By Howard L. Rosenberg
Sealift no. 6 (Jun. 1974): 11-15.
During the past century more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft sailed into oblivion in the area known as the Devil's Triangle, Bermuda Triangle, Hoodoo Sea, or a host of other names.
Exactly what happened to the ships and aircraft is not known. Most disappeared without a trace. Few distress calls and little, if any, debris signaled their disappearance.
Size of the triangle is dictated by whoever happens to be writing about it, and consequently what ships and the number lost depends largely on which article you read.
Vincent Gaddis, credited with putting the triangle "on the map" in a 1964 Argosy feature, described the triangle as extending from Florida to Bermuda, southwest to Puerto Rico and back to Florida through the Bahamas. Another author puts the apexes of the triangle somewhere in Virginia, on the western coast of Bermuda and around Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Sizes of the areas described ranged from 500,000 to 1.5 million square miles.
Whatever the size or shape, there supposedly is some inexplicable force within it that causes ships and planes to vanish.
According to Richard Winer, who recently completed a TV film documentary on the area, one "expert" he interviewed claims the missing ships and planes are still there, only in a different dimension as a result of a magnetic phenomenon that could have been set up by a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object).
Winer is currently writing a book on the subject and has traveled most of the area in his sailboat. He confesses he "never saw anything unusual." Winer's TV program dealt mostly with the strange disappearance in 1945 of five Navy TBM Avengers with 14 fliers who flew from Ft. Lauderdale into the triangle never to return. A PBM Mariner with a 13-man crew was sent out to search for the fliers. It too, never returned.
Few have really dug into all the aspects of this mystery, but many are content to attribute the loss of Flight 19 to some mysterious source, like UFOs. Michael McDonnel did do some digging. In an article he wrote for the June 1973 edition of Naval Aviation News, he suggested the most realistic answer to the loss of Flight 19 was simple, that after becoming lost, they ran out of gas. Many question that possibility by asking, "How could such experienced pilots get lost? How could all the compasses be wrong?"
If the planes were flying through a magnetic storm, all compasses could possibly malfunction. Actually, man's knowledge of magnetism is limited. We know how to live with it and escape it by going into space, but, we really don't know what exactly it is.
As for the pilots' experience, Flight 19 was a training flight. Though advanced, it was still training. Even the most "experienced" pilots make mistakes.
McDonnel concludes his article with the statement, "Former TBM pilots that we questioned express the opinion that the crew of an Avenger attempting to ditch at night in a heavy sea would almost certainly not survive the crash. And this, we feel was the case with Flight 19. The aircraft most probably broke up on impact and those crewmen who might have survived the crash would not have lasted long in cool water."
The PBM Mariner was specifically designed as a rescue plane with the ability to remain aloft for 24 hours. But the Mariners were nicknamed "flying gas tanks" by those who flew them. It was common for a pilot to search the crew members before each flight for matches or cigarette lighters because gas fumes often were present. After this Mariner disappeared, the Navy soon grounded all others.
Another mysterious disappearance that baffles researchers is that of the SS Marine Sulphur Queen. Bound for Norfolk, Va. from Beaumont, Texas, the tanker was last heard from on Feb. 3, 1963, when she routinely radioed her position. The message placed her near Key West in the Florida Straits.
Three days later, Coast Guard searchers found a solitary life jacket bobbing in a calm sea 40 miles southwest of the tanker's last known position. Another sign of the missing tanker or her 39-man crew has ever been found.
The absence of bodies might be explained by the fact that the waters are infested with sharks and barracuda. As for the tanker, she was carrying 15,000 long tons of molten sulphur contained in four metal tanks, each heated to 275 degrees Fahrenheit by a network of coils connected to two boilers.
No one knows for sure whether she blew up, but it is a possibility. If gas escaped from the tanks and poisoned the crew, the radio officer may have not had time to send a distress call before being overcome. The slightest spark could have set the leaking sulphur afire in an instant.
