March 4th, 1918 – The Cyclops and the Bermuda Triangle

Today-In-History

USS Cyclops (AC-4) was one of four Proteus-class colliers built for the United States Navy several years before World War I. Named for the Cyclops, a primordial race of giants from Greek mythology, she was the second U.S. Naval vessel to bear the name. The loss of the ship and 306 crew and passengers without a trace within the area known as the Bermuda Triangle some time after March 4th, 1918 remains the single largest loss of life in U.S. Naval history not directly involving combat. 

USS_Cyclops

She put to sea from Rio de Janeiro on February 16th, 1918 and entered Salvador on February 20th. Two days later, she departed for Baltimore, Maryland, with no stops scheduled, carrying the manganese ore. The ship was thought to be overloaded when she left Brazil, as her maximum capacity was 8,000 long tons (8,100 t). Before leaving port, Commander Worley had submitted a report that the starboard engine had a cracked cylinder and was not operative. This report was confirmed by a survey board, which recommended, however, that the ship be returned to the U.S. She made an unscheduled stop in Barbados because the water level was over the Plimsoll line, indicating an overloaded condition; however investigations in Rio proved the ship had been loaded and secured properly. Cyclops then set out for Baltimore on March 4th, and was rumored to have been sighted on March 9th by the molasses tanker Amolco near Virginia, but this was denied by Amolco‘s captain. 

Additionally, because Cyclops was not due in Baltimore until March 13th, it is highly unlikely that the ship would have been near Virginia on March 9th, as that location would have placed her only about a day from Baltimore. In any event, Cyclops never made it to Baltimore, and no wreckage of her has ever been found. Reports indicate that on 10 March, the day after the ship was rumored to have been sighted by Amolco, a violent storm swept through the Virginia Capes area. While some suggest that the combination of the overloaded condition, engine trouble, and bad weather may have conspired to sink Cyclops, an extensive naval investigation concluded: “Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance.” This summation was written, however, before two of Cyclops‘s sister ships, Proteus and Nereus, vanished in the North Atlantic during World War II. Both ships were transporting heavy loads of metallic ore similar to that which was loaded on Cyclops during her fatal voyage. In both cases, it was theorized that their loss was the result of catastrophic structural failure, but a more outlandish theory attributes all three vessels’ disappearances to the Bermuda Triangle.

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Rear Admiral George van Deurs suggested that the loss of Cyclops could be owing to structural failure, as her sister ships suffered from issues where the I-beams that ran the length of the ship had eroded owing to the corrosive nature of some of the cargo carried. This was observed definitively on the USS Jason, and is believed to have contributed to the sinking of another similar freighter, Chuky, which snapped in two in calm seas. Moreover, Cyclops may have hit a storm with 30–40 kn (56–74 km/h; 35–46 mph) winds. These would have resulted in waves just far enough apart to leave the bow and stern supported on the peaks of successive waves, but with the middle unsupported, resulting in extra strain on the already weakened middle.

On June 1st, 1918, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Cyclops to be officially lost and all hands deceased. One of the seamen lost aboard Cyclops was African American mess attendant Lewis H. Hardwick, the father of Herbert Lewis Hardwick, “The Cocoa Kid”, an Afro Puerto Rican welterweight boxer who was a top contender in the 1930s and 1940s who won the world colored welterweight and world colored middleweight championships. In 1918, a short summary of the loss of Cyclops was listed in the U.S. Navy Annual Report.

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For a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Tom Mangold had an expert from Lloyds investigate the loss of Cyclops. The expert noted that manganese ore, being much denser than coal, had room to move within the holds even when fully laden, the hatch covers were canvas and that when wet the ore can become a slurry. As such the load could shift and cause the ship to list. Combined with a possible loss of power from its one engine it could founder in bad weather.

As it was wartime, there was speculation she was captured or sunk by a German raider or submarine, because she was carrying 10,800 long tons (11,000 t) of manganese ore used to produce munitions, but German authorities at the time, and subsequently, denied any knowledge of the vessel. The Naval History & Heritage Command has stated she “probably sank in an unexpected storm” but the ultimate cause of the ship’s fate is unknown.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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