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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

The Cyclops Mystery


     Most of what has been reported about the Cyclops’ disappearance in this section of my website had remained completely behind-the-scenes for 80 or more years. The documents idled in old musty records for sometime and then eventually were released to occupy boxes 1068-1070 of the Modern Military Branch of the National Archives when they were finally retrieved for me at a considerable cost. This was in 1992. It was only after I read and digested some 2,000 pages of these documents that I truly began to appreciate the short article written by Conrad A. Nervig in 1969 for the journal of the US Navy, The Naval Institute Proceedings.

     Nervig’s article The Cyclops Mystery is well-known. It was often cited by those who mentioned the Cyclops in one form or another in The Bermuda Triangle anthology. As far as everybody was then-concerned, it gave us the only firsthand account of what things were like aboard the ship shortly before she vanished with all hands. Not only this, Nervig reported some very unusual behavior on the part of Captain Worley and some even more disturbing conditions aboard the ship. It was fodder for a great novel of the sea, but there always lingered some doubt as to how true all of it was. No one questioned Nervig’s honesty, but 1969 was 51 years after-the-fact. Memory contamination happens to us all. After 51 years, with only terse notes in his log to guide him, Conrad Nervig tried to remember the details.

     After I was able to digest all the Navy papers on the Cyclops investigation, it became obvious that Nervig had a pretty good memory when it came to Captain Worley. Many of the ship’s former sailors and officers were quite frank in testimony to the Navy investigation about what George Worley was really like, and Nervig certainly knew nothing of this formerly confidential testimony. Yet he reports behavior and attitudes on Worley’s part that are nevertheless very much in line with what the others said. This really brings his article to life in many ways. His observations become only one link in what documentation now proves to have been a long chain of unusual, brutal, abusive, humorous, and possibly treacherous behavior on the part of Captain Worley.

     Based on memory and terse notes in his log, Nervig recounted his journey south on the last voyage of the ship. It is very general, of course. He recalls the gloom of the wardroom and Worley’s unreasonable temper, Cain’s committal to the dispensary, Forbes’ various arrests, and, most of all, Worley’s habit of coming to visit him at night dressed in longjohns and wearing a derby hat.

     He wrote of his impression of Captain Worley. “Sometimes I think Captain Worley was born fifty years or even a century too late. He is a perfect example of the tyrannical bucko sailing-ship captains who considered their crews not as human beings but only as a means of getting their vessels to the next port. He is a gruff, eccentric salt, given to carrying a cane but possessing few other qualities.”

     Of Ensign J.J. Cain’s committal to the Dispensary by Dr. Asper, although Cain was perfectly well, Nervig penned: “From all accounts, this seemed to be routine matter on ships commanded by Worley. It was the general opinion in the wardroom that this was done to save Mr. Cain from being a victim of the Commanding Officer’s unreasoning temper. I do not recall that the doctor made any comment nor that he was in any way questioned regarding the matter; his acts and motives were taken for granted.”

     When Cain was committed it left his duty, the “Dog Watch,” needing a replacement. Nervig was now assigned to this position. It is in this position that he got better acquainted with his salty captain.

   “He seemed a nice man,” Nervig penned, but “it was only later that I discovered his peculiarities. He visited me on the bridge during my dog watch carrying a cane, dressed in long underwear, and wearing a derby hat. He would lean on the bridge rail looking at the sea. He has a fund of tales, mostly humorous, but he was quite erratic at times. Without the slightest pause between words, his mood would change to that a very opinionated man— a self proclaimed genius who thought he had never arrived but should have. It was while in these moods that he’d take out his rage on some unknowing officer. Although he treats me very well— why?— I don’t know. It is a part of his makeup.”

     During this voyage, Worley also almost piled up the Cyclops onto the rocks outside Rio because he overruled the sound course that Forbes had given. Had it not finally been carefully pointed out to him later, only hours more on that course would have had them aground on the coast of South America.

     Despite the credibility of his story, Nervig’s memory unquestionably has some glitches. For example, he recalls having been assigned to the Cyclops. He was, in fact, only a passenger on the voyage south. He was en route to the fleet at Rio in order to take up his duties on the USS Glacier. He was to replace an officer shipping home by the name of Albert George Winkle. He also claims that Worley liked him so much that he tried to prevent his transfer at Rio. There may be truth in this, but it has become convoluted. Since Nervig was always assigned to the Glacier he was not being transferred. He was, in essence, being delivered. Worley may have tried to get it arranged so that Nervig would be assigned to the ship permanently. But this is not how Nervig remembers it. Moreover, there is no documentation or anything indicating Worley attempted to stop the transfer. And Office of Naval Intelligence talked to everybody. Nervig also said that a man was knocked overboard in Rio and drowned. There is no documentation for this either, although plenty exists mentioning the compounded engine. I would find it hard to believe that not a whisper exists in the official investigation about a man being killed accidentally if it had happened. Nervig even blamed it on Worley’s haphazard way of running the ship.

