This Week in Military History: December 1st – 7th

This Week in Military History: December 1st – 7th

December 5th: Flight 19 Disappears

Five Grumman Avenger Torpedo Bombers flying in formation.Five Grumman Avenger Torpedo Bombers, the same type of aircraft that made up Flight 19, flying in formation.

At 6:20pm on the night of December 5th, 1945, United States Navy Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor radioed the thirteen men aboard the five Grumman TBM Avenger Torpedo Bombers under his command to assure them they would stick together no matter what: “When the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.” In command of a five-plane training exercise somewhere off the coast of Florida, Lieutenant Carroll issued this order to no doubt assure and calm the pilots and crew members of those aircraft that, by sticking together, they would come through their current troubles all right. But his message was the last anyone would ever hear of Flight 19. And the questions surrounding the last hours of their lives would become a cornerstone of one of the world’s most famous (probably contrived) mysteries: the Bermuda Triangle.

Map of the area commonly associated with the Bermuda Triangle.Map of the area commonly associated with the Bermuda Triangle.

Also referred to as Devil’s Triangle or Hurricane Alley, the Bermuda Triangle is an area of the Atlantic Ocean covering somewhere between 500,000 and 1,500,000 square miles, depending on who’s talking about it. Its general shape and location varies as well, though one of the most common layouts places its three corners at Miami, Florida, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the island of Bermuda. It was first publicly theorized as a location of unusually high numbers of air and water craft disappearances in a September 17th, 1950 Miami Herald article. So it is not some sort of ancient, storied mystery area from olden times as it’s sometimes thought of. While numerous theories ranging from explosions of underground methane deposits destroying ships to UFOs abound, most scientific evidence demonstrates that the Bermuda Triangle (wherever and however big it is) sees no more accidents or disappearances than any other similarly sized and trafficked swath of the oceans. Still, the particularly odd and tragic fate of Flight 19 gave birth to decades of speculation and rumors.

Official Navy letter attributing the loss of Flight 19 to causes unknown.Official Navy letter attributing the loss of Flight 19 to causes unknown.

Flight 19’s final afternoon started off relatively simply enough when they took off from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida (today’s Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport). Carroll, an experienced torpedo bomber pilot who saw combat in the Pacific during World War Two and recently finished a tour as a flight instructor at nearby Miami Naval Air Station, certainly knew what he was doing behind the stick of his Avenger. The four other pilots, all trainee aviators and officers in either the Navy or Marines, each had several hundred hours of flying under their belts including 60 a piece in Avengers. So none of the five men flying planes that day were raw amateurs in the cockpit when they took off in clear weather at 2:10pm.

Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor, US NavyLieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor, US Navy.

From there, the plan was a standard training mission. The formation was to fly due east to perform low-level bombing practice over a series of shoals about 56nmi (nautical miles) from the Florida coast. They were to then continue east for another 61nmi before turning north, flying over Grand Bahama Island, and then turning back to the southwest to head for home. In addition to the bombing training, the men were supposed to practice the use of dead reckoning while navigating. The first leg of the flight and the bombing practice were completed without issue. What happened after that is still a bit of a mystery.

Avengers on a practice torpedo bombing run.Avengers on a practice torpedo bombing run.

Radio transmissions within the flight were picked up by a nearby pilot, US Navy Lieutenant Robert F. Cox of Flight 74, leading another group of students on the same training mission behind 19. They indicated that one of the student aviators, Marine Captain Joseph Edward Powers, was the first to realize they were lost. Worse, his compass wasn’t working. It soon became clear that none of the pilots or their air crews knew where they were and none of the Avengers’ compasses worked properly. At different points shore bases and Lieutenant Cox attempted to contact the wayward pilots with mixed success. But it became clear that, for whatever reason, Lieutenant Taylor was convinced he and his men had strayed west over the Gulf of Mexico, and had them head north and east at different intervals. It’s likely this occured because he mistakenly believed the islands they had flown over were the Florida Keys rather than the Bahamas.

Abaco Island, Bahamas and its smaller surrounding islands.
Abaco Island, Bahamas and its smaller surrounding islands, which Taylor and his men may have thought were the Key West islands when flying over them.

At one point, an unidentified member of Flight 19 was heard on the radio shouting, “Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home; head west, dammit.” But by the time Lieutenant Taylor finally issued the order to turn west, the men were an estimated 200nmi east of the central Florida coast. They were low on fuel and the weather was starting to turn. Radio contact with the shore became increasingly spotty. Taylor was heard doubting the decision to turn west once again. A short time after that, he sent out the order about going down together. The six Sailors and eight Marines of Flight 19 were never heard from again.

A US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat.US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina.

Rescue efforts began even before Taylor stopped transmitting, starting with a Navy PBY Catalina flying boat setting out in hopes of finding and leading them back to shore before nightfall. But the efforts to bring Flight 19 home soon led to an almost-literal doubling of the day’s tragic losses. Two Navy PBM Mariner flying boats on training missions at the time were diverted to look for the missing flight and a third took off at 7:27pm from Naval Air Station Banana River (today’s Patrick Air Force Base). After a routine radio check-in three minutes after takeoff this third Mariner, Numbered 59225 and piloted by Navy Lieutenant (JG) Walter Jeffrey, was never heard from again. The Mariners were notorious for regular buildup of flammable gasses in their bilges and an oil tanker in the area, SS Gaines Mills, reported a large, fiery explosion in the sky at 9:15pm. This is believed to be the loss of 59225 and her 13 crewmen.

A US Navy Martin PBM Mariner.US Navy Martin PBM Mariner.

Six planes and 27 men had disappeared in the span of a single evening over the area of the Atlantic that would, a few years later, become infamous for the mysterious tragedies associated with it. After a massive search and extensive investigation, the Navy initially blamed Taylor for the loss of his flight in their report. But they changed the cause of the loss to “unknown” after successful lobbying by Taylor’s mother. While the ambiguous wording was merely meant to indicate that the service could not definitively identify the reason without wreckage to examine, it no doubt fed fuel to future speculations on the supposed paranormal nature of the Bermuda Triangle. Such fantastical theorizing is likely to go on for decades, if not centuries. Commemoration of these brave military aviators who perished in the line of duty should as well.

Memorial plaque at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport listing the members of Flight 19.Memorial plaque at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport listing the members of Flight 19.

Memorial plaque at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport listing the members of Flight 19.Memorial plaque at Patrick Air Force Base listing the crew of Mariner 59225.

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