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Missing Vessels

A Passage to Oblivion: The disappearance of USS Cyclops

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


Part I

   “I approached captain Worley, sir, about the Mess. The fish we had for dinner had not even been cleaned and smelled bad. Captain Worley was lying on his bed. He got up and put on his trousers.”
   “The whole God-damned lot of yous are only a lot of God-damned sons of bitches,” he said.
   “I told him I resented being called by a name which no man born of a woman could stand. Captain Worley insisted he had never called me nor any man aboard--ever-- a son of a bitch.”

   Quartermaster Langren then asked for an apology.
   “What did he do then?” asked Commander William Whitted.
   “He then called me a son of a bitch and confined me for two days.”
   Well, this was the gist of only one sailor’s testimony before the Board of Inquiry at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in August 1917. Some 40 seaman aboard the U.S.S. Cyclops signed a petition against their captain, George W. Worley, accusing him of being foul mouthed, drunk and unfit for command. This petition was started by one man, hospital apprentice Howard, who then circulated it amongst the crew.       


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     In this petition, the crew accused their salty captain of being so drunk that he fell in and out of doorways and staggered about the deck. They also accused him of chasing ensign  J.J. Cain around the deck with a pistol in his hand. The crew also reported that odd happenings occurred on board during their recent stay off France, re-coaling the fleet: an unauthorized signal lamp had been strung up to the foremast and connected to a cord. (The light could easily be used for night signaling, in order to give away the position of the fleet  to the Germans.) One day the life boat falls were found cut, and on another day the gun scope lenses were found put in backwards. These were all acts that questioned the loyalty of some unknown hand aboard. Publicly, however, none of the crew openly accused their master of being disloyal, although the biggest rumor aboard was that he was very pro-German.

     Worley had a good reputation with the Naval Auxiliary, reflected by the fact he commanded a key vessel vital to the refueling of the American fleet. The Cyclops was a huge 522-foot collier, only a few years old, with a displacement of 12,000 tons. Lt. Commander Worley had also been a seaman most of  his life, and when his freighter was drafted into the ranks of the Naval Auxiliary in the middle of the Spanish American War, Worley too found himself suddenly a Navy man. The Naval Auxiliary was full of such captains— merchant skippers who were placed into command positions as the need arose. Sometimes their manner wasn’t the usual “officer and gentleman” of cadet school training . . .but a commanding officer was a commanding officer, with the Navy’s trust.

     Notwithstanding, what members of his crew brought against him were no light charges, and they needed to be taken seriously. Worley faced these charges with his typical humor and gruff egotism. To him Burt J. Asper, the ship’s surgeon, was to blame. It was he who had instigated Howard to stir up trouble and write that petition. During the hearings, the superior bear-like Worley stared with rustled aplomb at the two, both of whom always sat together in the audience.

   Why had Asper done this? . . .Because, according to Worley, he had dressed Asper down in front of the officers.

   Sex, sex, sex, is all that Asper talked about, to hear Worley tell it. “The subject of women seemed to be on his brain all the time as he would continue to talk to all the men and officers on the ship in this manner until some of the officers on the ship were unable to stand it any longer,” Worley testified.

   The fallout happened when Worley decided to take his meal down in the Officer’s Mess. “This subject appeared to be the whole conversation at the table.” Worley testified that he told then— especially  Asper— that “this must be stopped and immediately I issued a written order to that effect.”

     It was after this that Asper and Howard were seen together in the doctor’s room or the afterbitt conspiring.  “Dr. Asper and Howard are the sponsors of the whole matter.”

   Now, as to Worley’s drunkenness: he reminded them that he contracted beri-beri long ago, and in the warm summer months it acted up on him. “I desire to state that this bottle contained medicine that I have used for many years and I most emphatically deny that it contained ardent spirits.” The many remedies he takes, like Iodine of Potash or Peruna of Sasparilla, taste so bad he must mix a jigger of liquor with it. If he does not take his medicine quickly, he loses his balance from the beri-beri attack.  “On leaving port I always provide myself with a bottle of Port or Sherry, which is taken only for medicinal purposes.”

     There, that’s why he reeked of liquor most of the time!

   George Worley was cleared of the charges against him . . . but it seems he was cleared with some reserve. He grumbled to his neighbor that the “Navy had treated him badly over this.” He told his wife that perhaps he would retired after this next voyage. He felt “like he will be buried at sea.”

     Orders for his next voyage came quickly. Very little of the crew were changed. Burt Asper remained on board, and so did the timid ensign Cain. However, the Navy may have thought that some of the peculiar events described, such as the lamp strung out on the mast, the tampered lenses, etc., warranted the Cyclops should remain out of the war zone. It was but a short trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia. But the next trip too proved to be in American waters. The Cyclops was to prepare for sea by early January 1918. She was to steam to Rio de Janeiro to refuel the fleet there and pick up a very valuable cargo in return— manganese ore, vital in the production of steel.