Writing in the Seamen's Church Institute of New York's magazine, The Lookout, Paul Brock said that officers on a Honduras flag banana boat "reported to the Coast Guard that their freighter ran into a 'strong odor' 15 miles off Cape San Antonia, the western tip of Cuba, just before dawn on February 3. The odor was acrid.'"
Brock speculates that they could have smelled the fumes coming from the Sulphur Queen "floating somewhere over the horizon, her crew dead and her cargo blazing."
According to Brock, T-2 tankers like the Sulphur Queen had a history of battle failure. He said that "during the preceding years, three T-2s had split in half." Brock also cites a case in December 1954 when a converted Navy LST, the Southern District, was heading up the North Carolina coastline when she disappeared without a trace or distress call. Her cargo was powdered sulphur.
One of the most celebrated stories of Devil's Triangle victims, is that of USSCyclops which disappeared in March of 1918.
In his television program, Richard Winer indicated the captain of the Cyclops was rather eccentric. He was reputedly fond of pacing the quarterdeck wearing a hat, a cane and his underwear. Prior to the Cyclops disappearance there was a minor mutiny by some members of the crew which was promptly squelched by the captain and the perpetrators were sent below in irons. None of this really offers a clue to what happened to the collier Cyclops, but it suggests something other than a mysterious force might have led to her doom.
According to Marshall Smith writing in Cosmopolitan, September 1973, "theories ranged from mutiny at sea to a boiler explosion which carried away the radio shack and prevented any distress call." One magazine, Literary Digest, speculated that a giant octopus rose from the sea, entwined the ship with its tentacles and dragged it to the bottom. Another theory was that the shipped suddenly turned turtle in a freak storm, trapping all hands inside.
Fifty years later, novelist Paul Gallico used the idea as the peg for a novel called The Poseidon Adventure which was made into a successful movie in 1972.
Cyclops was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service, which became the Naval Transportation, which merged with the Army Transport Service to become the Military Sea Transportation Service and then Military Sealift Command. When she sailed she was loaded with 10,800 tons of manganese ore bound for Baltimore from Barbados in the West Indies.
Information obtained from Germany following World War I disproved the notion that enemy U-boats or mines sank the Cyclops. None were in the area.
Another story concerns the loss of the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion in the Devil's Triangle. It is impossible to stretch even the farthest flung region of the triangle to include the position of the lost sub.
Truth is, Scorpion was found by the MSC oceanographic ship USNS Mizar about 400 miles southwest of the Azores, nowhere near the Devil's Triangle. Its loss was attributed to mechanical failure, not some demonic denizen of the deep.
There are literally thousands of cases of lost ships ever since primitive man dug a canoe out of the trunk of a tree and set it in the water. Why all this emphasis on the Devil's Triangle? It's difficult to say.
It would seem that, historically, whenever man was unable to explain the nature of the world around him, the problems he faced were said to be caused by gods, demons, monsters and more recently, extra-terrestrial invaders.
Before Columbus set sail and found the Americas, it was believed that the world was flat and if you sailed too far west, you would fall off the edge. That reasoning prevails concerning the Devil's Triangle. Since not enough scientific research has been done to explain the phenomenon associated with the area, imagination takes over. UFOs, mystical rays from the sun to the lost Continent of Atlantis, giant sea monsters and supernatural beings are linked to the mysterious disappearances in the triangle.
To someone unprepared to take on the immense work of scientific research, supernatural phenomenon make for an easy answer. But, it is amazing how many supernatural things become natural when scientifically investigated.
There are a number of natural forces at work in the area known as the Devil's Triangle, any of which could, if the conditions were right, bring down a plane or sink a ship.
Many reputable scientists refuse to talk to anyone concerning the Devil's Triangle simply because they do not want their good names and reputations associated with notions they consider ridiculous.
