(Overview from H-Gram 056) On 5 December 1945, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale were lost on a routine overwater navigation flight over the Bahamas Islands. No confirmed trace of the planes or the 14 pilots and aircrewmen aboard has ever been found. Fragmentary radio communications indicated compass failure and disorientation of the flight leader as the likely cause leading to the planes running out of fuel and ditching at sea as bad weather front moved in, hampering the search and any possible survival. A PBM Mariner flying boat launched from Naval Air Station Banana River (now Patrick Air Force Base) to search for the missing Avengers probably caught fire in flight with the loss of all 13 men aboard. Radar and visual sighting of a flaming aircraft falling from the sky indicated a sudden catastrophic end for the Mariner; although the exact cause of the Mariner’s loss was not determined, the planes were prone to gasoline vapor accumulating in the bilges. The exact cause of the loss of the five Avengers has also never been determined, however the “mystery” is one of the most enduring in aviation history and quickly became part of “Bermuda Triangle” and “Alien/UFO” lore (see the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which depicts the “return” of Flight 19 by the aliens).
On 5 December 1945, a flight of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers took off from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale for a routine navigation and bombing training mission over the Bahamas; although extensive but sporadic communications were received during the flight indicating compass and navigation problems, neither the aircraft nor the 14 men (six Navy and eight Marines) aboard were ever seen again. A Martin PBM Mariner with 13 men aboard launched from Naval Air Station Banana River to search for the missing aircraft also never returned after suffering a probable in-flight fire. Despite one of the largest air and sea searches in history, no confirmed trace of the Avengers or the men aboard has ever been found. It remains one of the greatest aviation mysteries and was the most significant event leading to the myth of the “Bermuda Triangle,” where supposedly an unusual number of ships and aircraft have disappeared without a trace. Numerous accounts have embellished the story over the years. I will endeavor to stick to the official record although the board of inquiry’s conclusion is not especially helpful, “We are not able to even make a good guess as to what happened.”
Although often referred to as the “Lost Patrol,” Flight 19 was a routine training mission, “Navigation Problem No. 1” to be exact. The designated route was to depart NAS Fort Lauderdale, fly 091-degrees for 56 miles (about 20 minutes) to Hens and Chicken Shoals and conduct low-level bombing runs on a concrete target for about 30 minutes. The flight was then to continue on 091 for another 67 miles, then turn left and fly 346-degrees for 73 miles (crossing Grand Bahamas Island along the way), and then fly 241 degrees for 120 miles back to NAS Fort Lauderdale.
The instructor for the flight was Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor, USNR, who was a combat veteran aboard USS Hancock (CV-19) in the Pacific, with 2,509.3 hours of flying time, 606 in the Avenger. It was, however, the first time LT Taylor would be leading this particular navigation syllabus problem, having recently arrived from NAS Miami. The other four pilots, one Navy and three Marines, were far less experienced, averaging about 300 hours each, with about 60 hours in the Avenger. This would be their third and final time flying a basic navigation problem. Four of the aircraft carried two aircrewmen each who were undergoing advanced combat aircrew training in the Avenger. The fifth aircraft only had one aircrewman, as Corporal Allan Kosnar, USMC, had asked to be excused from the mission.
Avenger FT-28 (TBM-3D BuNo 23307) was flown by LT Charles Taylor, USNR, with AOM3 George Devlin, USNR, and ARM3 Walter Parpart, USNR. FT-36 (TBM-1C BuNo 46094) was flown by CAPT Edward Powers, USMC, with SSgt. Howell Thompson, USMCR, and Sgt. George Paonessa, USMC. FT-3 (TBM-1C BuNo 45714) was flown by ENS Joseph Bossi, USNR, with S1C Herman Thelander, USNR, and S1C Burt Baluk, Jr., USNR. FT-117 (TBM-1C BuNo 73209) was flown by CAPT George Stivers, USMC, with Pvt. Robert Gruebel, USMCR, and Sgt. Robert Gallivan, USMC. FT-81 (TBM-1C BuNo 46325) was flown by 2ndLt. Forrest Gerber, USMCR, with PFC William Lightfoot, USMCR.
Prior to the flight, all the aircraft received a thorough pre-flight check confirming fuel tanks were full (enough for 5.5 hours of flight), all survival gear was in place, and instruments were checked. The most significant discrepancy was that all five planes were missing their 24-hour clocks, a commonly pilfered item. This was not considered a “no-go” as all pilots were supposed to have a wristwatch. The weather was briefed as “favorable” with a sea state moderate to rough.
The flight was scheduled to launch at 1345, but the instructor showed up late for the briefing. Without giving a reason, LT Taylor asked the duty officer to find another instructor because he did not want to take this flight. As there was no other instructor available, his request was denied.
