Post by Graveyardbride on Mar 14, 2018 23:53:36 GMT -5
The Strange Disappearance of USS Cyclops
There should have been a clue: a radio distress call, a shard of wooden lifeboat, even a sailor’s cap. How could 306 men and a ship, a naval vessel larger than a football field, simply vanish? A hundred years ago, on Wednesday, March 13, USS Cyclops – which some say is the coolest name ever for a Navy ship – was due to steam up Chesapeake Bay and dock in Baltimore at what is now Port Covington. The vessel never arrived. Its eerie absence is an enduring mystery, fueling fantastical theories of the Bermuda Triangle, giant squids and German spies. Truth is, no one knows what became of Cyclops or those on board: sailors such as Thomas Lee of West Baltimore, Adam Siewierski of Canton and Dr. Burt Asper, who practiced medicine at Sheppard Pratt.
There was no ceremony for the missing men on the 100th anniversary of their disappearance and memories of the Proteus-class collier (a vessel that carries coal) have all but faded from the memories of the living. The only known monument to the ship is a plaque hanging in France. And yet, in this era of high-tech discovery – when explorers have found a sunken World War II cruiser in the Philippine Sea and an aircraft carrier lost in the Coral Sea, when forensic anthropologists conclude that bones discovered on a Pacific island likely belonged to the missing aviatrix Amelia Earhart – hope returns that even Cyclops may be found eventually. “In terms of loss of life and size of ship, it’s probably the last great mystery left unresolved,” observed James Delgado, the renowned underwater explorer.
Built in Philadelphia, steel-hulled and immense, Cyclops splashed in as the Navy’s biggest, fastest fuel ship. Approximately 540-feet-long and 65-feet-wide, it could haul 12,500 tons of coal and steam 15 knots. Its winches could send 800-pound bags of anthracite along cables. Huge clamshell buckets could lift two tons of coal at a time. “A monster collier,” newspapers called it. “A floating coal mine.”
Launched May 7, 1910, Cyclops was designed to refuel the Navy fleet – work both grueling and dangerous. The coal in the cargo hold was prone to catch fire, cables snapped, bucketfuls of coal tumbled to the deck. The mighty ship, home-ported in Norfolk, steamed up and down the Atlantic Coast to and from U.S. bases in Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
By 1918, her commanding officer was Lieutenant Commander George W. Worley, born in Germany and a skipper many crew members compared to the infamous Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty. Following the disappearance of Cyclops, investigators learned from Worley’s peers and subordinates that not only was he an unreasonable hardass, he was also close to certifiable, much like Philip Francis Queeg of The Caine Mutiny, a novel by Herman Wouk later turned into a movie of the same name. For example, former crew members later revealed that Worley would berate and curse both lower-ranking officers and men for minor offenses, sometimes becoming violent. On one occasion, it was said, he chased an ensign about the ship with a gun. He was also known to make his rounds wearing long underwear and a derby hat and carrying a cane. This has led some to speculate the crew may have mutinied and, realizing they would be court-martialed if they returned to the United States, instead ended up on some Caribbean island or possibly in Latin America. But with 306 men aboard, surely one of them would have, at some point, contacted a relative or friend in the U.S.
But there were more serious allegations. Worley, it was learned, was pro-German at a time the U.S. was engaged in a war against Germany. Indeed, his closest friends and associates were either German or Americans of German descent. When investigators contacted the U.S. consul in Barbados, the might ship’s last port of call, Consul Brockholst Livingston replied in a letter that Worley was “referred to by others as a damned Dutchman (as in ‘Deutch, i.e. German).” Livingston continued, indicating “many Germanic names appear” and hinting Cyclops, instead of sinking, may have been handed over to the Germans. One of the passengers on the final voyage was Alfred Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the consul-general in Rio de Janeiro, who was as roundly hated for his pro-German sympathies as was Worley. Speculation within the Navy and U.S. State Department was that Worley and Gottschalk had collaborated to surrender the ship. Following World War I, German records were thoroughly examined for any information relating to Cyclops, but nothing was found.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Cyclops, outfitted with 50-caliber guns, delivered doctors and medical supplies from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Saint-Nazaire, France. Months later, the vessel arrived in Brazil on January 9 to load 10,000 tons of manganese ore for steelmaking. Denser and heavier than coal, the crew wasn’t familiar with the cargo, but the heavily-laden ship made it to Barbados, re-supplied for nine days at sea, and on March 4, 1918, steamed off for the steelyards of Baltimore. Cyclops was never seen again.
There was an alleged sighting of the vessel by crew members of Amolco, a molasses tanker, off the coast of Virginia on March 9. However, Amolco’s master denied any such sighting and because it would have been almost impossible for the collier to have been that far ahead of schedule, it was determined those who thought they had seen the ship were mistaken.
The search for Cyclops was exhaustive: Navy cruisers plied the trade routes, scouted beaches and inspected remote bays. Crews radioed the lost ship day after day, but there only silence: no reply, no debris, not even an oil slick. The mighty ship had simply vanished.
