The mystery surrounding the Bermuda Triangle is known the world over.
What isn't as well known is what first led to the belief that this triangular cut of ocean--from Miami to Bermuda to the island of Puerto Rico--had preternatural powers to suck in any man-made thing that came its way.
The incident that gave rise to the superstition occurred in 1945 when five aircraft disappeared on a training mission in that region.
In a compelling new book Discovery of Flight 19: A 30-Year Search for the Lost Patrol in the Bermuda Triangle (The Paragon Agency, Publishers), author and former military pilot Jon F. Myhre comes up with a very well-reasoned explanation.
Three months after the signature end of World War II, training missions were still being conducted for Navy and Marine personnel at the Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
On the afternoon of December 5, 1945, bad weather had blown through Fort Lauderdale, with gusty winds, dark clouds, and rain passing by and blowing out to sea--the same direction that this final training mission of the day would be flying.
The plan was for five U.S. Avenger torpedo bombers, known as Flight 19, to fly with 14 men in a triangular course at an altitude of 1000 feet. Bombs would be dropped during the course of the flight.
The five torpedo bombers left Fort Lauderdale a little after 2 in the afternoon, a little later than expected but there was expected to be plenty of time for what was to be a brief mission. Four hours later, none of the five planes could be accounted for; the fourteen men on the training mission were never found.
A five-day search began shortly after it was realized Flight 19 was missing. Adding to the mystery was the fact that one of the Mariner search planes with 13 men on board is thought to have exploded shortly after take-off. Though the plane had been carefully checked before departure and was filled with 12 hours worth of fuel, an oil slick in the area of the explosion was the only evidence found of the search flight the next morning.
Over the course of the five-day search for the five--and then six--missing planes, there were reported sightings of flares and even a couple of reports of opened life rafts with men in view. However, nothing could be documented, and in the final and official government report there was no conclusive explanation as to what happened to the men or the planes.
Thus, we have the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.
Enter a Former Army Pilot
In 1982 the story caught the interest of Jon F. Myhre, a former U.S. Army pilot turned corporate pilot who had a layover in Nassau in the Bahamas where he read an item about the disappearance of Flight 19. Myhre had done a great deal of flying in the area and decided to "look into what might have happened."
What started as mild curiosity became an obsession. Myhre soon found enough leads that he undertook what became a 30-year search for answers. He conducted intensive research and connected with people who could help him raise money for deep sea dives to look for wreckage; he also determined that there was reason to believe that two of the planes made it back to land, and he tramped through swamplands and interviewed people who were said to have found debris in the area he targeted. Along the way, his story was featured on Unsolved Mysteries on the Discovery Channel, Larry King Live and other news programs.
Now 30 years after he began, Myhre has written a book that begins by laying out what was known about Flight 19 at the time. The book then tracks back through all the clues that were reported during the five-day search for the planes, and Myhre pieces together a very believable explanation of what happened to each plane and its crew.
The Training Mission
The 1945 training mission was led by Lt. Commander Charles Taylor who had arrived for the exercise 25 minutes late and had actually stopped to ask a friend to fly the mission for him. Whether he wasn't feeling well or had a premonition about flying that day will never be known; whatever the reason, Taylor soon found himself guiding 13 men in five separate Avenger bombers on their mission.
The bombing mission was to be a relatively short flight. The planes had been out earlier in the day; not all of them had been re-fueled, and more than one plane was suffering technical problems. One of Lt. Taylor's two compasses was out of commission and his high-frequency radio was on the fritz; the high-frequency radio would have been his only hope for communicating as they flew through the stormy weather in the area. All these details came to light as Myhre worked on the puzzle of the planes' disappearance.
Since there was no evidence at all found of any debris or remains, some theorists thought that the "one for all, all for one" philosophy might have been put into effect. (If one plane ran into trouble and had to ditch into the water, then all the planes would go down at that location so that they could all work together for a rescue.)
Myhre used radio transcripts, weather reports, wind direction, and flying coordinates to investigate what probably happened, and he began to come up with a very different scenario. Myhre's findings indicate that Lt. Taylor, the commander of the group, may have become exceedingly disoriented, and when one of the other pilots realized just how far off Taylor was taking them, the other pilot may have turned around to fly what was actually the correct direction toward land. This pilot was followed by another one of the planes, and though they made it to Florida, they ran out of fuel before they could land safely.
In the book, Myhre carefully explains which plane went where at what time, and explains the "sightings" that were reported but were ultimately discounted when no plane or survivor was found.
Simply put, the training mission was lost because of bad luck, bad weather, and some fatal mistakes that were made.
Three crash sites now have been located and one aircraft has been raised from the sea. The irony of Flight 19 is that none of the men died within the infamous Bermuda Triangle.
Book Brought New News to Light
In a follow-up discussion with publisher Douglas Westfall at Paragon, a publishing company that specializes in first-person accounts, Westfall told me that Myhre's suspicion that one aviator may have survived has been bolstered by hearing from the family after the book was released.
Clues uncovered by Myhre indicate that Staff Sergeant George Paonessa, who was in one of the planes that made it to land, parachuted out of the plane before it crashed; he may have survived, possibly deciding to go AWOL after such a horrific experience. After the book's publication, the family sent Myhre and Westfall a Western Union telegram said to be from Paonessa; his girlfriend had also reported to the family that she saw him twice in the early 1950s.
The full story of what happened to Paonessa is currently being investigated by a relative who is a documentary filmmaker. Stay tuned!
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