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Disappearance of USS Cyclops remains one of the sea's most enduring mysteries

"Only God and the sea know what happened to the great ship."

— President Woodrow Wilson

The last anyone heard of the Cyclops as it steamed in a voyage that began in Bahia, Brazil, on Feb. 22, 1918, en route to Baltimore with 10,000 tons of manganese ore in its bunkers, was in a telegram to the West Indian Steamship Co. in New York City.

"Advise charterers USS CYCLOPS arrived Barbadoes Three March for bunkers. Expect to arrive Baltimore Thirteen March. Opnav."

The next day, the collier departed Barbados on what should have been a routine voyage to Baltimore, even though its starboard engine was damaged and put out of commission during the passage from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro, forcing it to steam at no more than 10 knots.

Brockholst Livingston, who was the 13-year-old son of U.S. Consul C. Ludlow Livingston, recalled in 1929 that the ship's captain, Lt. Cmdr. George W. Worley, and several other guests, including U.S. Consul-General A. Moreau Gottschalk to Brazil, who was a passenger on the ship, had tea at the consulate.

Before leaving, young Livingston wrote that the guests had signed his sister's autograph book and that their signatures were "probably the latest ones in existence."

"No one, of course, thought there was any danger in the voyage. About five o'clock our guests left and we watched them from the beach as they went on board," he wrote.

"There were some blasts on the whistle and the Cyclops backed. Then, going ahead, she steamed south. We did not consider this course odd until a few weeks later when we got a cable requesting full details of her visit to Barbados," he wrote.

It was the last time that any human had laid eyes on the Cyclops as it steamed away into the gathering evening and a permanent place on the roster of vessels that failed to make port.

Every so often during the intervening decades, the fate of the Cyclops makes the rounds.

Maritime historians pored over old documents in dusty archives and libraries, and old salts gathered in waterfront taverns spinning endless theories of what happened to the vessel that was traversing a lonely stretch of the South Atlantic when it vanished without a trace.

The Cyclops, with 309 on board — officers and crew, including 13 Baltimoreans, and passengers — apparently went to the bottom on March 4, 1918.

Among those who lost their lives were three Navy and two Marine prisoners who were being transported to the brig at Portsmouth, N.H.

There were no survivors or wreckage. A couple of boards found by an island hermit, who claimed they came from the ill-fated vessel's lifeboats, were discounted as not being from the wreck, as were bottles with notes, purportedly from survivors, that turned out to be nothing more than hoaxes.

Marvin W. Barrash, a longtime U.S. Defense Department employee and a Reisterstown resident, is the latest to enter the field with his 703-page book carrying a simple title: "U.S.S. Cyclops." It tips the scales at 4 pounds, 4.5 ounces.

"U.S.S. Cyclops" is replete with charts, photographs, maps, correspondence, telegrams, reports and other corroborating evidence and research material, much of it never published before, that had languished in government and Navy archives for over 90 years.

Barrash, whose book is the culmination of 13 years of research and writing, has a personal connection to the Cyclops.

His great-uncle, Lawrence Merkel, who lived at 1123 Laurens St., was a fireman in the ship's engine room.

"I was first made aware of the U.S.S. Cyclops and our family's connection to it by my father, Stanley Paul Barrash, when I was about ten years old," he writes in the book's preface.

"I recall sitting in the back seat of our car as we drove past the War Memorial Building in Baltimore, Maryland. He took the occasion of that drive past the memorial to tell me about his Uncle, Lawrence Merkel, who was lost at sea with the 'Collier Cyclops' during World War I," Barrash writes.

"With pride, my father said his uncle's name was engraved on a wall inside the memorial. … The substance of my father's conversation, though brief in detail, stayed with me through the years and my interest eventually grew," he writes.

The Cyclops, an odd-looking vessel with its distinctive overhead steel superstructure, was built at the William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Co. in Philadelphia.

The vessel, which carried 12,500 tons of coal, was designed to refuel battleships and other naval vessels at sea.

Barrash writes that at the ship's launching in the Delaware River, it came to a halt, requiring the assistance of several tugs.

He quotes a passage from Fletcher S. Bassett's "Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and Sailors in All Lands and at All Times": "It was always regarded as a bad omen should any accident happen, or if a ship refused to move," wrote Bassett.

The Cyclops entered service as a fleet collier in 1910, and its loss eight years later made headlines across the nation.

Rumors as to the cause included its sinking by an enemy German U-boat or sabotage. One bizarre explanation claimed that the ship was pulled to the bottom by a giant octopus whose tentacles had wrapped around it.

Barrash, in a telephone interview the other day, was a little more sanguine.

"Weather was a factor as well as the nonfunctioning engine, which affected its speed. Its captain wasn't able to do his normal 14 knots," Barrash said.

"It was the first time she had carried manganese, which is a tough cargo to handle. It's much denser than coal," he said. "If it's not properly stowed, it has a tendency for shifting if the ship began to roll, and Cyclops had a history of severe rolling."

Weather records from the area where Cyclops was steaming led Barrash to believe that it was "overwhelmed by a cyclonic event," much like the first Pride of Baltimore that went down in the same area decades later.

"I think the wave frequency and shifting cargo caused her to break her back. You lose buoyancy at that point," he said.

"The area she was steaming through is the Bermuda Triangle, and I believe she went down in what's called the Puerto Rico Trench, which is 5 miles deep," he said. "And that's why she has eluded recovery all these years."

At the time, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels wrote in his annual report, "There has been no more baffling mystery in the annals of the Navy than the disappearance last March of the U.S.S. Cyclops, Navy collier of 19,000 tons displacement, with all on board."

Ironically, two of Cyclops' sister ships, the Nereus and the Proteus, both vanished without a trace in 1941.

Barrash will be giving a lecture at noon Wednesday at the National Museum of the Navy, at the Washington Navy Yard, 11th and O streets S.E.. In attendance will be many descendants of the men who served aboard Cyclops.

"This is the first and perhaps the only time that such an assembly will take place," Barrash said.

For further information, go to history.navy.mil.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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