Above: The USS Cyclops. Below: Family plot of Alburtus Cohoon in Alma’s Riverside Cemetery.
In the early spring of 1918, a Gratiot County father learned that his son had disappeared, along with all of his son’s fellow crewmen. County newspapers failed to carry the story even though Alburtus Cohoon, the son of an Alma farmer, was involved in what is termed the single largest loss of life in United States naval history in which there was no direct involvement in combat.
Alburtus Cohoon, who was born October 7, 1896, grew up as the youngest of five children. His mother passed away when he was only three years old and he was fifteen when his father remarried. In 1910, his father was living and farming in Pine River Township.
From there, Cohoon’s story about his service in World War I ultimately ended in his death. When he enlisted in the United States Navy in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 17, 1917, his records stated that he was five feet, seven inches tall. He weighed 132 pounds, had blue eyes, brown hair, and a ruddy complexion. He listed his trade as having been a pipe fitter.
He was then sent to the USS Cyclops, where he eventually became a Fireman, 2nd Class. The Cyclops was one of four Proteus-class collier ships that the United States had in service. Colliers transported heavy loads, in this case, it was manganese ore. The Cyclops left Rio de Janeiro on February 16, 1918, with a full load, then stopped two days later in Salvador and headed for Baltimore, Maryland as its final destination. When the Cyclops stopped in Barbados it was noted that the ship had over 11,000 tons of manganese ore on board and that the ship sat below its waterline, indicating that it was overloaded. After it left Barbados the ship was never heard from again. On board was a crew of 306 men, including Alburtus Cohoon.
After two days without any contact, the Navy became concerned. Another ship thought it saw the Cyclops off the East Coast of the United States, but in the end, it was determined that this was not true. Where was the ship? After three months, on June 1, 1918, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the ship was lost at sea, along with its crew. On county records, the date of Cohoon’s death was declared to be March 4, 1918. To this day no one knows for sure what happened to the ship and its crew. Some have conjectured that the ship sank due to structural failure because it was overloaded. Others have noted that it was another ship lost in the infamous “Bermuda Triangle.”
Little is left behind to tell about Alburtus Cohoon after his death. In April, his brother in Owosso received a letter on April 19, 1918, telling him that the ship was overdue and that “Her disappearance cannot be logically accounted for in any way as no bad weather conditions or activities of enemy raiders have been reported in her vicinity of her route.” Fred Cohoon also received his brother’s insurance policy from the War Risk Insurance Bureau. In 1930, Alburtus Cohoon’s stepmother was asked by the government if she wanted to travel to Europe as a Gold Star Mother to visit her son’s grave. However, there was no grave to go to and apparently the government did not understand that. It appears that Mrs. Cohoon never replied. Today, a family burial plot for the Cohoon family exists in Alma’s Riverside Cemetery, but without any indication of the fate of the young man who was a part of the largest loss of life in naval history during World War I and its largest unsolved mystery.
All that exists today is a name on the Gratiot County All Wars Memorial in Ithaca, about the young man who lost his life March 1918. Alburtus S. Cohoon was only 21 years old.
Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed