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The USS Cyclops under construction, 1910. (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)

Unsolved Mystery: USS Cyclops Vanished 100 Years Ago

The USS Cyclops had terrific weather when it left Rio de Janeiro.

The massive supply ship was carrying about 300 souls, including seven Iowans, and 12,000 tons of manganese ore on Feb. 16, 1918. It was headed for Baltimore, where its cargo would be unloaded and used to make munitions for World War I.

It stopped to pick up supplies in Salvador, up the Brazilian coast, on Feb. 20 and then to reassess its cargo in Barbados on March 3. After getting clearance to continue, the ship set course for the United States on March 4.

It was never seen again.

Built in Philadelphia and launched in 1910, the Cyclops was a collier ship, a “floating coal mine” that could refuel the Navy fleet. At 540 feet long and 65 feet wide, it was the Navy’s biggest, fastest supply ship, with a top speed of 15 knots. It was due in the port of Baltimore on March 13.

It’s hard to believe a ship almost two football fields long could simply vanish without a trace. But it did.

There were no distress calls before the Navy lost radio contact with it the day it disappeared. French and American vessels searched trade routes, beaches and remote bays between the two ports, but found no trace of the ship or its passengers. There was no wreckage or life boats. Not even a sailor’s cap or a life jacket could be found.

The Navy kept quiet about the catastrophe until mid-April when it issued a press release.

The Des Moines Register’s story about the missing USS Cyclops on April 15, 1918.

“The fact that the collier had been missing nearly a month became known here April 11,” the Des Moines Register reported on April 15, 1918. “The naval censor requested the Associated Press not to publish the fact on the ground that the ship had not been given up for lost, and that to publish the fact that she was overdue might expose her to enemy attack while she might be disabled on the high seas.”

As the search continued, additional information trickled out to the public.

Commander George Worley had reported the starboard engine suffered a cracked cylinder and could not be used during the voyage. The cargo may have exceeded the ship’s maximum capacity, and the crew was inexperienced with loading, stowing and securing manganese ore.

Later, rumors about the ship’s fate spread throughout the media: sabotage by its German-born commander, capture at sea, a German submarine attack and a sudden storm were all cited for its disappearance.

The USS Cyclops anchored in the Hudson River probably during the 1911 naval review in New York City. (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress.)

Others suggested design flaws or corrosion caused the ship to crack in half as it navigated large ocean swells.

None of the theories or rumors were ever proven, but many modern-day investigators believe the heavily laden ship, which had a documented problem with extreme side-to-side tipping, quickly sank in rough seas and fell to the deepest recesses of the North Atlantic.

In June 1918, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the Cyclops to be officially lost and all hands deceased. The incident remains the single largest non-combat loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Here are the seven Iowans who were lost at sea when the Cyclops vanished:

William Otis Beese
Seaman, Second Class
Lisbon, Iowa
Born: Feb 19, 1894
Enlisted: Des Moines, Iowa, July 10, 1917
John William Brawford
Yeoman, Second Class
Estherville, Iowa
Born: March 12, 1896
Enlisted: Des Moines, Iowa, May 5, 1917
Fred Davison
Fireman, Second Class
Coin, Iowa
Born: Dec. 16, 1886
Enlisted: Kansas City, Missouri, July 2, 1917
Frank Carl Nigg
Lieutenant Junior Grade
Maquoketa, Iowa
Born: Nov. 1882
Appointed from Iowa
Fred Henry Rooney
Electrician, First Class
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Born: Feb. 1889
Enlisted: San Diego, California, March 7, 1915
Thomas Watkins
Fireman, Second Class
Melcher, Iowa
Born: Feb. 11, 1888
Enlisted: St. Louis, Missouri, May 29, 1917
Worth Wymore
Carpenter’s Mate
Montezuma, Iowa
Born: Jan. 13, 1894
Enlisted: Des Moines, Iowa, May 31, 1917

While the fate of USS Cyclops remains unknown, underwater researchers have recently discovered the wreckage of the USS Conestoga, USS Indianapolis, USS Lexington and USS Juneau, which carried the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo.

Perhaps one day the wreckage of the Cyclops will be discovered, too, and bring closure to one of World War I’s most enduring and tragic mysteries.

Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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State Historical Society of Iowa. Preserving and providing access to Iowa History.

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