The flight launched at 1410 and was led by a trainee pilot, with LT Taylor in the rear, call sign Fox Tare Two Eight (FT-28). Estimated time of return was 1723. Initially all seemed to go well. The tower at NAS Fort Lauderdale heard communications from Flight 19 indicating it was finishing up the bombing practice. At 1540 came the first sign of trouble. By this time, the flight should have made the turn from 091-degrees to 346-degrees. At that time, the senior flight instructor at Fort Lauderdale, LT Robert F. Cox (call sign FT-74), was airborne joining up on his flight (to fly the same Navigation Problem 1 route) when he heard communications between a voice (LT Taylor) and “Powers” (CAPT Edward J. Powers, USMC, one of the trainees). Although FT-74 did not know at the time who was transmitting, he assessed that an aircraft or boat was in distress. The voice kept asking Powers for a compass reading, before Powers finally said, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”
At this point FT-74 informed Fort Lauderdale that either planes or boats were lost. After several unsuccessful radio attempts, FT-74 finally made contact with FT-28 (LT Taylor) and asked what the trouble was. LT Taylor responded, “Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, FL. I am over land but it is 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.” FT-74 responded with instructions for how to get from the Keys back to Fort Lauderdale, but LT Taylor sounded rattled and confused. After several more confusing exchanges, LT Taylor asked for NAS Miami to see if they had Flight 19 on radar. FT-74 asked if FT-28 had his emergency IFF gear on, which LT Taylor did not.
At 1600, LT Taylor reported visibility of 10-12 miles. At that time, FT-74 observed very rough sea covered with whitecaps and streamers. At the time surface winds were 22 knots but visibility was good in all directions except directly west.
By 1626 Air-Sea Rescue Task Unit Four (ASRTU-4) at Port Everglades was monitoring the communications and also contacted NAS Fort Lauderdale and NAS Miami to see if anyone could get a radio-direction finding fix on the flight. Merchant ships in the area were notified and several Coast Guard cutters made ready to get underway, but communications delays and interference from Cuban stations slowed the efforts. At 1628, ASRTU-4 suggested to FT-28 that another plane in the flight with a working compass take the lead. This was followed by fragmentary communications amongst the Flight 19 aircraft about where they were, but no other aircraft appeared to take the lead. By this time, FT-74 was flying south from Fort Lauderdale to attempt to close with Flight 19 (if Flight 19 was actually over the Florida Keys) but instead of communications growing stronger, they were getting weaker, and then FT-74’s transmitter lost power. LT Cox, the senior flight instructor (FT-74) later testified that he then deduced that Flight 19 was actually over the Bahamas and opening range to the north.
At 1630, the NAS Fort Lauderdale duty officer notified the flight officer of Flight 19’s difficulty. The flight officer quickly understood that if Flight 19 had flown the first leg of the mission correctly, it was not time-distance feasible to have been over the Florida Keys. The flight officer notified ASRTU-4 to instruct the flight to proceed on course 270-degrees or toward the sun (this was also standard procedure for any lost aircraft from NAS Fort Lauderdale – in the afternoon).
By 1630, the NAS Fort Lauderdale operations officer was in telephone contact with ASRTU-4 and by this time all concurred that Flight 19 was almost certainly lost somewhere over the Bahamas and not the Florida Keys. Operations asked ASRTU to ask FT-28 if he had a standard YG (homing transmitter card) to home in on the tower’s direction finder. FT-28 did not acknowledge the query. FT-28 was then requested to shift to the search and rescue frequency (3,000 KC) but LT Taylor declined citing need to keep the formation together. LT Taylor indicated he would fly 030-degrees for 45 minutes to be sure they were not over the Gulf of Mexico, but seven minutes later said he was changing course to 090. At this time two different students were heard on the radio, “Dammit, if we could just fly west we could get home; head west dammit.”
LT Cox (FT-74), having landed at NAS Fort Lauderdale, believed he knew where Flight 19 was and requested permission to take the duty plane (a single seat, single engine aircraft) to go search. However, the weather at Fort Lauderdale was rapidly deteriorating, and LT Taylor radioed that he would proceed on 270-degrees until they reached land or ran out of fuel. As this course of action should have brought Flight 19 back to Florida, the operations officer decided at 1736 not to send the duty plane out. However, at 1804 LT Taylor indicated he was turning back to 090, apparently still confused as to whether he was over the Gulf of Mexico or the Bahamas. By this time the Gulf and Eastern Sea Frontier High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) nets had bearings from six sites on FT-28 placing Flight 19 north of the Bahamas and east of Florida (The HFDF “fix” had a radius of 100 miles, but certainly confirmed Flight 19 was not over the Gulf of Mexico). All airfields on the east coast of Florida were alerted to turn on searchlights, field lights, and beacons. However no one thought to transmit the fix information in the blind for Flight 19 to hear.
By 1820, a PBY Catalina flying boat from Coast Guard Air Station Dinner Key (near Miami) was airborne searching for Flight 19, but was having transmitter trouble and could not make contact. The last garbled messages were coming in from FT-28, “All planes close up tight…we’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.” At the same time, the British tanker Viscount Empire was passing through the fix area and reported encountering “tremendous seas and winds of high velocity.”
