On 5th December 1945, just two months after the Allied powers won World War II, five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers vanished without trace over the Atlantic. It’s the event that put the Bermuda Triangle on the map.
The Bermuda Triangle is a vast expanse of open water flanked on three sides by mainland Florida and the islands of Bermuda and Puerto Rico. Stories about the region go back as far as the 15th century. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed through the area and reported unusual events, including erratic compass readings, strange lights in the sky, and the sea rising and falling even though there was no wind.
Countless ships were then recorded to have disappeared in the region during the 19th century. However, it was after a slew of disappearances in the 20th century that people started suspecting that an unknown phenomenon in the region was responsible. These disappearances included the famous cases of the USS Cyclops, which went missing in 1918, and its sister ships the Proteus and Nereus, which went missing in 1941. But what really sparked all the talk and speculation about the Bermuda Triangle was Flight 19.
A routine training exercise
On 5th December 1945, Flight 19 undertook a routine navigation and combat training exercise called “Navigation Problem No. 1”, headed up by Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor. The student pilots were Edward Joseph Powers, George William Stivers, Forrest James Gerber and Joseph T. Bossi, who were accompanied by nine crewmembers. Their call signs were ‘Fox Tere’ and Taylor was FT-28.
They took off shortly after 2pm, flying from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station to Hens and Chicken Shoals in the Bahamas where mock bombing was carried out. This all went without incident. Later, at around 3.45pm, Lieutenant Robert F. Cox—who was flying in the vicinity to join up with his own squadron of students—picked up a voice over the training channel:
Taylor: “Powers, what does your compass read? Powers? What does your compass read?… I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”
Cox informed Fort Lauderdale that he had encountered a lost plane or boat and then made contact with Flight 19, asking what was wrong. Taylor is recorded to have said:
“Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken. I am sure I’m in The Keys but I don’t know how far down and I don’t know how to get to Fort Lauderdale.”
Cox gave Taylor advice and soon after the NHA3 Air Rescue Unit from Port Everglades made contact as well. Taylor said that the flight would turn northeast to avoid flying over the Gulf of Mexico. Later, however, Taylor was recorded to have said the following:
“How long have we gone now? Let’s turn and fly east two degrees. We are going too damn far north instead of east. If there is anything we wouldn’t see it… FT-28 to all planes in flight, change course to 90 degrees for 10 minutes…. You didn’t get far enough east! How long have we been going east?”
It was clear that neither Taylor nor any of the other pilots had any idea where they were. By this point the weather had started to deteriorate, making things even more difficult for the inexperienced pilots. Taylor was later quoted suggesting that they fly due east until they run out of gas, while Lieutenant Commander Don Poole at Fort Lauderdale heard an unidentified pilot shout:
“Dammit, if we would just fly west we would get home!”
Eventually, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Everglades lost contact with Flight 19. Taylor asking Powers what course they were on now was the last thing Taylor was recorded to have said.
Nothing was ever heard from Flight 19 again. That very night, a Martin PBM-5 Mariner was diverted to go and search for Flight 19. It, too, vanished—along with its 13 crewmembers. While the Martin Mariner is officially missing just like Flight 19, it’s generally believed to have exploded since the SS Gaines Mills reported an explosion in midair at the time the plane fell off the radar. Still, no debris has ever been recovered.
Despite an extensive search and investigation by the US Navy, no one knows what happened to Flight 19 or the Martin Mariner. This has led to a whole bunch of theories emerging, along with various different versions of those last transmissions between the pilots and Fort Lauderdale.
The Bermuda Triangle connection
Allan W. Eckert in his 1962 article, The Mystery of the Lost Patrol, reports that Taylor made an ominous statement during his final radio communications:
“We can’t find west. Everything is wrong. We can’t be sure of any direction. Everything looks strange. Even the ocean doesn’t look as it should.”
Most famously, Eckert says that Taylor transmitted this particularly strange and garbled message:
“We are entering white water. Nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are. The water is green, no white.”
Eckert would not name his source for these statements and nowadays they are generally considered to be fanciful embellishments of what actually happened. These statements are largely responsible for perpetuating the concept of the Bermuda Triangle (although it was another author, Vincent Gaddis, who coined the term “Bermuda Triangle” when writing about Flight 19 and other disappearances in 1964).
Still, it’s impossible to find a totally accurate transcript of those conversations—because no transcript exists. All of the reported dialogue between the pilots is based on written logs and the witness testimony of those involved, like Cox, and some of it is reconstructed or interpreted. It’s hearsay, basically. There are no audio recordings to back any of it up.
Premonitions, aliens and time travel
Conspiracy theorists believe that the statements cited by Eckert are true statements that have been deliberately omitted from the officially reported transmissions. It’s also been said that Corporal Allan Kosner, who was supposed to have been part of Flight 19 but pulled out due to sickness, had a premonition of what would happen. Similarly, Taylor himself asked to be removed from the flight, giving no reason other than simply not wishing to go. Conspiracy theorists believe that he, too, had a premonition.
Many people believe that the lost Avengers were snatched by aliens (especially given the numerous reports that planes were coming into contact with UFOs during the 1940s, including Roswell). Steven Spielberg used this idea in his 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the film, the planes of Flight 19 were seized by extraterrestrial forces and dumped in the Sonoran Desert, while the pilots were eventually returned to Earth by their alien captors.
Others believe that a spatial or temporal phenomenon resides in the Bermuda Triangle which the Avengers were pulled into. They argue that the strange magnetic qualities of this phenomenon are the reason why both of Taylor’s compasses failed mysteriously without warning.
There is, of course, no evidence for any of this, and sceptics argue that compasses are not infallible and will invariably give different readings over larger areas. The official line is that the planes probably crashed into the ocean due to pilot error, bad weather, certain technical vulnerabilities of the Avenger plane, and running out of fuel.
Whatever happened, those planes flew in totally the wrong direction for a considerable time without anyone noticing. And this is despite being led by Charles Taylor, an experienced and highly qualified instructor with 2,509.3 flight hours under his belt, who’d flown the area many times. Therein lies perhaps the biggest mystery of all.