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The Mystery of the USS Cyclops
By Nancy E. Sheppard

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The change of the Navy’s fleet from wood and sail to steel and steam came rather quickly. These strong, ironclads could withstand bombardment like ships hadn’t ever before and were capable of more possibilities that their wood-hulled counterparts. They could sail for longer lengths of time, but needed fuel tenders to replenish mid-sea. In 1910, William Cramp & Sons built a Proteus-class fuel ship (collier) in Philadelphia named USS Cyclops. This ship would go down as one of the U.S Navy’s deepest mysteries to date.

Cyclops was the sister ship of USS Proteus, USS Nereus, and USS Jupiter, which would later garner fame as the very first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1). Cyclopswas 540 feet long, 65 feet wide, and had a cargo capacity of 12,500 tons. She had massive, clamshaped shovel buckets to maneuver two tons of coal in a single lift. Reaching speeds of 15 knots, making her the fastest fuel vessel in the Navy’s auxiliary fleet. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the auxiliary fleet was absorbed into the Navy and all of the ship’s officers were commissioned.

The commanding officer of Cyclops was George W. Worley. He was born in Germany as Johan Frederick Wichmann, but anglicized it when he came to the United States in 1878. He was a detestable figure; a man that you would surely like to kick. He had an eccentric personality, fiery temper, and was known to run dominion over his officers and crew. That being said, he ran a tight ship and the Navy backed him up; turning a blind eye to some of his more peculiar behaviors. He was known to walk along Cyclops’ quarterdeck in his long johns, a floppy hat, and a cane on some days, and on others, chasing his crew across the deck while wildly firing a pistol up into the air. He never endeared himself to his officers or crew. They referred to him as "That damn Dutchman,” referencing his Germanic birth.

Cyclops was home-ported in Norfolk and there, the newly-minted Lieutenant Commander Worley took up residence with his wife and young daughter. The years on the sea certainly aged him well. Despite the Navy’s support in Worley’s command, they were limited in resources to provide continued maintenance for the collier. This added an increase strain on the already beleaguered captain.

Because of Cyclops’ massive cargo capacity, she was used as not only a fuel tender, but also a transportation vessel, ferrying doctors between Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland and a field hospital in Sant-Nazaire, France. This stress of constant movement with limited maintenance proved difficult on the aging tender. In late 1917, Worley reported that the ship leaked "fuel oil all over the Atlantic.”

Event so, they were given their next assignment: Take coal to allied ships off the coast of Brazil and ferry American passengers back to Baltimore. Before the voyage was meant to set sail in early 1918, Worley sold his home and many of his family’s possessions and sent his wife and child to California. He announced that he would be taking an extended leave of absence after this mission was completed.

When Cyclops left Norfolk in those early days of 1918, no one could have ever predicted what would happen next.

To find out more, read next week’s Yorktown Crier | Poquoson Post!

 





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