     Because Nervig never even hints at liquor being the cause of the Captain’s unusual episodes, one is tempted to look elsewhere to explain such questionable behavior. Lunacy would seem the only answer. But considering that drunkenness is the most incontrovertible aspect of Worley’s career at sea we would be better to suspect some of Nervig’s memory here too. Worley was, to Nervig, merely a ruthless, brutal, “bucko” sea captain from days long gone. As true as this character synopsis is, alcohol unquestionably played a roll in some of the captain’s unusual behavior and outbursts. Lunacy fairs less in theorizing than the DTs or drunken binges.

     Coming as his story did at the threshold of The Bermuda Triangle fever, Nervig’s The Cyclops Mystery got wide circulation both by those promoting the phenomenon of the Triangle and by those debunking it. Those who debunked the mystery of the Cyclops could latch onto Nervig’s own personal theory. He believed the vessel had broken in two and sank quickly. He based this on his remembrance that he saw the deck undulating, that is, conforming to the swells and the synchronicity of the waves. These were signs of “bad contractions,” meaning the ship’s back could break easily at any time. Although he brought it to Worley’s attention, he recalled only his captain’s superior dismissal of “Son, she’ll last as long as we do.” In the end, Nervig declared in his article, this was true.

     The problems with Nervig’s theory are, however, manifold. His recollection is 51 years after-the-fact, for one. The Navy investigated everything, and amidst all the paperwork they amassed there is no report by any former officer or crewman that the Cyclops’ deck was ever observed to undulate with the sea swells. The former exec, Commander Burkhart, even noted how Cyclops was the best built of all the colliers. He even noted that the builder, Cramps, lost money on building the ship because so much attention was paid to the vessel. The Cyclops was also only 8 years old when she vanished. Two sister ships were still in service early on in WWII. Another sister ship had been converted into the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley

     In examining Nervig’s ship assignments before being transferred for passage on the Cyclops, I discovered the probable explanation for his comments. He had been stationed on much older colliers, like the Orion. It is possible therefore that what he recollects of “bad contractions” 51 years after-the-fact applies to other, older ships on which he served. As I said, no Navy man ever claimed the Cyclops was near to breaking in two. Breaking in twain, like Mahlon Tisdale’s theory of “turning turtle,” is highly unlikely.

     Out of all the letters Navy men sent into ONI, there are also no stories of Worley walking around at night in longjohns and wearing a derby hat. Worley was well-known to carry a walking cane while on land, and it can even be found propped next to the rail on the Cyclops in a picture of the seadog. But did he walk around the Cyclops’ bridge at night dressed in such a manner? It is very possible, and this in itself would argue that Worley’s problems, either mental or with alcohol, were getting worse on this final voyage. Concerning his earlier tour of duty on the Cyclops, Yeoman Roberts declared that Worley would shoo everybody off the bridge, taken an ignorant Greek and pilot the ship himself for hours during his watch. Walking around in longjohns, poking a walking cane and topped with a derby hat seems far more innocuous to the ship’s safety than this, but it is just as odd. Worley had probably done both.

   For all his close quarter chats with Worley, it is still amazing Nervig never mentions alcohol, though almost everybody else knew Worley drank a lot. Maybe he was trying to spare something impugning the Navy’s record. If so, I can’t see how it does not impugn the Navy’s reputation by characterizing Worley as crazy, irrational and brutal, for I would find it a step beyond eccentric to walk around the ship at night in longjohns, a cane and wearing a derby hat. 

     However, Nervig must have been near 85 years old by this time. To his credit, he stressed that the details were in his letters to his wife, but alas all were lost when the Cyclops disappeared, for she was carrying the Fleet mail back north. All he had to go on were short notes in his sea log. It is possible therefore that 51 years later Nervig’s memory confused the actual ship he had felt was unsafe.

     Many also do not seem to know that Conrad Nervig went on to become one of  Hollywood’s most respected film editors. He is the recipient of the first Oscar for editing, and received another for King Solomons’ Mines in 1951. It is possible that some of the grandeur of that world could have tainted his memory somewhat. But on the whole the         documentation shows that his memory served him pretty well for his encounters with the “bucko” sea captain, George W. Worley.


Conrad Nervig receiving his Oscars.