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A Passage to Oblivion
Part II
Part III
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Fate Worse Than Sinking
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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

Part III

  Not only was Gottschalk’s popularity in Brazil immense, he was especially popular with the large German colony there; and it is certain Gottschalk handled a lot of Red Cross affairs for German ships. Could the idea to hand over the ship been Gottschalk’s to begin with? When the Cyclops arrived, he may have heard rumors about the captain’s pro-Germaness from the often grumbling crew. He might just have approached and convinced Worley to assist him in turning over the Cyclops. Would Worley have been inclined to do this considering how he had been treated by the Navy? But again comes the question, as in Worley’s case, how could Gottschalk have done it?

   Turn over the ship seems unlikely . . . but destroy it? In actuality there were more than enough German spies in Brazil and Argentina that could have assisted. They were desperate to find a means of encouraging the German colonies there that the war was not lost for Germany. ONI thought that the destruction of the Cyclops would have been helpful propaganda toward this end.

     In any case, Gottschalk suddenly secured passage on the Cyclops, giving as his excuse, surprisingly,  his wish to suddenly go back to America to enlist. What a contradiction the two must have made, with their cabins adjoining: the very distinguished Gottschalk and the crude sea dog Worley! Both of them similar only in the animosity felt for them by their colleagues. . . and their strong pro-German stance. Yet since no trace of the ship was found, as with the Worley angle, the question of sabotage could not be proved during the war. Investigators waited. While they waited, something provocative happened.

     Gottschalk’s connection with the loss of the Cyclops has to be taken seriously for a number of reasons. His presence aboard prompted one of the most interesting and perplexing clues about the mystery. A newspaper article in a Rio newspaper announced a requiem mass for “the repose of the soul of Consul Gottshalk who was lost when the Cyclops was sunk at sea.” Harmless enough, it would seem. It was signed by many of the top level business men in Rio, where, it must be remembered, Gottschalk was extremely popular. There was one problem with the article: it appeared before the Cyclops was reported overdue! Nobody but the upper echelons in the Navy knew she was missing! When these prominent men (those who had attached their names) were approached they flatly denied any knowledge of it! This article was regarded as a clear tip-off that a sabotage plot had successfully been carried out— and this article was designed to announce its success to various German agents in Brazil.

     Somewhat supporting this idea, there are peculiar coincidences with Worley and Gottschalk’s last acts on land. Worley had sold everything before he left Virginia, including his house; Gottschalk had left a number of personal and sentimental items in Rio that, by their size, would nevertheless have been easy to pack and take with him. Does this indicate premeditation? Why did Gottschalk leave these behind if he was never returning? Did he carry a bomb aboard with him? Had Worley been swayed by the German community to do it? Was the requiem a message from Gottschalk signaling success? Had he and Worley then escaped into obscurity . . . or Germany?    


When the news hit on April 15, 1918, Gottschalk was prominently featured.  Agent Hil in Rio was asked by Navy Intelligence to relay his findings on Gottschalk. He reported him very pro-German, and said he was very disliked by the American colony there because of how he catered to the press for his own personal self aggrandizement rather than for his country.

   Again, none of these questions could be answered during the war. But to give you an idea of how perplexing this mystery was, as soon as the war ended Admiral Robinson and his party went to Germany to examine documents and interview the German High Command. No plans were ever uncovered to shed any light on sabotage or betrayal! The Cyclops had never been  in Germany, nor were any of her crew found interned in a prisoner of war camp (despite newspaper predictions). No agent ever came forward after the war and bragged (or during the war, for that matter) of their success in sabotage. No trail of Worley or Gottschalk was ever found to indicate they survived. . . .Worley never came back to his wife and daughter, nor did Gottschalk ever slip back into Rio to get his things. They were sent to his sister in New York.

     Now that the war was over the mystery of the Cyclops was only growing more fantastic. There seemed no rational solution. The papers touted it as “The Greatest Mystery of the Sea.”

   Quietly, behind-the-scenes, the Navy continued their methodical investigation of other possibilities, none of which seemed probable. They dismissed the idea that her cargo sank her. It had been proposed that the heavy manganese ore shifted in her holds and capsized her. Manganese was much heavier than coal so the holds, when fully loaded by weight,  still had a great amount of free space in which to allow the cargo to shift. However, investigations in Rio proved it had been loaded and secured properly.