In June 1918, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt announced Cyclops and 306 men – 15 officers, 221 crew members and in excess of 50 passengers – were presumed lost at sea. It was the greatest loss of life unrelated to combat in U.S. Naval history. “There has been no more baffling mystery in the annals of the Navy than the disappearance last March of the USS Cyclops,” Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels wrote. “There has not been a trace of the vessel and long-continued and vigilant search of the entire region proved utterly futile.”
Speculation swirled. Could the heavy ore have ruptured the hull, sinking the ship instantly? Did the unfamiliar cargo leak fumes that poisoned the crew? U-boat torpedoes could have sunk the vessel. But where was the debris? Rough seas could have swamped it, but there was no storm and no distress call. German raiders could have captured the ship, taken the crew hostage and steamed home with their prize, but Cyclops lacked sufficient fuel for a transatlantic voyage.
Other theories emerged of sea monsters, meteorites and the aforementioned mutiny. The loss of Cyclops – along with the later disappearance of five Navy torpedo bombers known as “Flight 19” – gave rise to the ship- and plane-swallowing lore of the Bermuda Triangle, which some claim has been soundly debunked. But others aren’t so sure.
Still, there were no answers for the families of the Baltimore sailors – seamen such as Charles Holmes, who left behind a wife and infant son on Presbury Street; Edward Dresbach, who wrote cheerful letters to his mother on Harlem Avenue; and Beverly Jones and Herbert Price, two city boys just 17-years-old. Today, only scattered reminders speak of them. At Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery, one gravestone reads: “T. Vernon Lee, lost on the USS Cyclops.” In Baltimore’s War Memorial, their names are inscribed in marble alongside those of other Maryland citizens killed during World War I. And in Halethorpe, an American Legion post bears the name and photo of one sailor, Dewey Lowman. Little is known about the 19-year-old from Arbutus, a fireman aboard Cyclops. “People have asked me over the years; I can’t really tell them much,” said Edgar Lowman of Halethorpe, his 86-year-old nephew. Fifteen Marylanders disappeared with the ship, most of them young men without wives or children.
According to Marvin Barrash of Kent Island, the great-nephew of another ship fireman, the loss of the ship and her crew became a discomfiting episode for the Navy, “The whole existence of the ship has been swept under a rug,” he asserted. “It wasn’t like it was lost in a glorious battle. It just kind of fell off the face of the Earth.” Barrash spent more than a decade researching Cyclops, amassing Navy records, ship logs, dispatches, photos, even a sooty bag of manganese ore. In 2010, he published a 700-page history of the ship. Now, he’s working with the office of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris to erect the first monument to the lost vessel. “As a Navy veteran, I feel I have a duty to honor the crew members on the USS Cyclops who never returned home to Baltimore, and the families they left behind,” the Baltimore County Republican said in a statement.
Barrash believes a cascade of failures doomed Cyclops. One of two engines broke. The ship was unbalanced by the heavy ore. At night, with the deck battened down and crew asleep, a big wave rolled the Cyclops. The huge collier, he figures, eludes explorers because it sank into the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic. The trench cleaves the ocean floor across nearly 1,000 miles. “I just want her to be found,” he added. “I want the 306 to be at rest, as well as the families. It’s something everybody needs: some resolution.”
For decades, underwater explorers have searched for the wreck, but a succession of recent, splashy discoveries brings renewed hope to the search. Today’s crews employ devices that can detect the magnetic field of a washing machine buried in sea mud. Their sonar can sweep the depths like a flashlight. Year after year, the number of lost ships dwindles. “The short list keeps getting shorter these days as technology steps in,” explained Delgado, the explorer. “Things can be found. It’s just a question of time and money.” Delgado and researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced two years ago they had found the Baltimore-built tug USS Conestoga, missing since 1921, outside San Francisco Bay. Last year, a research crew led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen found USS Indianapolis, a Navy cruiser torpedoed in the Pacific late in World War II. Last week, Allen’s crew located another vessel beneath the Coral Sea: the World War II aircraft carrier USS Lexington.
These deep-pocketed, well-equipped search crews haven’t yet taken on the hunt for Cyclops – at least, not publicly. But solo explorers sometimes contact Barrash, believing they have found the ship. A Navy diver thought he located it off Virginia’s coast in the late 1960s. Bad weather forced him up and crews never found the wreck again. Excitement grew over a wreck upside down off Florida’s coast, but it turned out to be a German fuel ship from World War II. A treasure hunter in the Dominican Republic sent Barrash photos last year of a newly discovered shipwreck. Cyclops was found, the diver declared. But Barrash noticed the doorknobs bore markings from Glasgow and the dishes featured European crowns.
Back in 1918 when Cyclops disappeared, President Woodrow Wilson declared, “Only God and the sea know what happened to the great ship.” A hundred years later, his words hold true. The remains of the behemoth collier are “out there,” but no one knows where.
Sources: Tim Prudente, The Baltimore Sun, March 13, 2018; Brent Swancer, “Mysterious Vanishings on the High Seas,” MysteriousUniverse, March 21, 2017; EagleSpeak, November 11, 2006; Paul Clancy, Back in the Day, January 31, 2011; and Find-a-Grave.