Ghost Patrol: The Strange Disappearance of Flight 19

flight 19

We all love mysteries. Edgar Allen Poe knew this. So did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. So do those intrepid ghost hunters who propagate the idea of a deadly “Bermuda Triangle.”

The inexplicable disappearance of five U.S. naval bombers and one rescue plane in the Atlantic Ocean in the year 1945 is one of the most gnawing mysteries of the 20th century. Hundreds of ships and planes have “gone missing” throughout modern history. But how could an entire fleet disappear, only a hundred miles off the coast of Florida, with merely a few panicked radio signals to serve as an epitaph?

It happened.

December 5, 1945 was a seemingly routine day when U.S. Naval Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor climbed into the cockpit of his Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber at 2 PM on the tarmac of the U.S. Naval Air Station (NAS) at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Taylor was a qualified senior flight instructor with 2,500 flying hours under his belt. His job that day was to lead four other Avengers, piloted by trainees with between 350-400 flight hours, on a standard navigational training run over the Atlantic. They were to participate in a mock bombing exercise, and practice how to calculate current position using predetermined coordinates. There’s a navigational term for this: “dead reckoning.”

CharlesTaylor

Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor

Taylor was 28 years old. He’d graduated from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in February 1942 and had served in WWII. Photographs show him to be slim, unimposing, with languid eyes and bright white teeth. Definitely more Audie Murphy than John Wayne.

Taylor was an experienced WWII combat pilot. But he’d distinguished himself for something other than bombing Dresden: he’d ditched two planes in the ocean.

I don’t know where we are.

The Avengers left base at approximately 2:10 PM. The flight plan was to fly due east 53 miles to Hen and Chickens Shoals, unload their bombs, continue east another 67 miles, turn sharply left and fly northwest 73 miles, then turn left again and fly 120 miles southwest back to the station. A triangular pattern, not too far offshore.

The weather was a warm 67 degrees. Surface winds were 20 knots, with gusts of 30 knots. Average conditions for a training mission. But there were also scattered showers.

The low-level bombing practice at Hen and Chickens Shoals went according to plan. But at 5 PM an unidentified radio transmission was picked up at NAS. An unknown Flight 19 crew member asked U.S. Marine Captain Edward Joseph Powers, who was senior to Taylor but had less Avenger flight time, for his compass reading. Powers responded “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”

A second squadron, FT-74, had followed Flight 19 on a similar training mission that day. Lieutenant Robert F. Cox led FT-74. He requested clarification from Powers, and picked up a series of confused suggestions from Flight 19 crew members as to their exact position and flight path.

Then Taylor came on. “Both of my compasses are out,” he transmitted, “and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken.” Taylor mistakenly concluded he was over the Florida Keys. He was, in fact, hundreds of miles northeast… over the Bahamas.

By this time weather conditions had deteriorated. Heavy rain, darkness, transmission static, and radio interference from Cuba created a spiraling frustration, as evidenced by one crew member who transmitted “Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home… head west, dammit!”

avenger with men

NAS Ft. Lauderdale pilots with a TBM Avenger aircraft in back

 

FT-74 radioed NAS that Flight 19 was lost. Acting on Taylor’s assumption he was over the Keys, NAS advised him to put the sun on his port wing and fly north. Taylor did, indeed, head north. Further into the black Atlantic.

We all go down together.

A British tanker, the SS Empire Viscount, was near where Flight 19 disappeared, northeast of the Bahamas. It radioed that it was experiencing turbulent seas and billowing winds. Taylor’s last transmission was at 7:04 PM. “All planes close up tight … we’ll have to ditch unless landfall … when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.”

The five planes were never heard from or seen again. It’s believed they had enough fuel to remain in air till 8 PM. After that, they’d be at the mercy of the roiling ocean.

Two PBM Mariner patrol planes were dispatched to perform square pattern searches in the area west of 29 degrees N, 79 degrees W. Only one returned. A tanker, the SS Gaines Mills, testified later about seeing an explosion and a large oil slick on the water’s surface, near where the one Mariner disappeared. Like Flight 19, the missing Mariner was never found.

Altogether, 27 men died.

And the sea gave up her dead which were in it. (Revelation 20:13)

There have been attempts to locate the remains of Flight 19. So far, however, what little wreckage that’s been found has proven inconclusive. Although the navy ultimately attributed the disappearance to “cause unknown,” Lieutenant Taylor’s own mother may have influenced this decision. She accused the navy of unfairly blaming her son, basing this on a specious argument that, if no bodies or wreckage could be located, how could blame be attributed?

The mysterious disappearance of Flight 19 may never fully be explained. But it’s certain that several crucial factors contributed to six planes plunging beneath the ocean waves: bad weather, malfunctioning equipment, and most of all, human error. Flight leader Taylor clung to the notion he was over the Keys, when in fact he and his pilots had turned away from the mainland while over the Bahamas.

They landed in the center of  The Twilight Zone.

