BY MIKE GAFFEY
Published: 2015.11.25 11:48 AM
Seventy years ago this month, five Navy torpedo bombers carrying 14 crewmen took off from Fort Lauderdale on a training flight and vanished without a trace, triggering one of the largest peacetime air, sea and land searches in U.S. history and cementing the legend of the “Bermuda Triangle.” Compounding the tragedy, a Navy flying boat carrying 13 crew and dispatched from what is now Patrick Air Force Base to assist in the search also disappeared a half-hour after takeoff. Now, a Sebastian man's decades of research could help solve the enduring mystery of Flight 19.
Jon Myhre, a pilot and former Palm Beach International Airport controller who has studied the Flight 19 case for more than 30 years and wrote a 2012 book about the mystery, “Discovery of Flight 19,” thinks that three of the five TBM Avengers that disappeared Dec. 5, 1945 crash-landed in the Atlantic Ocean after becoming lost and running out of fuel.
Myhre believes that two of the planes made it back to the Florida coast, but likely went down near Titusville and Fellsmere. Myhre theorizes that one torpedo bomber crashed southwest of Titusville in the 29,000-acre Seminole Ranch Conservation Area, which is state-owned property.
“I’ve had about six expeditions over the last several years up in that area trying to locate it,” he said. “Unsuccessful, but they were interesting trudges through the swamps.” The other plane crash-landed southwest of Sebastian, Myhre said, who claims a Vero Beach judge and a friend out hunting on private land years ago found plane wreckage and two bodies still inside and reported the find to the Navy. “The Navy sent people down and the people told the judge at that time that the plane was an Avenger and that it was from Flight 19,” Myhre said. “They took the bodies and they took most of the wreckage. The judge called them back several month later to find out if they could name the pilots, and the Navy said it wasn’t from Flight 19 and they didn’t give him any information on the pilots.”
The flight that became legendary was supposed to be a simple three-hour navigation exercise and mock bombing run. Led by Lt. Charles Taylor, Flight 19 was to fly from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale ― today called Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport ― to the Hen and Chickens shoals in the Bahamas to practice dropping their torpedoes, and then fly back to base, according to the NAS Fort Lauderdale Museum website. About 90 minutes after takeoff, Taylor radioed that his compass and back-up compass weren’t working and he was lost. For the next three hours, Taylor led the other pilots, all trainees, far out to sea as weather conditions worsened. Radio facilities on land picked up frantic transmissions from the pilots until after 6 p.m., when Taylor was heard calling for his men to prepare to ditch their aircraft simultaneously because of lack of fuel. “I think he was just confused,” Myhre said of Taylor. “Nobody can understand it, but he was under the assumption that they had flown down into the Gulf of Mexico. He wanted to fly east, but everybody’s telling him no, no, you’re in the Atlantic. So he agreed and everybody turned west. They flew west for almost an hour before the first plane went down.”
After land radar stations determined the lost squadron was north of the Bahamas and east of Florida, two search and rescue Mariner PBM aircraft took off from Naval Air Station Banana River, known today as Patrick Air Force Base. One of the Mariners, which was carrying 13 crewmen, called in a routine radio message a few minutes after takeoff, then was never heard from again. “Normally, it had a crew of about six or seven, but they had a whole bunch of folks who wanted to go with them,” Myhre said of the Mariner. “Everybody wanted to help out.”
The ensuing search for the 27 men involved 18 Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Solomons, some 248 Navy plans and many merchant ships. Despite covering more than 200,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and miles of land in Florida's interior, the search came up empty.
Myhre said the search effort “was bigger, as far as I’m concerned, than the one for Amelia Earhart,” the famed aviator who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world.
The disappearances led to the myth of the “Bermuda Triangle” or “Devil’s Triangle,” a 500,000-square-mile region of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico where dozens of ships and airplanes are said to have disappeared under unusual circumstances.
Myhre doesn’t believe that strong electromagnetic disturbances or death rays from the lost city of Atlantis are to blame for the disappearances, or that extraterrestrials in UFOs abducted the Flight 19 crew members, as depicted in the Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “The Bermuda Triangle is nothing but a sea story,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bermuda Triangle that’s any stranger than anywhere else in the world. The only people who earnestly believe that are people who also believe in ghosts and goblins and the Tooth Fairy.” Myrhe believes the Mariner exploded in midair after gas fumes ignited, which correlates with a report from a tanker at sea that saw an explosion and flames in the sky that night. “I’ve talked to some Mariner pilots and they told me you could always smell gas in the airplane because of the amount of gas, and they had fuel lines running everywhere,” he said. “It’s possible. It could have been a careless smoker.”
Myhre estimates the Mariner’s wreckage lies in waters about 25 miles east of New Smyrna Beach. A dive expedition at the site in October was unsuccessful, but Myhre and fellow Flight 19 researcher Andy Marocco, working with the NAS Fort Lauderdale museum, plan another expedition next spring to search for the missing Mariner. The two will be sharing their findings on Flight 19 with a London-based film crew for an upcoming television show about the mystery. “We’ve redone our calculations and I think we got a real good handle on where the airplane is,” Myhre said. “Maybe we’ll be able to determine what happened to them as well.”
Posey contacts Air Force about lack of PAFB memorial to lost Mariner crew
BY MIKE GAFFEY
U.S. Congressman Bill Posey has contacted the Department of the Air Force about the possibility of erecting a memorial at Patrick Air Force Base to 13 PBM Mariner crewmen lost 70 years ago this month in the search for Flight 19, Posey spokesman Rob Medina said Nov. 13.
A monument and exhibit at the Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale Museum commemorates the disappearance of 14 airmen aboard five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers on Dec. 5, 1945. But there is no memorial at Patrick to 13 men lost on one of two Mariner rescue planes that aided in the search that day. The Mariner, PBM-5 BuNo 59225, took off from Naval Air Station Banana River ― the former name of PAFB ― and vanished about a half-hour later. No trace of the plane was ever found. “There is no historical marker or memorial,” Chrissy Cuttita, operations chief with 45th Space Wing Public Affairs, said in an email. “Nor does any facility here say Navy or Banana River NAS specifically. The only thing we have is what was once a boat ramp on a walking trail along the Banana River.”
A 500-page Navy board of investigation report published a few months after the planes were lost concluded the Flight 19 airmen apparently became disoriented and ditched in rough seas after running out of fuel. The report also attributed the loss of the PBM to a midair explosion. Longtime Flight 19 researcher Jon Myhre of Sebastian can’t understand why Patrick doesn’t have a memorial to the lost Mariner crewmen.
“You’d think they would have one,” he said.