     In 1920 Lt. Comm. Mahlon S. Tisdale, who had once been an officer on the Cyclops, wrote in the Naval Institute Proceedings an article: “Did the Cyclops Turn Turtle?” He based his theory on his experience during his brief 10 day stint as a communications officer during war games. He recalled that the forward top tanks (storage) were always left open. During rough weather he was shocked to find their hatches unsecured for sea, and even struggled to secure one with one hand while he held on with the other. Afterward, he rushed straight to the bridge. He told Worley what he had just seen. But  Worley laughed at how serious he took this, and even went further to say they were always left open as the air was “better for the bitumastic.” In light of Worley’s lax attitude on ship safety, Tisdale was sure that the Cyclops had capsized in rough seas. The ships of her class were known to have an uncomfortable roll in heavy weather. He recalled that on his voyage, the Cyclops was riding high because she barely had any cargo, but on her final voyage she was heavily laden. This could have made the crucial difference. If she rolled enough, water may have flooded into the top tanks and heeled the ship over all the way. However, Tisdale’s brief stay on the ship did not qualify him to understand Worley’s sense of humor, which was very sarcastic to say the least. (In fact off France he had spread the rumor he had a lion aboard as pet. When this caught the Admiral’s ear, he was ordered to release it!) With the Cyclops riding high, as in Tisdale’s voyage, the forward top tanks would have been full of water anyway to maintain ballast. It was irrelevant whether the hatches were secured or not. Thus Worley’s response was calculated at scaring Tisdale. The top tanks were always secured when the ship was fully laden. So much for Tisdale’s frequently touted solution.

   The Navy investigated every other possible theory (except the Literary Digest’s, which suggested the Giant Squid got it). Islands were searched for large numbers of recently arrived whites– presupposing them to be an escaping crew if mutiny had taken place. Records in Germany proved no mines or submarines were near the area. Coal dust mixing with manganese was thought potentially to be an explosive hazard, but it was disproven. There was, in fact, no solution.

     Then in 1969, over 40 years after her loss, Conrad A. Nervig  wrote in the Naval Institute Proceedings regarding her last voyage south. A new theory was offered. During heavy seas, he remembered hearing grating sounds on the ship, where pipes went through bulkheads. He also recalled the uncomfortable sight of seeing the deck undulating in these heavy seas as it conformed to the wave troughs– a sign of bad contractions. In other words the ship was showing signs she was ready to split in two. He recalled he had pointed it out to Worley, who only dismissed it with a superior:  “Son, she’ll last as long as we do.”  Nervig believed she did indeed brake in twain, this being aggravated by her heavier than usual cargo of manganese ore.

   Conrad Nervig has been one of the most quotable persons as regards the Cyclops since his article in 1969. Both he and Tisdale’s theories essentially tried to explain her greatest mysteries: why no SOS, why no debris. Both have tried to provide us with a conventional answer to an unconventional mystery; Tisdale– sudden capsizing; Nervig– sudden structural failure.

     Tisdale’s failure is one of not really knowing the ship or Worley.  Nervig’s claim, however,  poses some very peculiar problems. For one, he himself seems highly ignorant of basic facts. In his article he never mentioned the rumors of pro-Germaness, even though the crew grumbled about it constantly; it was all over the papers at the time. He never mentioned Worley’s drinking. And he also never heard of the ship touching port at Barbados. And this truly is astounding since that was plastered in every paper for months-- even for years when the “The greatest mystery of the sea” was rehashed. Forgetting these is like forgetting a scorpion in your underwear.

