Shortly after 2:00 p.m. on 5 December 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers departed U.S. Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a routine navigational training flight with Lt. Charles C. Taylor acting as the flight's leader. Taylor was a seasoned naval aviator with some 2,500 flying hours and multiple World War II combat tours in the Pacific. The group of aircraft, dubbed Flight 19, were to execute Navigation Problem No. 1, which was to fly to the east from the Florida coast, conduct bombing runs at a place called Hens and Chickens Shoals, turn north, then proceed over Grand Bahama Island. The flight's last leg was to fly back to NAS Fort Lauderdale. The weather was projected to be relatively normal except for a few scattered showers.
On the first leg of the flight, everything went as planned as they dropped practice bombs without incident. As the group began to turn north for the second leg of the journey, trouble began for Flight 19. At approximately 3:45 p.m., Fort Lauderdale’s flight tower received a message from Taylor, who reportedly sounded confused and worried.
“Cannot see land,” Taylor said. “We seem to be off course.”
“What is your position,” the tower responded.
Then there were a few moments of silence. Tower personnel peered out into the clear day in the direction where the planes were supposed to be operating, but there was no sign of them.
“We cannot be sure where we are,” the flight leader announced. “Repeat: Cannot see land.”
Contact was lost for about 10 minutes, but when it resumed, it was not the voice of the flight leader. “We can't find west. Everything is wrong. We can't be sure of any direction. Everything looks strange, even the ocean,” the voice reported. There was another delay, and then tower personnel learned from intercepted transmissions that the flight leader had turned over his command to another pilot for unknown reasons.
After 20 minutes of radio silence, the new leader’s voice transmitted to the tower, but it was trembling, bordering on hysteria. “We can't tell where we are… everything is… can’t make out anything. We think we may be about 225 miles northeast of base…” For a few moments, the pilot rambled incoherently before uttering the last words ever heard from Flight 19. “It looks like we are entering white water… We’re completely lost.”
Within minutes, tower personnel scrambled two PBM Mariner flying boats carrying rescue equipment. They were headed for Flight 19’s last known estimated position and after 10 minutes into the rescue flight, they checked in with the tower, but that was the last time one of the rescue planes transmitted back to Fort Lauderdale’s flight operations. Now, six aircraft with personnel had vanished. For five days, Coast Guard, Navy, and naval aviation personnel searched extensively in more than 250,000 square miles of Atlantic and Gulf waters, but nothing was found—no aviators, wreckage, life raft, or even an oil slick. Nothing. The Navy launched an investigation into the incident, but nothing conclusive was found.
Fourteen men were lost as a result of the Flight 19 tragedy. Thirteen more were lost from the PBM Mariner attempted rescue.