By this time multi-engine search aircraft were taking off from fields the length of the Florida coast. Two Martin PBM-5 Mariner flying boats at NAS Banana River (now Patrick Air Force Base) were preparing for a regularly scheduled night navigation training flight but were quickly re-assigned to the search. The pre-flight check of PBM-5 BuNo 59225 indicated all in order with fuel for a 12-hour flight, as well as no indication of any gas fumes (something to which PBMs were prone – the nickname of PBMs was “the flying gas tank.”) The position passed to the PBMs prior to takeoff for the lost Avengers was 130 miles east of New Smyrna, Florida. Weather conditions in the area were 800−1,200-foot overcast, air very turbulent, sea very rough. By 1927 both PBMs were airborne from Banana River. At 1930, “Training 49” (BuNo 59225), flown by Lieutenant (junior grade) Walter G. Jeffrey, USNR, made a last radio call (“out”) and was never heard from again, with three pilots and ten aircrewmen aboard.
At 2115, the tanker SS Gaines Mills sent a message, “At 1950, observed a burst of flames, apparently an explosion, leaping flames 100 feet high and burning for ten minutes. Position 28 degrees 59 minutes north, 80 degrees, 25 minutes west. At present passing through a big pool of oil. Stopped, circled area using searchlights, looking for survivors. None found.” The master later reported observing a plane catch fire and immediately crash, exploding on impact with the sea. The escort carrier USS Solomons (CVE-67) reported tracking both PBM’s on radar as Training 49 split off and then suddenly disappeared from radar in the same position reported by Gaines Mills. Heavy seas interfered with any attempt to locate wreckage or to buoy the area. The board of inquiry transcript includes extensive discussion of gas fumes and smoking regulations (strictly enforced on PBMs). Although the board reached no firm conclusion, the line of questioning suggested an inflight fire caused by gas fumes as a likely cause.
Over the next five days, a massive search was conducted at sea and overland Florida. A number of old wrecks were found, along with various floating objects, but no confirmed trace of either the five Avengers or the PBM. Although the exact cause of the loss of the PBM is not known, it is pretty certain that some combination of fire and explosion caused the plane to go down with all aboard. The fate of the Avengers remains a mystery. However, the most likely explanation is that the aircraft ditched as a group off the east coast of Florida north of the Bahamas in the face of a rapidly moving severe weather front. The prospects of survival in an Avenger ditched at sea are marginal at best, especially for the aircrewmen in the back. Ditching an Avenger at night in heavy seas would almost certainly prove fatal, causing the plane to break up, and if anyone got out, they would not last long in the cool December water and winds.
Exactly why LT Taylor became so disoriented will never be known. He took control of the flight sometime after the first turn, apparently believing the trainee flight leader had gotten lost. Having just come from NAS Miami he was familiar with the Florida Keys area but not with the Bahamas. His late arrival for briefing and request not to fly suggested that he might not have been fit for duty. He apparently had difficulty with one or both of his compasses. He may not have had a watch (and the plane had no clock) as he appeared to have no conception of time during the flight, frequently asking the others how long they had been on certain courses. Taylor was generally a good pilot, although he had gotten lost on three previous occasions, ditching his plane at sea twice. There were also rumors, never proven, that he had too much to drink the night before and that he was experiencing some unknown difficulty with this dating life (sounds like a lot of accident reports).
The board of inquiry concluded, “the leader of the flight became so hopelessly confused as to have suffered something akin to mental aberration.” LT Taylor’s mother took extreme offense at the Navy’s conclusion, accusing the Navy of blaming her son when there were no bodies, no planes, and no evidence. With an attorney, she conducted her own investigation and petitioned the board for the Correction of Naval Records, which concluded “that an injustice is found in subject officer’s record under applicable standards of Naval Law.” LT Taylor was officially declared cleared of blame, with the conclusion, “The cause of the accident remains unknown.” It most certainly wasn’t due to aliens or the Bermuda Triangle.
In April 2017, the NAS Fort Lauderdale Historical Association and Museum Members installed a commemorative plaque at the former NAS Banana River seaplane ramp, “Dedicated to all U.S. Naval personnel who served at Naval Air Station Banana River (Patrick Air Force Base). October 1940 – August 1947. In particular, to the officers and crew of “Training 49,” a Martin PBM-5 Mariner seaplane from NAS Banana River, lost searching for Flight 19 on 5 December 1945. Lieutenant (j.g). Walter C. Jeffrey Commanding. (LTJG) Harry G. Cone, (ENS) Roger M. Allen, (ENS) Lloyd A. Eliason, (ENS) Charles G. Arceneaux, (RM3) Robert C. Cameron, (AMM1) Donald E. Peterson, (AOM3) James F. Osterheld, (AOM3) John T. Menendez, (S1C) Alfred J. Zywicki, (S1C) Wiley D. Cargill, (S1C) Philp B. Neeman, (ARM3) James F. Jordan.”
(Sources: “The Loss of Flight 19,” Naval History and Heritage Command at history.navy.mil, including Official Accident Reports and “Lost Patrol: Flight 19”, by Michael McDonnell, Naval Aviation News, June 1972, 8-16. “Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor, USNR, Flight 19 Instructor, FT-28” at NAS Fort Lauderdale Museum site nasflmuseum.com)