One expert on ocean currents at Yale University, who asked not to be identified, exploded into laughter at the mention of the triangle and said, "We confidently, and without any hesitation, often go to sea and work in that area." Another scientist refused to talk about it.
Atmospheric aberrations are common to jet age travelers. Few have flown without experiencing a phenomenon known as clear air turbulence. An aircraft can be flying smoothly on a beautifully clear day and suddenly hit an air pocket or hole in the sky and drop 200 to 300 feet.
Lt. Cmdr. Peter Quinton, meteorologist and satellite liaison officer with the Fleet Weather Service at Suitland, Md., said, "You can come up with hundreds of possibilities and elaborate on all of them and then come up with hundreds more to dispute the original ones."
"It's all statistical," he said, "there's nothing magical about it." According to Quinton, the Bermuda Triangle is notorious for unpredictable weather. The only things necessary for a storm to become a violent hurricane are speed, fetch (the area the wind blows over) and time. If the area is large enough, a thunderstorm can whip into a hurricane of tremendous intensity. But hurricanes can usually be spotted by meteorologists using satellite surveillance. It is the small, violent thunderstorms known as meso-meteorological storms that they can't predict since they are outside of normal weather patterns. These are tornadoes, thunderstorms and immature tropical cyclones.
They can occur at sea with little warning, and dissipate completely before they reach the shore. It is highly possible that a ship or plane can sail into what is considered a mild thunderstorm and suddenly face a meso-meteorological storm of incredible intensity.
Satellites sometimes cannot detect tropical storms if they are too small in diameter, or if they occur while the satellite is not over the area. There is a 12-hour gap between the time the satellite passes over a specific part of the globe until it passes again. During these 12 hours, any number of brief, violent storms could occur.
Quinton said, "Thunderstorms can also generate severe electrical storms sufficient to foul up communication systems." Speaking of meso-meteorological storms, which she dubbed "neutercanes," Dr. Joanne Simpson, a prominent meteorologist at the University of Miami, said in the Cosmopolitan article that "These small hybrid type storm systems arise very quickly, especially over the Gulf Stream. They are several miles in diameter, last a few minutes or a few seconds and then vanish. But they stir up giant waves and you have chaotic seas coming from all directions. These storms can be devastating."
An experienced sailor herself, Dr. Simpson said on occasion she has been "peppered by staccato bolts of lightning and smelled- the metallic odor of spent electricity as they hit the water, then frightened by ball lightning running off the yards." Sailors have been amazed for years by lightning storms and static electricity called "St. Elmo's Fire."
Aubrey Graves, writing in This Week magazine, August 4, 1964, quotes retired Coast Guard Capt. Roy Hutchins as saying, "Weather within the triangle where warm tropical breezes meet cold air masses from the arctic is notoriously unpredictable." "You can get a perfectly good weather pattern, as far as the big weather maps go, then go out there on what begins as a fine day and suddenly get hit by a 75-knot squall. They are localized and build up on the spot, but they are violent indeed."
Many boatmen, Hutchins said, lack understanding of the velocity of that "river within the ocean" (Gulf Stream) which at its axis surges north at four knots. "When it collides with strong northeast winds, extremely stiff seas build up, just as in an inlet when the tide is ebbing against an incoming sea."
"The seas out there can be just indescribable. The waves break and you get a vertical wall of water from 30 to 40 feet high coming down on you. Unless a boat can take complete submergence in a large, breaking sea, she can not live."
Last year, the Coast Guard answered 8,000 distress calls in the area, 700 a month or 23 a day. Most problems could have been avoided if caution had been used. The biggest trouble comes from small boats running out of gas. According to the Coast Guard, an inexperienced sailor is looking for trouble out there. A small boat could be sucked into the prop o
Another phenomenon common in the region is the waterspout. Simply a tornado at sea that pulls water from the ocean surface thousands of feet into the sky, the waterspout could "wreck almost anything" said Allen Hartwell, oceanographer with Normandeau Associates.