Lost Squadron

The 14 men of Flight 19

Kon-Tiki Sails into the Movies

kon-tiki

Thor Heyerdahl had a theory.  He believed that the Polynesians of the South Pacific did not originally come from Asia, as most experts believed.  He speculated they actually migrated 1,500 years ago from South America.  He based his theory in part on resemblance between the cryptic monuments on Easter Island and pre-Columbian designs in Peru.  But in order to reach the distant South Pacific islands, Peruvians would be forced to cross the mighty Pacific in nothing sturdier than small rafts made of balsa wood.  Impossible, Heyerdahl’s critics argued.  So the Norwegian set out to prove it possible by sailing from Peru to the islands on a raft, which he called Kon-Tiki after the name of the Incan sun god.

His epic 3,770-mile (6,067 km) voyage, accompanied by five other courageous Scandinavians, is the subject of the recent movie KON-TIKI.  The movie is based on Heyerdahl’s 1947 sailing excursion, which was detailed in his subsequent book and award-winning documentary.  So far the film has received a lot of praise (despite taking a few creative liberties for excitement purposes).  It was produced by Brit Jeremy Thomas (THE LAST EMPEROR) and directed by two young Norwegians, Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg.  They grew up in a small village outside Oslo and idolized Heyerdahl. 

“’He was ambitious and not afraid to admit it, which is not very Norwegian,’” says Roenning in the April 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. “’We wanted to be a part of Heyerdahl’s adventure.’”

That adventure included not only Heyerdahl’s crossing the Pacific, but raising money for the expedition, hiring a crew idealistic and brave enough to join him, chopping down balsa trees in Peru to assemble the raft, and publicizing the adventure.  Heyerdahl succeeded magnificently.  Post-war America, Europe, and Australia were hungry for an inspirational diversion, and the world was riveted by tall, handsome Heyerdahl and his crazy scheme.  To make things even more interesting, Heyerdahl was afraid of water and never learned how to swim.

“’Heyerdahl was a great storyteller, but his true genius was PR,’” says Roenning, who refers to the voyage as the world’s “first reality show.”

kon-tiki2

The critics who groused that Heyerdahl was on a suicide mission ended up eating their words.  Rather than splitting the Manila rope lashings, or being ripped apart by 25-foot ocean waves, the balsa logs became “spongy” and comfortably melded with the rope.  Water flowed through the logs “as if passing through the prongs of a fork.”  Although there were perils (the usual storms and sharks, and even a phenomenal water spout), the crew made it to the islands unscathed.

But Heyerdahl never was able to convert those who mocked his anthropological theories.  Most scientists and historians today believe that, based on “linguistic and cultural” evidence, the Pacific islanders did originate in Asia (though recent genetic evidence does reveal a tenuous link to Native Americans).

Apparently, getting the movie made was more of a problem than the Kon-Tiki’s actual voyage.  Backers for the film were difficult to procure “because no one had died.”  So the filmmakers decided to sacrifice the raft’s mascot, a parrot named Lorita!  Finding acceptable scriptwriters was also troublesome.  One of the early candidates had helped write the script for ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, but she made the mistake of inviting the aging Heyerdahl to see the movie RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which she hoped to use as a model for her script.  Heyerdahl was disdainful of Indiana Jones’s “approach to archaeology.”  She wasn’t hired.

USS Monitor Sailors Buried at Arlington

 monitor2

On Friday two sailors who went down with the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor 150 years ago were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  The sailors’ skeletons were found inside the vessel’s turret, which was discovered on the floor of the Atlantic in 1973 and was raised in 2002.  Descendants of those sailors who perished in the sinking attended the burial.

The Monitor is perhaps the most famous vessel of the Civil War.  A Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, designed it just after the war broke out in 1861.  The U.S. government wanted a steam vessel made of iron that could compete with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (known as the wooden frigate USS Merrimack before the war).  The most distinguishing feature of the Monitor, aside from its iron hull, was the revolving gun turret.  This allowed the ship to fire its guns in any direction, regardless of its position.  The turret was frequently referred to as a giant “cheesebox” due to its odd cylindrical shape and eight-layered, bolted plates.  It mounted two 15-inch Dahlgren guns, each weighing 16,000 pounds (7,300 kilograms).

On March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Monitor clashed with her nemesis the Virginia in the most famous naval conflict in U.S. history.  It was the first-ever engagement between two steam-powered iron ships and it ushered in a new era of naval warfare.  The battle itself was a draw, although the Monitor was successful in defending the federal stronghold at Hampton Roads.  She later participated in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on the James River.

In December 1862 the Monitor was being towed to Beaufort, North Carolina by the USS Rhode Island in preparation to an attack on Wilmington, NC.  On the 30th a gale struck about 16 nautical miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras.  Sixteen of the 62-member crew drowned during the vessel’s sinking, including the two unidentified sailors in the turret. (Note: a rescue party of the Rhode Island later found shelter onboard the supply hulk USS William Badger…please click the “Blubber Book” tab for info regarding my biography of the Badger).  

