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?
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.”
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!”
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.