By Lindsey Williams

In real life there is often a thin line between tragedy and mystery. Such are the circumstances surrounding the fate of Flight 19 recalled by the recent recovery of a World War II Navy torpedo bomber from the sea bottom near Key West.

Treasure salvor Mel Fisher and his crew found the corroded plane 16 years ago while searching for the Spanish galleon Atocha. Having, brought up several million dollars worth of gold and jewels from the ancient ship, Fisher lifted the more modern wreckage to view once more.

By tracing a serial number, the plane was identified as one of 24 that went down during training flights from the Key West Naval Air Station in 1945.

Until the identification, newspapers and television revived the “Bermuda Triangle” myth speculating that the old plane was one of five that disappeared “without trace” in December 1945 with 14 crewmen.

As a Yeoman aboard U.S.S. Eagle 27 at Key West and Fort Lauderdale in the closing months of WWII, I participated in the first of a series of flight tragedies of which Flight 19 was but a part. The true story is absorbing.

True Story

In July 1945, the Eagle 27 was attached to the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale. Our mission was to deploy in the Gulf Stream while fledgling pilots attempted to target us with dummy torpedoes set to run deep, under our hull.

We replaced a sister Eagle which was sunk when an errant torpedo, accurately aimed, tore all the way through the unlucky ship. Perhaps it, too, will be recovered someday and fuel again the legend of evil forces lurking in the briny deep.

Our last mission was to assist in the search for a missing PBY “flying boat.” The plane took off from the Miami Naval Air Station on a patrol flight and disappeared without word, taking 15 crewmen to their deaths. We recovered one body mangled by sharks.

Shortly thereafter the venerable Eagles were decommissioned, and I was honorably discharged. Before the year was over, Flight 19 hit the headlines. Newspapers, magazines and radio (no TV yet) kept the story pumped up for weeks. Eventually a legend of hype was established. I was doing a stint on the Detroit Free Press rewrite desk and followed the story closely.

Here are the facts, confirmed over the years by additional research.

Flight 19 consisted of five Grumman Avenger torpedo planes. Each was loaded with 18,250 pounds of fuel, enough for 1,000 miles of flight. All were equipped with two magnetic compasses, radio, identification signal transmitters (IFF) and electronic homing beams. All pre-flighted OK.

Three crewmen were assigned to each plane and each man wore a “Mae West” life jacket. Each plane also carried a rubber life raft in an outside storage compartment, and the raft inflated automatically upon contact with water. The flight leader was Lt. Charles C. Taylor, an experienced instructor recently transferred to the station.

Taylor at 1:15 requested to be relieved of the mission but gave no reason. His last-minute request was denied. One crewman also asked to be excused because of illness; and, in this case, was granted.

Clear Weather

The flight took off on schedule at 2:10 p.m. in clear, bright weather. Their orders were to fly east 56 miles, simulate low-level bombing runs over Hens and Chickens Cay, continue on 67 miles, turn north 73 miles to Grand Bahama Island, then turn southwest 120 miles to home base. The whole exercise was estimated to take two hours.

The first contact with Flight 19 occurred at 3:40 p.m. when Lt. Robert F. Cox, another instructor flying that day, overheard Taylor talking to one of his students named Powers over the 4805 training-flight radio channel: “What does your compass read? I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”

Cox cut in and asked if Taylor needed help. “Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” said Taylor. “I am over land, but it’s broken. I’m 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 told Taylor to put the afternoon sun on port wing and if he was over the Keys he would quickly reach the southern tip of Florida. Cox said he would begin to fly south.

The leader of Flight 19 radioed back, “I know where I am now. I’m at 2,300 feet. Don’t come after me.” Nevertheless, Cox turned south to try and intercept the lost planes. Radio signals between the two men grew increasingly weaker, indicating they were growing farther apart instead of closer.

Birth Of Myth

The above transcript of conversation with Flight 19, taken from the official Board of Inquiry record, is here recounted because the sensationalists have invented wild accounts of Taylor’s remarks. Alleged assertions of “the sun doesn’t look right” “the ocean looks strange,” everything is white” are inventions to invoke the mysterious power of the Bermuda Triangle.

It was apparent that Flight 19 was exactly where it should be, north of the Bahamas. Repeated efforts to get Taylor to turn west or to shift to the emergency radio channel instead of the now out-of-range training frequency were ignored. Taylor indicated he was fearful that if he switched he might lose contact with his other planes.

This was a fatal mistake that deprived him of accurate instructions. In his confusion he also failed to turn on his IFF signal which would have registered him on radar screens, and to turn on his automatic homing signal.

Despite all, shore-based radio operators managed to get a radio direction “fix” on Taylor’s faint signal just before the planes ran out of gas about 8 p.m.

Two PBY flying boats, which had been standing by since 4 p.m., were dispatched on different courses to the fix at 29 degrees north and 79 degrees west.

The PBY “Mariner” did not radio a requested position one half hour after takeoff. Repeated attempts to raise the rescue craft were unavailing. That plane and its 13 crewmen also were missing! The next day a fishing trawler crew reported that they had seen the PBY explode and fall to the water.

The second rescue plan reached the fix area without mishap and began an expanded-square search procedure. It was joined shortly by many more planes and ships. A six-day search of the South Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico did not find life rafts, debris, bodies or oil slick. Nothing.

Weather at the fix point was found to be limited visibility, winds of 35 knots and “turbulent seas.”

It was now clear what happened.

When Flight 19 turned north after its bombing run it ran into a typical Gulf Stream summer squall. Overcast skies obscured the sun, violent wind rocked the planes causing the compasses to rock to and fro. This is a condition well known to sailors and airmen. Surely Taylor had encountered the phenomenon so it is surprising that he panicked when he could not orient himself. He compounded his difficulty when he mistook the Bahama Cays for the Florida Keys.

Perhaps Taylor was experiencing some physical or mental problem that day that caused him to ask to be excused and which later clouded his judgment. Certainly he persisted in zigzagging northeast against instructions from shore personnel. Even two of his students were overheard imploring him to turn west. However, being disciplined officers, they followed their leader to the death of all.

Tragic, but not mysterious.

March 7, 1987

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