Friday, 28 March 2014

Anecdote Saturday - USS Cyclops

The USS Cyclops was a Proteus-class collier, built by William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia and launched in May 1910. She was almost the length of the Waratah, 542 ft, and displaced 19 360 long tons. Cyclops was crewed by 236 officers and during the great war carried 4 x 4 in guns. Powered by twin steam engines she could make 15 knots.

The Cyclops disappeared without a trace some time after 4 March, 1918, in what is known as the Bermuda triangle. 306 crew and passengers lost their lives. There was speculation at the time that she had been captured or sunk by a German vessel. The German authorities however denied this and after the war no records were found to substantiate this. At the time Cyclops was transporting 10 800 long tons of Manganese ore. An Inquiry came to the conclusion that she "probably sank in an unexpected storm".

Initially the Cyclops, with Lieutenant Commander George Worley in charge, operated with the Naval Auxiliary Service in the Baltic as a supply ship. Later she serviced the east coast route, Newport to the Caribbean. During the troubles in Mexico, 1914 -1915, the Cyclops coaled ships on patrol off the coast and received a commendation for helping with the evacuation of refugees. During the Great War although she served in convoys, the Cyclops mainly operated along the east coast.

February 1918, the Cyclops departed Rio de Janeiro Baltimore, overloaded with manganese ore, and one of the steam engines disabled with a cracked cylinder. She made one stop in Barbados, and the water level was observed to be below the  Plimsoll line, confirming she was overloaded. The Cyclops was not officially sighted again after 4 March, disappearing without a trace. It was theorized that she succumbed to catastrophic structural failure in a storm within the Bermuda triangle. An incident occurred involving a similar freighter the Chuky, where waves were a distance apart supporting the bow and stern, but leaving the middle unsupported, resulting in the vessel snapping in two. The Waratah, fully loaded (10 000 tons) could have suffered a similar fate off Port St. Johns, breaking in two and foundering instantly. Further investigation into manganese ore cargo revealed that when it became wet (only covered by canvas), it turned into slurry, which shifted causing the vessel to list.

Her master, Captain Worley, was actually Frederick Wichmann from Sandstedt, Hanover, Germany. He had jumped ship in San Francisco, 1878, where he assumed the name Worley, taken from a seaman friend. He joined his brothers who had emigrated earlier. During this time he qualified as a ship's master. He captained vessels in the merchant trade between San Francisco and the Far East. Some accounts refer to opium forming part of the cargo. He was generally disliked as a master and equated with Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty, brutalising crew for minor offences. It is alleged that during the loading of the manganese ore at Rio, he designated an inexperienced officer to oversee the loading, while the more experienced officer was confined to quarters.

Worley was pro German during the war and surrounded himself with a crew of German sympathisers.
Many believed he colluded with the Germans and handed the Cyclops over to them. However, German records have never substantiated this theory. Worley was eccentric and often strode about the Cyclops dressed in a derby hat, long underwear and brandishing a pistol. The following telegram from the Consul Brockholst Livingston (his son transcribed for him) says it all:

'Washington, D.C.'
17,, 2 April p.m.

'Department's 15th. Confidential. Master CYCLOPS stated that required six hundred tons coal having sufficient on board to reach Bermuda. Engines very poor condition. Not sufficient funds and therefore requested payment by me. Unusually reticent. I have ascertained he took here ton fresh meat, ton flour, thousand pounds vegetables, paying therefore 775 dollars. From different sources gather the following: he had plenty of coal, alleged inferior, took coal to mix, probably had more than fifteen hundred tons. Master alluded to by others as damned Dutchman, apparently disliked by other officers. Rumored disturbances en route hither, men confined and one executed; also had some prisoners from the fleet in Brazilian waters, one life sentence. United States Consul-General Gottschalk passenger, 231 crew exclusive of officers and passengers. Have names of crew but not of all the officers and passengers. Many Germanic names appear. Number telegraphic or wireless messages addressed to master or in care of ship were delivered at this port. All telegrams for Barbadoes on file head office St. Thomas. I have to suggest scrutiny there. While not having any definite grounds I fear fate worse than sinking though possibly based on instinctive dislike felt towards master.'

Clearly the Cyclops was doomed to disaster; overloaded, operating with only one of the twin steam engines, and commanded by an eccentric ex German with a focus on unreasonable discipline rather than seeing to the seaworthiness of his vessel, and it's safe and efficient operation.


My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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