The identity of the two sailors is as yet unknown.  Forensic evidence reveals that both were Caucasians, about 5-foot-7-inches tall, with one sailor in his late teens or early 20s and the other in his 30s.  DNA tests of the remains are ongoing.

Acclaimed Civil War historian James McPherson believes that Union sailors deserve to be honored as much as the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg.  Most were volunteers, and those who served on ironclads knew that, unlike wooden ships, their vessels would immediately sink once enough water broke through the hulls.  They knew that such a vessel could be “a coffin for the crew.”

Ferry Crashes in East River

ferry1

On Wednesday, early morning commuters at Pier 11 on South Street, Lower Manhattan witnessed something not often seen: a ferryboat crashing into the dock.  The Seastreak Wall Street, a high-speed commuter ferry that operates between New Jersey and Manhattan, evidently rammed into the dock at a high rate of speed (over ten miles per hour).  Dozens of passengers were hurtled to the deck, with several severely injured, including one man who fell down a flight of stairs and landed on his head.  Fortunately there were no deaths.

The mishap reminded many of a more serious accident that occurred October 15, 2003, when a Staten Island ferry missed the dock and struck a maintenance pier.  Eleven people died and 70 were injured.

The worst river disaster in New York City occurred on June 15, 1904.  The steamboat General Slocum was ferrying 1,300 German American residents of Little Germany in the Lower East Side to an annual picnic on Long Island Sound.  Minutes into the trip a fire erupted onboard ship.  The flames spread so rapidly that the ship had no time to disembark the passengers.  The final death toll was 1,021 people, mainly women and children, who either burned in the blaze or drowned in the East River (few people in the early 20th century knew how to swim).  It was New York City’s worst tragedy until 911.

The fire was supposedly caused by a discarded cigarette or match in the Lamp Room, which contained straw and oily rags.  But the disaster was exacerbated by the fact that the life preservers were rotten, lifeboats were permanently tied up (some so old they were wired and painted in place), and there had been no fire drills and only cursory ship inspections.   Mothers who survived the tragedy recounted putting life jackets on their children, throwing them overboard, then watching in horror as their children sank immediately.

Shockingly, only one person was convicted in the disaster: the captain, who many considered to be a scapegoat of the negligent Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the General Slocum.  The disaster traumatized Little Germany.  The tight-knit community never recovered and eventually dispersed into greater NYC.  The last survivor of the tragedy died at the age of 100 in 2003.  Her name was Adelia Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), who was only six months old at the time of the tragedy.  Her two older sisters died in the fire.

As of this writing, investigations are ongoing into what caused the recent Seastreak crash.  The captain was supposedly extremely competent, and there is no evidence of intoxication.  The most plausible theory is that the propeller system acted up.

HMS Bounty Sinks

Hurricane Sandy, and the nor’easter accompanying her, are smashing into the eastern U.S. coast as I write this – my daughter Holly is barricaded in her apartment in Philadelphia, where her backyard wall just blew away.  And my mother and aunt are stranded in Alexandria, Virginia.  My other aunt is even closer to the storm, in northern New Jersey, and my uncle is riding it out in Manhattan.  So basically I have family all around the periphery (right now it’s just high winds here in southwest Ohio).  I’m confident that all of my family will be safe.  But thousands of people have had to evacuate, power is down everywhere… and, unfortunately, lives have been lost.

One of the victims was a crewmember of the tall ship HMS Bounty: deckhand Claudine Christian.  Her body was found this evening.  The Bounty’s longtime captain, Robin Walbridge, is still missing.  The other 14 crewmembers made it safely into rafts.  The Bounty herself has joined thousands of other ships in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The Bounty is a 180-foot three-masted ship that was built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando, and it was also used in one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.  It is a replica of the original British vessel that, on April 28, 1789, experienced the most famous sea mutiny in history.  First mate Fletcher Christian (could Claudine possibly be related?) and other mutineers overtook tyrannical Captain William Bligh, then forced him and his supporters into an open boat in the middle of the South Pacific.  Christian sailed to Tahiti, and eventually to obscure Pitcairn Island, where he lived out a short and troubled life.  Bligh unbelievably navigated his boat and crew over 3,000 miles to safety – the greatest open boat journey in history.

The true reasons for Christian’s mutiny are unclear.  Bligh was certainly domineering, possibly brutal, but he wasn’t unlike many other ships’ captains of the time, who were essentially dictators on their vessels.  There is evidence that the mutineers were hypnotized by the utopian, sexually uninhibited society on Tahiti, and thus wanted to return.  But could this have been enough reason for Christian to send half the ship’s company to almost-certain death in a longboat, and to commit himself to the wrath of the exalted Royal English Navy, as well as permanent ostracism from his homeland?  Was it pride, lust, impetuousness, or a combination of all?  We’ll never know.

POSTSCRIPT: According to the ChronicleHerald of Nova Scotia, which recently interviewed her, Claudene Christian was 42 years old and the 5th great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian.   Our hearts go out to her family.