USS Cyclops: What Happened

Dec 2018
More than 100 years later, the 'great mystery' of the vanished USS Cyclops remains unsolved

By Greg Norman,

The USS Cyclops in 1913. The mammoth coal-hauling transport ship disappeared in 1918 and its whereabouts, to this day, remain unknown. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)
One hundred years ago Wednesday morning, the USS Cyclops, a massive American World War I transport ship hailed as a “floating coal mine,” should have been docked in the waters off Baltimore, fresh off a journey from Brazil.
But the vessel – reported to be the Navy’s biggest and fastest fuel ship at the time – and the 309 men onboard it never pulled into the Chesapeake Bay on March 13, 1918, and its whereabouts to this day remain unknown.

“In terms of loss of life and size of ship, it’s probably the last great mystery left unresolved,” James Delgado, an underwater explorer, told the Baltimore Sun this week as recent discoveries of historical shipwrecks are renewing hopes amongst the scientific community of finally finding the Cyclops.
The 540-foot long and 65-foot wide ship, outfitted with 50-caliber machine guns to help transport doctors and supplies to American Expeditionary Forces in France during The Great War, was last seen in Barbados on March 4, 1918.

The USS Cyclops, in the background, transferring bags of coal with the USS South Carolina in 1914. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)
Built in Philadelphia eight years earlier, the USS Cyclops was capable of transporting 12,500 tons of coal and could lift two tons of it in single buckets along cables that ran along the ship, leading newspapers to call it a “floating coal mine,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
But on its final journey, the Cyclops was loaded up with 10,000 tons of manganese ore – a denser and heavier cargo – and stopped at the Caribbean island for nine days to resupply before vanishing into the horizon.
Those back in the U.S. began to take notice as day after day passed without any signs of the ship making its way to Maryland.
"COLLIER OVERDUE A MONTH," blared a headline in the New York Times on April 15, 1918, next to a list of the hundreds of passengers on board.
"Numerous ships sailed to locate the collier as she was thought to have been sunk by a German submarine," the Naval History and Heritage Command says on its website. "Her wreck has never been found, and the cause of her loss remains unknown."
"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."
— Maryland Rep. Andy Harris​
Two months after the ship failed to reach Baltimore, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who then was an Assistant Navy Secretary, announced the Cyclops and all of its crew were presumed lost at sea, resulting in what remains the largest loss of life in Navy history unrelated to combat.
Nothing from the ship has been found. No wreckage, oil slicks or debris. Not even a distress call. And speculation has raged throughout history, leading some to claim wild theories involving the Bermuda Triangle, giant sea creatures and mutinies.
"One magazine, Literary Digest, speculated that a giant octopus rose from the sea, entwined the ship with its tentacles and dragged it to the bottom," the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command said. "Another theory was that the ship suddenly turned turtle in a freak storm, trapping all hands inside."
Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels at the time added that "there has been no more baffling mystery in the annals of the Navy than the disappearance last March of the U.S.S. Cyclops.”
“There has not been a trace of the vessel, and long-continued and vigilant search of the entire region proved utterly futile," the Baltimore Sun quoted him as saying.

The nameplate of the USS Lexington, which was struck by multiple Japanese torpedoes and bombs on May 8, 1942, is visible during a recent expedition that uncovered the ship. (Vulcan Photo)
But recent deep sea discoveries of American ships, such as the USS Lexington -- lost at the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942 and found last week -- and the USS Ward, found in the Philippines in December, both by an expedition crew led by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, are giving explorers hope the Cyclops could be next.
“The short list keeps getting shorter these days as technology steps in,” Delgado told the Baltimore Sun. “Things can be found. It’s just a question of time and money.”
Marvin Barrash, who has spent more than a decade researching the Cyclops, believes it could be sitting in the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, the Puerto Rico Trench, which extends more than 27,000 feet below the surface. He is now working with Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., to build the ship’s first monument.
“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,” Harris said in a statement to Fox News, nothing that his office is "actively researching and reaching out to multiple government and private entities to help support the monument."
"With the recent discoveries of past sunken ships, I hope we can draw more attention to the USS Cyclops and bring closure to those families," he added.
Barrash, a great nephew of one of the firemen on the ship, told the Baltimore Sun that he just wants the ship “to be found.
“I want the 309 to be at rest, as well as the families,” he said. “It’s something everybody needs: some resolution.”
Dec 2014
While the exact facts may never be known it's loss wasn't that mysterious, as this piece from the Naval historical foundation puts it:

