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A Passage to Oblivion: The disappearance of USS Cyclops
“Only God and the Sea know where the great ship has gone” . . . Woodrow Wilson
On the 20th of February the Cyclops entered Bahia. In Worley’s usual style of navigating, she entered from the north, not the south, as he must have overshot the harbor again. While she sat at anchor, Conrad Nervig gazed upon the little launch approaching from her across the bay. (The Glacier hat set sail for Bahia 2 days before the Cyclops.) In the launch was paymaster Ensign C.J. Page, his best friend aboard the Cyclops, who was coming on official business. When Page finished, Nervig, being officer of the deck, escorted him to the gangway. “On leaving he grasped my hand in both of his, and said very solemnly, ‘Well, good-bye, old man, and God bless you.’ I was deeply impressed with his finality, which was truly prophetic in its implication.” Two days later Cyclops departed for Baltimore, Maryland, with no scheduled stops in between. However, on March 3, 1918, Worley sent a surprising message: “Arrived Barbados, West Indies, 1730 [5.30 P.M.] for bunker coal. Arrive Baltimore, Md, 12013 [March 13,]. Notify Office Director Naval Auxiliaries, Comdr. Train (Atl), 07004. CYCLOPS.” According to procedure in such matters Worley went straight to the U.S. Consul there, in this case Brockholst Livingston, to state his business and secure whatever aid he could from the chief US representative. This gives us the last known facts about the Cyclops. One, the meeting did not go well, but Livingston authorized Worley to receive all the supplies he said he needed. Two, the atmosphere around the Cyclops was truly unsettling; the crew grumbled about their skipper while the port busily went about meeting his demands. Three, the mood was so bad British officers would not even pay the ship the customary visits. The next day, March 4, 1918, the Cyclops raised anchor and left as unceremoniously as she came. Supposedly, her last message after clearing port was “Weather Fair. All Well.” Nothing was ever heard from her again. When she failed to make Baltimore on the 13th, a search was begun of her entire track from Barbados. Every Naval ship in the vicinity from Cuba to Puerto Rico searched for massive debris, presupposing a German sub torpedoed her. But the Navy pondered over why no SOS had been received in such an instance. Since it was war time, however, they had made no announcement that the Cyclops was late, but had held back information until sure something had truly gone wrong. On April 15, one month after she failed to make port, the papers were finally given the story she was overdue. On this same date a secret circular was telegrammed to respective consulates along her voyage, requesting every bit of information known. The most surprising response came from Livingston on Barbados. He expresses himself frankly in the following secret missive. (left)
Page 1 & 2 of Livingston’s letter.
One of the more humorous proposals about the fate of the Cyclops.
Gottschalk at the dock in Rio.
How many theories can be drawn from this? Mutiny? Treason? Betrayal? Sabotage? Espionage? What about the illegal execution? Who could it have been and why? Worley certainly hated Asper and, apparently, Cain. Disturbances? Over what-- a planned execution? A banana court at sea is hardly Navy regulations. Could Asper have caused the disturbances over Worley’s leadership? Knowing Worley’s Bligh-type of personality, could it have been mutiny? On the other hand, could it have been the crew attempting to stop Worley from betraying the ship to the Germans? Was the executed person the leader of the “disturbances” whatever may have been the motivation? The Navy had to follow up ever possibility with an investigation. Their task was to be Herculean, spanning a decade, several continents, and thousands of people; and to this day there is evidence to suggest almost every theory above. Yet none could ever be proven, for no trace of the Cyclops has ever been found: not one survivor; not one shred. Their results, now amassed at the National Archives in Washington, contain about 1,500 pages of interviews, investigations and testimony. It shows the vigor with which the Navy pursued an answer. It is on this material the following is based.
