Mystery surrounds 1918 disappearance of Navy ship
By PHIL LUCIANO | Journal Star | Published: October 14, 2018
PEORIA, Ill. (Tribune News Service) -- A century ago, the USS Cyclops set off from the West Indies, laden with coal and steaming toward Baltimore.
The ship's 309 crewmen and passengers included two Peoria sailors: Ralph G. Lindquist, 21, and Harry L. Potter, 26. The Cyclops, playing a key naval refueling role since the U.S. entry into World War I the previous year, was expected to complete the 2,000-mile journey in nine days.
But the Cyclops never reached port. She's still out there, somewhere.
The massive ship -- hailed as a "floating coal mine" and nearly twice as long as a football field -- just disappeared. Odder still, there was no distress call, no wreckage.
All 309 aboard (including the two Peorians) were lost at sea, the greatest non-combat loss of life in Navy history.
Theories abounded, with public frustration sparking speculation about German spies, sea monster and the Bermuda Triangle. At the time, the Peoria Journal begged, "Where are they? What happened?"
Even at the approach of the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I, those two questions still remain a mystery.
In June 1917, three months after America entered The Great War, Ralph Lindquist left his job as machinist with the Holt Manufacturing Co. Lindquist, a bachelor who lived with his parents at 3621 N. Monroe St. in Peoria, enlisted in the Navy and went for training at Naval Station Great Lakes.
"He was one of the best liked and respected boys in Averyville," the Peoria Journal would later attest.
Meanwhile, Harry Potter already had risen to military distinction. Potter, a single man who lived at 1420 N. Elizabeth St., had left the employment as a truck driver for the Woodruff Ice Co. to join the Navy in 1916. Early the next year, he graduated with honors from gunners' school in Washington, D.C., and served on the battleship USS Florida.
"He ... was one of the prominent young men of the city," the Journal would recall.
By early 1918, Lindquist (fireman second class) and Potter (gunner's mate first class) both were among the crew of the USS Cyclops. The 540-foot-long ship -- a collier, or coal carrier -- had been launched out of Philadelphia in 1910 to refuel other Navy vessels, including those in the Baltic Sea and Mexico, before its World War I commission in May 1917.
On Feb. 22, 1918, the Cyclops left Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, loaded with 10,000 tons of manganese ore and destined for Chesapeake Bay. The commanding officer had reported that a cracked cylinder had rendered the starboard engine inoperative, slowing the ship's speed and necessitating repairs once docking in America. However, though no stops had been scheduled, the Cyclops pulled into Barbados on March 3 to resupply, then steamed away toward Baltimore the next day.
The mammoth vessel was never seen again, as if it had slipped off the edge of the earth.
Though the ship missed its March 13 arrival date, no distress call had been heard. Soon, after radio calls to the ship went unanswered for days, Navy cruisers began scouring possible routes, then checked remote beaches and bays. Nothing was found, not even debris, oil or any sign of the Cyclops.
In mid-April, newspapers caught wind of the disappearance. On April 15, the New York Times cried, "Collier Overdue a Month." Two days later, the Peoria Journal ran a photo of the Cyclops, under the headline "Another unsolved mystery of the sea" -- but with no connection to the Peoria sailors. On April 21, the Sunday Journal and Transcript published a brief story headlined, "2 Peoria boys on mysteriously missing collier."
On June 1, Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the ship and its 309 men were presumed lost at sea. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels proclaimed, "There has been no more baffling mystery in the annals of the Navy than the disappearance last March of the USS Cyclops. There has not been a trace of the vessel, and long-continued and vigilant search of the entire region proved utterly futile."
The Navy's official notices reached Peoria late that month. On June 26, the Daily Journal announced, "Cyclops sailors declared dead."
Although the ship disappeared on March 4, 1918, the designated date of death for everyone on board is June 14, 1918. But wither the Cyclops?
Theories at the time are no more plausible or deniable now.
-- Overloading of ore in Brazil? The ship seemed right in Barbados.
-- A U-boat torpedo? There was no debris.
-- Rough seas? There were no storms.
-- German raiders? The ship lacked fuel to cross the ocean.
Mutinies? Meteorites? A giant octopus? The Bermuda Triangle? Then and later, wild ideas filled the emptiness for the lack of an official conclusion.
Perhaps the cause might never be determined. But what of the ship itself? Other long-lost war vessels have been discovered in recent years. Some research suggests the Cyclops could be sitting in the Puerto Rico Trench -- at 27,000 feet below, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean.
As for the Peorians lost with the Cyclops, Potter apparently never received any memorial back home. But Lindquist is remembered with a tombstone at Springdale Cemetery, etched in part, "Lost at sea with USS Cyclops."