboard, its complete and sudden disappearance without any distress call or subsequent debris has perplexed naval historians, researchers, and enthusiasts for over a century.
At the time, the official statement from the US Navy stated: ‘The disappearance of this ship has been one of the most baffling mysteries in the annals of the Navy, all attempts to locate her having proved unsuccessful.’
To this day, despite numerous theories and investigations, the fate of the USS Cyclops remains an unanswered mystery and its final resting place, unknown.