The first and foremost theory to confirm or dismiss was betrayal. Livingston’s cable had let the cat out of the bag. He noted that the crew were openly griping about their pro-German captain. (The epithet “damned Dutchman,” it should be remembered, did not mean a Hollander the way we use Dutch today, but was American slang for Deutsch--i.e. German.) Betrayal was clearly on the Consul’s mind when he noted that many Germanic names were aboard. But why would Worley be pro-German? This seemed ludicrous. However, it was no more strange than the curious evidence the Navy had from Livingston. The fact was Worley requested all this extra stuff, perhaps suggesting a longer sea voyage than scheduled, like to Germany. Not only did he not need the stuff, as Livingston discovered, but there is the fact that messages were waiting there, even though it had been an unscheduled stop. It is this which smacks of premeditated conspiracy . . .But why? Why would he do this? Why was a man like Worley called a “damned dutchman”? Almost everywhere ONI (Office Naval Intelligence) operatives went, they found out Worley had indeed been very pro-German. Investigation found out why: Worley had not been born an American; he was born in Germany, at Sandstadt in Hannover province in 1862 under the name Johan Frederick Wichmann. “Oh, you mean Fred Wichmann,” was a common response to ONI operatives in San Francisco. Worley’s past had been a secret only to the Navy. In 1878, so the data goes, he had jumped ship at Frisco. In 1898 he adopted the name of Worley, stating it was from a seaman who had befriended him in his early years. Why he changed it, isn’t stated. His brothers Herman and Henry had also immigrated. They ran a bar and grocery on the Barbary Coast, sporting the Wichmann name openly, as did Worley before his name change. He ran his own liquor store in 1891 at the corners of California and Polk until he ran it into the ground. Then he tried his hand at a grocery as well, at Oak and Broderick, while being heavily involved in “Captain Wichmann’s Roadhouse,” a saloon near San Francisco’s Cliff House at Ocean Beach. Worley was quite a character, to be sure. Sea life, it seems, was more enticing to him. Certainly more profitable than his land ventures. . . especially for illegal cargoes. There could be any number of reasons why he changed his name, for it was at this time in his life that he became involved in some shady affairs. He became Mate on a schooner owned by the Austrian Count Rudolf Festetics de Tolna. In this capacity he was soon making trips to the Philippines, where, it is said, he smuggled opium into the U.S. In the next decade Worley held several positions on freighters ranging from Master to Mate. While captain of a backwater tramp steamer, a bizarre murder was discovered by a crewman. Upon entering the cabin of the first mate (possibly Worley’s brother-in-law), he saw the macabre scene of his decapitated body on the bed. Naturally, there were those who thought Worley was the culprit. However, another seaman was charged and duly sentenced for the crime. It seems certain that this sailor was not merely a fall guy for Worley. For those who knew the most about this incident believed that Worley himself was the object of the sailor’s hatred. The Mate, by a sad turn of fate, had merely been mistaken for him in the dark. This, it is possible, is the first inkling we get of his Bligh-type of personality. As the pall of European war loomed on the horizon old sea dogs like Worley were recruited into the Naval Auxiliary Reserve Force. It was then that Worley became captain of the new Cyclops. He seems to have served well enough. There are no disparaging records on him or the Cyclops antedating the charges made against him while off France in the summer of 1917. (It should be noted, however, that America had not been at war until this time.) Investigations certainly did prove that Worley had a strong German background (he spoke without an accent). But what did it prove? There was no Cyclops to prove where she had gone. No survivors, no debris. No German propaganda bragging about the success. The rumors about the Cyclops being seen at Kiel in Germany could not be proven during the war. So until the war was over (in November of that year) most people preferred to believe that Worley was, in fact, a traitor. Newspaper after newspaper implied as much with story after story about his pro-Germaness. His nephew, Dr. Ewald Angerman, decried this, saying that Worley was more loyal than anyone. Worley had told him, “If we sight a U-boat, I’ll make all hell smell like Limburger!” Even if Worley betrayed the ship to the Germans, how could he have done it all alone? Livingston’s message had implied help --“a number of German names” were aboard. However, it is extremely unlikely they would have sold their lives for one ship, especially with all their families still in the U.S. . . .But by a disquieting coincidence now enters into the picture the Cyclops’ most distinguished passenger, Alfred Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Within the diplomatic scene, Gottschalk had been just as hated as Worley was by his men. He was also discovered to be highly pro-German as well. One of his colleagues, J.E. Conner, sent this to the Secret Service in May, 1918:
Conner was certainly good for his word. Investigators found him reliable and honest. Like Worley, an investigation of Gottschalk now uncovered many surprises.