Hartwell explained that the undersea topography of the ocean floor in the area has some interesting characteristics. Most of the sea floor out in the Devil's Triangle is about 19,000 feet down and covered with deposition, a fine-grained sandy material. However, as you approach the East Coast of the United States, you suddenly run into the continental shelf with a water depth of 50 to 100 feet. Running north along the coast is the Gulf Stream which bisects the triangle carrying warm tropical water.
Near the southern tip of the triangle lies the Puerto Rico Trench which at one point is 27,500 feet below sea level. It's the deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean and probably holds many rotting and decaying hulks of Spanish treasure galleons.
Many articles concerning the triangle have made the erroneous statement that the Navy formed Project Magnet to survey the area and discover whether magnetic aberrations do limit communications with ships in distress, or contribute to the strange disappearance of ships and aircraft.
Truth is that Navy's Project Magnet has been surveying all over the world for more than 20 years, mapping the earth's magnetic fields. According to Henry P. Stockard, project director, "We have passed over the area hundreds of times and never noticed any unusual magnetic disturbances."
Also passing through the Devil's Triangle is the 80th meridian, a degree of longitude which extends south from Hudson Bay through Pittsburgh then out into the Triangle a few miles east of Miami. Known as the agonic line, it is one of two places in the world where true north and magnetic north are in perfect alignment and compass variation is unnecessary. An experienced navigator could sail off course several degrees and lead himself hundreds of miles away from his original destination.
This same line extends over the North Pole to the other side of the globe bisecting a portion of the Pacific Ocean east of Japan.
This is another part of the world where mysterious disappearances take place and has been dubbed the "Devil Sea" by Philippine and Japanese seamen. Noted for tsunami, the area is considered dangerous by Japanese shipping authorities. Tsunami, often erroneously called tidal waves, are huge waves created by underground earthquakes. These seismic waves have very long wave lengths and travel at velocities of 400 miles per hour or more. In the open sea they may be only a foot high. But as they approach the continental shelf, their speed is reduced and their height increases dramatically. Low islands may be completely submerged by them. So too may ships sailing near the coast or above the continental shelf.
Quite a bit of seismic activity occurs off the northern shoreline of Puerto Rico. Seismic shocks recorded between 1961 and 1969 had a depth of focus ranging from zero to 70 kilometers down. Relatively shallow seaquakes could create tsunamis similar to those in the Pacific Ocean, but few have been recorded.
A distinct line of shallow seaquake activity runs through the mid-Atlantic corresponding with the features of the continental shelf of the Americas.
Some claim we know more about outer space than we do about inner space, including the oceans. If that is true, much information has yet to be developed concerning the Devil's Triangle. As recently as 1957 a deep counter-current was detected beneath the Gulf Stream with the aid of sub-surface floats emitting acoustic signals. The Gulf Stream and other currents have proved to consist of numerous disconnected filaments moving in complex patterns.
What it all adds up to is that the majority of the supernatural happenings offered as explanations for the Devil's Triangle mysteries amount to a voluminous mass of sheer hokum, extrapolated to the nth degree.
Mysteries associated with the sea are plentiful in the history of mankind. The triangle area happens to be one of the most heavily traveled regions in the world and the greater the number of ships or planes, the greater the odds that something will happen to some.
Each holiday season the National Safety Council warns motorists by predicting how many will die on the nation's highways. They are usually quite accurate, but, no monsters kill people on highways, only mistakes.
Seafarers and aircraft pilots also make mistakes. Eventually scientists will separate fact from the fiction concerning the Devil's Triangle. Until then, we can only grin and bear the ministrations of madness offered by triangle cultists.
If you happen to be passing through the triangle while reading this article, don't bother to station extra watches to keep a wary eye out for giant squids. Better to relax and mull over the words of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
"Wouldst thou," so the helmsman answered,
"Know the secret of the sea?"
Only those who brave its dangers,
Comprehend its mystery.