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Missing Vessels

A Passage to Oblivion: The disappearance of USS Cyclops

“Only God and the Sea know where the great ship has gone” . . .       
                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Woodrow Wilson


  Despite the Navy’s official declaration in June 1918 that all aboard the Cyclops had perished, when the end of the war came they were still interested in finding out if the Germans had, in fact, had anything to do with her disappearance.

   Shortly after the armistice with Germany several commissions were at work in Europe. Part of the work was war reparation and information gathering that would be particularly useful for the up-and-coming Treaty of Versailles.  The US Naval Branch of the Allied Naval Armistice Commission was headed by Admiral Robison. After the Treaty was signed, the Navy decided to tap him for information. In November, they were requesting information from every US embassy in Europe. “Please use every opportunity to determine fate of USS Cyclops which left Barbados March 4th 1918 and has not been heard of since.” But by December 1918 Robison had not yet sent any cable back. On December 10, 1918, Operations sent a short but direct cable: “In view of the many stories in press and inquiries received at Department regarding USS Cyclops now being in Germany, Department desires report at earliest date possible.”

   Operations was quickly informed the next day: “Report this morning from Admiral Robison says he is trying to get all information available on USS Cyclops. None available to date. Information has been requested from all attachés in Europe.”

     However, the Navy’s persistence worked. For this investigation the German High Command opened all its records and went over submarine and surface raider positions and areas where mines had been laid. It was not a difficult task. It is also safe to say it was not a careful one either. It was easy to see in the operation charts and written orders that no subs, surface raiders or mine fields were that far from Germany, and it is unlikely that the research went beyond that. 

   By Christmas 1918 the word came in. A short summary was sent to Robison and then to Naval Operations.

   “From full report. Admiral Goette to Allied Naval Armistice Commission, regarding loss of USS CYCLOPS— it is definite that neither German U-boats, nor German mines, came into the question. The only information regarding the loss of the USS CYCLOPS is that emanating from American sources, which state the ship left the Barbadoes in March 1918, and has not been heard of since.”


     Admiral Goette had no reason to lie. He also had no reason to delve too deeply into the matter either. It is unlikely in the amount of time that the defeated German Navy devoted to the subject that they looked into every U-boat log in their possession or into the reports of ships sunk and their locations. The verdict was most likely based on the fact that records showed no such German subs and mines were along the route the US Navy gave them for the Cyclops.

   This, of course, presupposes that the Cyclops stayed to her route, something that would have proved a novelty on Worley’s part. His bad navigating supposedly took them 800 miles off course in the South Atlantic, which would indeed be far out. After Barbados it is possible that Forbes was once gain locked up and that Worley’s navigating wandered like a chicken over the barnyard. 

   According to the British at Barbados the Cyclops was seen two more times by one of their gunboats. Each time it was found to be off its course and was guided back. The Navy believed this information, but it seems hard to credit now as it would imply that the British automatically knew Cyclops’ course. But it is possible. The gunboat could have signaled her to state it, and in receiving the reply double-checked its own heading to determine how far out Worley was. 

   Goette’s reply also could obviously not take into account the possibility that the Cyclops was making off to Germany on her own. Is it possible that because of this treacherous act or even because of Worley’s bad navigating the great ship was torpedoed by German submarines far out into the Atlantic? Thus though the Germans were officially not involved, a German submarine captain may have sunk the Cyclops far from her proscribed course and there was no way for the Germans to have ever known what ship it was.

   The German information, however, only served to deepen the mystery surrounding the great collier. When it was publicly announced in US newspapers that there was no enemy action involved in the Cyclops’ disappearance even Congressmen started writing to the Navy. Each was merely given a paraphrase of the report above. There was nothing else for the Navy to do but move on.

   The nation didn’t know where to direct any outrage. But it was clear to the families of 309 men that their loved ones were now completely gone. The most probable excuse, the most probable and the climax for which so many thousands had waited, was just eliminated.  The Cyclops was not betrayed to Germany. None of her boys had been in German POW camps. None of her boys were coming home. Her disappearance was now genuinely a mystery.

   The US Navy Historical department would start to draft up various versions of the Navy’s official opinion on the subject to be given out to all who continued to inquire (even to this day). After going through a few versions, it finally became etched in stone. The following is still handed out to any curious person asking about the loss of what is now called “The Greatest Mystery in the Annals of the Navy.”  


Since her departure [Barbadoes] there
has been no trace of the vessel. 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 been proved
unsuccessful. Many theories have been
advanced, but none that satisfactorily
accounts for her disappearance. There
were no enemy submarines in the western
Atlantic at that time, and in December
1918 every effort was made to obtain
information from German sources regarding
the disappearance of the vessel.
Information was requested from all
attachés in Europe with the result that
it is definite that neither German
U-boats nor German mines came into the

Length: 520 feet. Beam: 65 feet. Depth of hold: 36.9 feet.
12, 900 gross tons.
Naval officers of the vessel                                     15
Naval enlisted men of the crew                             221
Naval officers carried as passengers                         6
Naval enlisted men carried as passengers               64
U .S. Marines carried as passengers                          2
U.S. Consul at Rio carried as passenger                    1

Total                                                                        309


   With the war’s end there came the end of something else: the end of the most controversial and exciting theories to explain the Cyclops’ disappearance. Pro-Germaness and treason were irrelevant now, a closed book slammed shut by the process of elimination. The lack of finding the Cyclops in a German port, or any of her men, and the lack of finding records indicating prescient of a plot by German spies were proof of that. Furthermore, the lack of records indicating that subs or mines were operating in the area meant the Germans actually had nothing to do with the Cyclops mystery at all. Altogether this meant one thing and one thing only: the Cyclops must have merely foundered in a gale or storm or suffered the much suspected shift of her weighty cargo.

   The good Navy Department would accept no such thing dogmatically, and with an air of refreshing honesty in their official opinion adamantly maintained that the Cyclops was a real mystery. There the Cyclops case could rest easily, as easily as her papers could sit in an old dark filing cabinet until I dug them out 73 years later. The most provocative theories that should inspire continuing interest and investigation were all done away with by Robison’s probe, leaving an interesting collection of post war ephemera, news articles and “exposé” tell-all articles by those who claimed they knew the whole truth.

   Mixed in with this lightweight material there were still a few weightier matters that remain puzzling. And these led me to unravel the story of the U.S.S. Cyclops’ last voyage.