Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Cyclops and the Lion

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

When the Great White Fleet departed Norfolk in 1907 on its around the world voyage, an immense amount of planning was necessarily involved. The new battleships were steam powered and required massive amounts of coal. A battleship traveling at 16 knots required 338 pounds of coal per minute to maintain speed, and the fleet generally consumed roughly 7,200 tons of coal per day. The supply ships of the era could not provide this type of replenishment at sea and the Navy relied on friendly ports of call to meet demands. The Navy concluded that should a global conflict emerge, its ships would be vulnerable should they run out of fuel in unfriendly waters.

In response to these logistical challenges, the Navy developed the Proteus-class of colliers to address the growing demand for fuel for a global fleet and in doing so, unintentionally helped generate some of the greatest nautical mythology of the 20th century. Enter the infamous USS Cyclops (AC-4). She was launched in 1910 and saw service prior to World War I with the Naval Auxiliary Service. The ship's first and only captain was Lieutenant Commander George Worley. Cyclops supplied US warships with the coal they needed throughout the Atlantic area until the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.  She was officially commissioned as a US Navy vessel less than a month later but continued to serve the Navy rather ordinarily until sometime after departing Barbados for Baltimore, Maryland on March 4, 1918.  Somewhere along her route she seemingly vanished from the earth.  Speculation about what could have become of the ship and Worley began almost immediately.  
Because the United States had officially entered World War I, and Worley was thought to be of German descent and a known German sympathizer, some speculated that he had sailed his ship (laden with manganese ore) to waiting German agents and surrendered it to them. There were also stories that the collier may have been sunk by German U-boats operating in the Atlantic Ocean or by a bomb being smuggled aboard in Brazil. These theories disintegrated when no U-boats claimed to sink the ship and neither the crew nor ship emerged from Germany after the war.  There was also a theory that the crew had mutinied against Worley because of his abrasive command.  Cyclops was also carrying a few prisoners, and some stories included a prisoner uprising. These theories all failed to hold water. 
USS Cyclops was featured in the movie The Bermuda Triangle (1978). 
Postwar theories as to what happed to Cyclops evolved from the mysterious to the absurd. These included natural phenomena such as cyclones, rogue waves, extreme weather, and methane bubbles from the ocean floor affecting the ship’s buoyancy.  The supernatural theories were some of the most spectacular because the ship was presumed to have been lost in the infamous maritime anomaly known as the Bermuda Triangle.  Theories include alien abductions, gigantic sea monsters, time travel, and capture by citizens of the Lost City of Atlantis. There is little evidence to support such outlandish hypotheses, so what really happened to the Cyclops? No trace of the ship nor crew has ever been found.

When Cyclops departed Bahia, Brazil in February 1918, it is known that one of the ships' engines was not operational.  The ship was also loaded (perhaps improperly) with an unfamiliar, and much denser, load of manganese ore as opposed to the coal it was designed to transport.  Merchant captains operating near the Bahamas, where Cyclops is thought to have been operating, reported heavy seas and a sudden cyclone.  As the Proteus-class ship was reported to list excessively in heavy seas, rough seas and an unstable load probably caused the ship to completely roll over at night and quickly plunge beneath the sea. The theory of rapid sinking is strengthened by the fact that no distress call was ever heard from the ship. The storms might also explain why no flotsam from Cyclops was found, as sailors would have lashed most everything down.
The mysterious George W. Worley.  
To perpetuate the strange history of Cyclops we should mention that all four Proteus-class ships built were lost to extraordinary circumstances.  USS Proteus and USS Nereus were both sold to Canada and disappeared without a trace in the Atlantic Ocean less than a month apart in 1941. The fourth ship of the class, USS Jupiter, was converted to the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, in 1920 and after her conversion to a seaplane tender was lost to enemy action in the Pacific Ocean in 1942.

In 1973, a former Navy diver claimed that while diving in search of USS Scorpion (SSN-589) in 1969, he stood on the deck of USS Cyclops off the coast of Virginia. Was this an exaggeration? Was it Cyclops or perhaps one of her sister ships? The verdict is still open as USS Scorpion was later located at another location and the U.S. Navy ceased recovery operations in the area. This only added fodder to the mystery of Cyclops’ ultimate fate.
Fascination with the Bermuda Triangle and the craft associated with its mysteries continues to grow.  But what has any of this to do with a lion?  To add further controversy to the already epic stories surrounding USS Cyclops, we are presented a fascinating sidebar to history. 

At the time, it was not unusual for U.S. Navy ships to have mascots.  Cats, dogs, and goats typically filled these roles.  There were, however, more exotic mascots representing our warships and shore stations a century ago.  USS Langley featured a honey bear (also known as a kinkajou), a turkey kept watch with a goat named Billy aboard USS Louisiana, and a black bear going by the name of Whiskey could once be found at Naval Air Station Norfolk.  But perhaps the most outrageous ship mascot of them all sailed aboard USS Cyclops.  Lt. Cmdr. Worley apparently obtained a lion names Teddy in Rio de Janeiro at some point prior to December 1910, which he then brought aboard ship.  The Navy did not approve and Worley advertised in newspapers for a zoo to take custody of the 150 pound beast that, “[P]lays with the men like a kitten would.”  The fate of the lion, like the Cyclops, remains unknown.  

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