Absent direct proof it appears most likely that a synergy of events caused the loss of Cyclops. The ship was operating on a single shaft because of the cracked cylinder. This reduced her speed and maneuverability and left Cyclops at risk of greater damage if she were to suffer a further engineering casualty. She was loaded deeply, at or beyond her marks. This cargo was new to the ship and it is not clear that the officers, crew, and stevedores in Brazil knew how to properly load, stow, and trim the ore. There have been reports that she previously suffered hull damage due to a coal fire, hull failures, or separation of pipes, or hull and strength members. She also had problems with extreme rolls. On at least one occasion it was reported that her cargo had shifted. Water entering the hull would affect the ship’s stability and buoyancy, probably resulting in free surface effect that caused progressive flooding, and ultimately causing her to sink. This process may have been unperceivable to the bridge watch, particularly if it occurred during dark or extreme weather; they would have little notice that the ship was about to sink. If Cyclops had not previously lost her remaining engine, she may have continued to steam along driving the bow underwater, alternatively she capsized.

The Unanswered Loss of USS Cyclops – March 1918 | Naval Historical Foundation

It's worth noting that two of the three sister ships to Cyclops also disappeared without a trace in very similar circumstances:

To perpetuate the strange history of Cyclops we should mention that all four Proteus-class ships built were lost to extraordinary circumstances. USS Proteus and USS Nereus were both sold to Canada and disappeared without a trace in the Atlantic Ocean less than a month apart in 1941. The fourth ship of the class, USS Jupiter, was converted to the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, in 1920 and after her conversion to a seaplane tender was lost to enemy action in the Pacific Ocean in 1942.

Hampton Roads Naval Museum: The Cyclops and the Lion

Both ships were lost in the winter of 1941, with a Canadian website suggesting Proteus's possible fate as having foundered in heavy seas on 25 November 1941 somewhere in the Caribbean Sea with the loss of all of her 58 crew members.

It was known that the ships had a problem with extreme rolling in very heavy seas, which combined with weakness's to the hull caused by 'coal fire, hull failures, or separation of pipes, or hull and strength members' in the case of Cyclops or old age in the case of Proteus and Nereus could potentially create a weakness that meant once something went wrong the ships had a tenancy to capsize and sink extremely quickly.

The reality is Bulk Carriers such as the Cyclopes are not the safest ships in the world. As the Naval Historical Foundation says in it's conclusion:

The loss of Cyclops 95 years ago was the first major fatal loss of a steel hulled steam ship carrying bulk cargo. Furthermore, it is the largest loss of life in a single ship casualty involving a bulk carrier, albeit a warship. There were a number of ships carrying bulk cargo which were lost, including two ships in 1940 and two of Cyclops’s sister ships in the early years of World War II. More than 400 bulk carriers were lost from all causes in the 30 years between 1967 and 1996 with more than 10 ships lost each year between 1977 and 1996 except for two years; a total of 375 bulk ships were lost between 1977 and 1996, an average well over one ship per month for two decades.

The loss of the of the Cyclops is mirrored almost 60 years later in the loss of the MV Derbyshire, the largest British ship ever lost at sea.

MV Derbyshire - Wikipedia

A modern Bulk carrier, she disappeared at sea in 1980 in a typhoon without sending a mayday and the only trace a single lifeboat. There is no mystery to her loss, just it goes to show a ship can vanish at sea without a trace with terrifying ease.
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