     Worley was seen firmly walking aboard the gangplank of his ship, austere and isolated in demeanor, poking his walking stick along the way. The impression he gave one officer was that of  “. . .a gruff, eccentric salt of the old school, given to carrying a cane, but possessing few other cultural attainments.” 

     It is little surprising Worley seemed this way, considering what his crew had just brought against him after the last major voyage . . . though it pretty much described how he really was. This same officer, Conrad A. Nervig, also described him as: “. . .a very indifferent seaman and a poor, overly cautious navigator. Unfriendly and taciturn, he was generally disliked by both his officers and men.” 

     Apparently he made no effort to change on this voyage. On January 8, 1918, the Cyclops set sail from an ice covered Norfolk Navy Yard loaded to her plimsol line with coal. On leaving Norfolk she “narrowly averted a collision with the USS Survey, outward bound for the Mediterranean for patrol and anti submarine duty.”

   By night fall they had cleared the Virginia Capes, “and headed southward, breasting the heavy winter seas with a speed and ease amazing for such a heavily loaded vessel.” But by the fifth day out things began to happen. Worley blew his temper at Harvey Forbes, the Exec, and had him confined to quarters. Under arrest, no less, for disagreeing over some trivial matter. Then he directed his anger at the timid ensign Cain. However, in this instance Worley’s nemesis, Burt Asper, anticipated him and ordered Cain, apparently in perfect health,  to the infirmary in order to spare him any of Worley’s unreasonable anger. There he stayed for the rest of the voyage, according to Nervig.

   It was from this incident that Conrad Nervig was to get to know Worley much better than any other of the crew or officers. Nervig recalled that Mr. Cain’s duty had been the mid-watch, the very lonely hours of the night and early morning. He now had to take over these duties. It was during this time that Worley came up from his cabin below the bridge and paid him the first of many visits. They were now in the tropics; the nights were balmy and calm. “I was somewhat startled to see him coming up the starboard ladder dressed in long woolen underwear, a derby hat, and a cane.” Nervig  was worried about what he might have done wrong; yet Worley was “affable” and quite indifferent to Nervig’s crisp military salute “Good morning, Captain.” This was, in fact, a social call. 

     For some 2 hours Worley and he leaned on the forward bridge railing while “he regaled me with stories of his home and numerous incidents of his long life at sea. He had a fund of tales, mostly humorous. These nocturnal visits became a regular routine, and I rather enjoyed them. His uniform, if it could be so called, never varied from what he had worn on that first occasion. I have often wondered to what I owed these visits— his fondness for me or his sleeplessness.” 

     Six days of this saw them finally off the coast of  Brazil. It was at night. The navigator and Worley now got into a disagreement over their course, the navigator insisting they overshot Bahia, their first stopover. Worley smugly over ruled him. But after hours of continued steaming without sighting land, he finally relented; and, on the 20th of January, they entered Bahia harbor from the south, having indeed overshot the harbor by 48 miles!

     Finally, on the 28th, the Cyclops arrived at her destination of Rio, where she would remain for a couple of weeks unloading her coal, then loading her new cargo of manganese ore.

   During the entire voyage Nervig had not been able to figure out his eccentric captain. His kindness to him in the wee hours of the morning contrasted sharply with how he treated the crew during the day. He recalled “That he liked me, I was sure, for when in Rio de Janeiro I received orders detaching me from the Cyclops, he sought to have those orders revoked. Fortunately, for me, he was unsuccessful.”      

   So ends Nervig’s tour of duty. He was transferred to the USS Glacier. However, he recalled that while in Rio, incidents were still occurring around the Cyclops. A man was working overboard in a launch by the propellors. Worley turned over the engines. The launch and man were drawn into the propellers and the man killed. “This negligence I feel can be laid squarely at the feet of the commanding officer who, by his irrational methods of command, had thoroughly demoralized and disorganized the officers and men of the Cyclops.”

   The Cyclops was now under another Naval inquiry. This time regarding her starboard high pressure engine, which had blown its cylinder. In Worley’s typical manner he assured the Navy it would be repaired, and then laid the blame on another— on Lt. Fingleton.

   When her vital cargo was nearly loaded, another type of “cargo” was ordered aboard. These were 73 sailors and marines from the South Seas Fleet who were returning home. Three of their shipmates were escorted aboard in chains. They were: Barney De Voe, Moss Whiteside, and James Coker. They had been found guilty of charges ranging from murder to perjury surrounding their beating to death one Oscar Stewart. De Voe was on his way to serve out his 50-99 year sentence, Whiteside for 15 years, and Coker was to be hanged. *

     Just before they sailed, one more passenger was brought on board, a man who by appearance was so distinguished he was seemingly at the opposite end of the spectrum of these three above. He was Alfred Louis Moreau Gottschalk, none other than the U.S. Consul General at Rio. He was returning home in order to enlist in the army and fight in the war. . . so he said.

     The ship was now fully loaded to her plimsol line. All passengers aboard, Worley received orders and was cleared to leave Rio for Bahia on the 16th of February, now homeward bound north.  All told, there were 309 persons aboard her when she left.