The Bermuda Triangle

My favorite reference on this topic is the book by Larry Kusche, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved (NY: Harper, 1975).

Kusche, then a reference librarian at Arizona State University, became interested in the Bermuda Triangle and all of the strange happenings attributed to this apparently unusual part of the world. What he found speaks volumes for how mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle are created and propagated.

As far back as 1952, George Sands noted that an abnormal number of accidents seemed to occur in the triangular region in the Atlantic Ocean with Bermuda, Miami, and San Juan, Puerto Rico at its corners. Vincent Gaddis named this area the Bermuda Triangle in 1964, and through the 1960s the legend grew. A bestseller by Charles Berlitz in 1974, entitled The Bermuda Triangle, brought the mystery into the national spotlight. Many strange shipwrecks and plane crashes had supposedly happened in the Bermuda Triangle, often in calm weather, sometimes associated with bizarre happenings like spinning compasses or lights in the sky. In some cases, according to the legend, ships might be found drifting at sea, their crews and passengers inexplicably vanished.

Kusche investigated each incident associated with the legend, going to original news articles and contemporary records. Here's what he found:

Perhaps the best-known story from the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is that of Flight 19, a training flight of 5 Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers lost on 5 December, 1945. Lt. Charles Taylor and the four other pilots flew their planes from Fort Lauderdale and were lost at sea, most likely when their aircraft ran out of fuel over the Atlantic. Taylor's compass malfunctioned, and he mistakenly calculated their position near the Florida Keys when in fact he was east of Florida. When he turned his flight to the north to intersect Florida, he instead was flying parallel to the eastern coastline of Florida. Some of his pilots suggested he turn to the west, but Taylor continued to take his doomed flight further to the north and east, away from Florida, until they ran out of fuel and presumably ditched at sea. There were no survivors among the 14 crewmen, and the aircraft were never recovered.

The tragedy deepened when one of the two Martin PBM Mariner flying boats dispatched on a search and rescue mission also vanished with its crew of 22 men. The crew of the merchant ship SS Gaines Mill near Ft. Lauderdale observed an explosion in the air soon after the missing plane had taken off and then passed through an oil slick, suggesting that the Mariner exploded shortly after take-off. The Mariner is sometimes referred to as a "flying gas tank" due to its tendency to leak fuel fumes into the main cabin. It is likely that these fumes were ignited in the missing search plane.

While 5 December, 1945 was certainly a terrible day for the U.S. Navy, there is little to indicate any supernatural forces at work, at least until the Bermuda Triangle legend was born and in need of stories to strengthen its case. The official Navy report (dated 3 April, 1946) listed pilot error as the cause of the accident, but Taylor's family intervened and had the conclusion changed in November to blame the accident on "causes or reasons unknown." While this may have mollified Taylor's family, it was a first step down a long and slippery slope. As one author after the next embellished the story and passed it on, words got attributed to Taylor that had him saying things like, "Everything is wrong ... strange ... the ocean doesn't look as it should," or better yet, "They look like they're from outer space. Don't come after me!" There is no basis for these quotes in any of the Navy's radio logs or reports. They do, however, illustrate the tendency of writers to exaggerate when it suits their purpose. In a similar manner, Taylor's trainee pilots were described, incorrectly, as experienced veterans who could never become lost, and weather conditions which deteriorated through the day to the point that a ditched landing at sea would not likely succeed were turned into fine, clear, calm, and sunny skies.

When one subtracts from the legend of the Bermuda Triangle the events which happened elsewhere and the easily explainable, though tragic, accidents, there are still several examples of ships and planes which simply vanished. But such examples of missing ships, and planes exist all over the world. A joint statement by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Naval Historical Center reads:

"The Coast Guard is not impressed with supernatural explanations of disasters at sea. It has been their experience that the combined forces of nature and unpredictability of mankind outdo even the most far fetched science fiction many times each year."

(See the full original text on their Bermuda Triangle Fact Sheet

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Last modified 27 August, 2016. © Gregory C. Sloan.