     Nervig adds a further touch of mystery. For the Navy made a full investigation of the Cyclops, her crew, Worley,  Gottschalk, her last voyage, everything. Yet they never expressed a desire to contact Nervig to get his information. All of what he claims is conspicuous by its absence in all the documents. No other crewman who had sailed on her testified to the ship being in a state of near structural failure. And the Navy contacted every person they could; they investigated crank letters from half-wit authors who claimed to know something. They studiously probed into any crewman  with a German name (which Nervig is). They even investigated a bigamous officer transferred from the Glacier to the Cyclops named Winkle. They investigated notes in bottles, and even followed up on Tisdale’s article to see if there was merit to it. But in all the papers amassed by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Department  of Justice and their joint operatives, there is no mention of an interview with Nervig– nor his attempt to contact them! Yet it would seem this would be highly desirous. He claimed to have been an officer aboard, an officer whose transfer Worley tried to prevent just before the vessel vanished into oblivion. Indeed, this would all seem very desirous to investigators. . . But nothing exists. There are records of the Naval inquiry into the engine failure (with Worley’s own signature), but no objection on a transfer.

     What Nervig claims to have happened on the voyage south cannot be rechecked. For this reason all his quotes are marked in red to alert the reader they are held in question. Yet what he claims happened in Rio can be checked. He said that Worley, in his opinion, was responsible for the death of a crewman over the side. However, there are no records for this. The Navy doesn’t usually investigate a cylinder on an engine and gloss over a sailor’s death.

     Even more peculiar, there is no proof that Nervig was even aboard the Cyclops on her voyage south! This is confirmed by solid evidence. Many communiqués went back and forth, just routine, nothing significant. However, Bureau of Navigation requested officers’ records in January, when the Cyclops was still sailing south. They list all officers, ranks, etc. Even where no records were found, they still listed the names. Familiar names appear: Asper, Cain, Page, Worley, of course, Fingleton, Maguet, Hodge, Holmes, Forbes, Konstonvich, etc. Their duties are specified and so forth.  However, there is no Nervig. The papers that detail this investigation– 1,356 in total– fail to mention any Nervig whatsoever. And the idea that he is somehow omitted by accident, that somehow he is overlooked in every page, is patently ridiculous.

     It is possible, of course,  that Nervig was on board the Cyclops on an earlier voyage, and after 40 years his memory mistook the events he described as happening just before her final one.  (Note the picture of Worley. He does carry a cane.) If so what he says about the captain and crew adds a true light of what life was like on the ship. But  the idea that Worley walked around in long johns, a derby hat and cane, is not even remotely attested to by any number of crewman, either in scuttlebutt at Rio or at Barbados . . . and several on the bridge would have seen him talking to Nervig!

     Investigation by the Navy did turn up that Cyclops was seen two days after she left Barbados. This is not commonly known. A British patrol boat on 2 occasions sighted her far off course, both on the 5th and 6th of March, and guided her back.

   Was this Worley’s poor navigation or his desire to break course and head for Germany?  If one assumes that Worley and Gottschalk did intend to betray her on their own plan, she might have been torpedoed by a German U-boat far from her course. Investigations into subs only included her official course. But if Worley was intentionally or accidentally far off course, he may have perished, ironically, by the hand of those whom he supported or was even  trying to assist.

     The Cyclops shall always remain a mystery. One can imagine almost any scenario. Mutiny could have happened, although unlikely, far off her course when the men realized what was happening. But, alas, a sub might enter the picture again before they could alert base.  Certainly a mutiny was not successful, for there would have been survivors.

     Weather can also be ruled out. The only rough weather were high winds off Cape Hatteras on the 10th of March, but they dissipated the next day. Cyclops should not have been around there yet, being due on the 13th. Her engine had been fixed, regardless of popular rumor, so she was not traveling on one engine but was making normal speed.

     Among all the many theories, the phenomenon of the Bermuda Triangle is a relative latecomer. Like the others, this merely tries to explain the unexplainable. But unlike them, this theory has with it the litany of many other missing ships and planes that vanished in like manner: no SOS; no debris; traveling in fair weather. The Cyclops’ last known place on this earth was right in the heart of the Triangle before, like so many others, she went into mystery. If there was treachery aboard, perhaps the culprits were surprised by the greater mystery of nature than that which hid in the dark maze of their own hearts.

   The official Navy statement has not changed in all these years:

         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 proved unsuc--
         cessful. 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
           from German sources regarding the disappearance of the
         vessel. Information was requested from all attachés in Europe
         with the result that is is definite that neither German U-boats
         or German mines came into the question.