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The Disappearance of Flight 19

Flight DUI


 . . .Or should it be FUI— Flying Under the Influence? This is probably the stupidest flight of fancy imaginable. To my knowledge there was no public hint of alcohol* associated with Flight 19 until 1980, when Larry Kusche sought to extricate the flight from the clutches of UFOs and The Bermuda Triangle. In doing so, he unintentionally introduced a theory based on the worst and unchallenged hearsay, typical of his clumsy style of examination.

   Kusche writes: “Several people told me that they had heard that Taylor was intoxicated or at least under the influence when he went on that flight. Despite extensive efforts, I have not been able to locate any of the people who are supposed to have this information firsthand.”



   He goes on about how the “story goes” that Captain William O. Burch, the base commander, withheld information from the report (which he did not have the authority to do) but told the investigation members privately. The rumors involve Lt. Arthur Curtis, the Aviation Duty Officer, as well. Supposedly he was afraid to testify truthfully before the Board when he said Taylor was normal in every respect— fear of repercussions because he let an unfit man fly that day. Kusche thinks that it is “ironic” that if there was a cover-up it was not of UFOs and otherworldly forces, nor a cover-up of in-house incompetence, but a coverup to spare Taylor’s mother and family the rumors her son had been drinking that day.

     Kusche relegates his entire dissertation to the bin of  pointless rumors with his next paragraph by deferring to Willard Stoll, the leader of Flight 18, whom he says can  “fortunately” clear it all up— Stoll’s firsthand encounters with Taylor in the briefing room convinced Stoll he had not been drinking at all.

   The rumors were better left unmentioned than introduced and then nebulously clarified. The fact that Kusche was not trying to label Taylor as a drunk was lost on many. But his entire approach to the subject was one so devoid of analysis that he latches on to every rumor and does not even challenge the most detached factoid. His meandering style of following rumor is why only inference is left in his wake rather than solid conclusions supported by very clear reasons.

     For yet another example, one of his statements, based again on general rumor, typifies the character of his Fort Lauderdale witnesses. “I also heard that ‘it was common knowledge at Fort Lauderdale’ that Taylor had been lost several times in the past. A few people had even wondered whether he might not have been so proud that after realizing he was wrong, he kept on going rather than turning back and admitting his mistakes.”

     I mean, really!

   Those “several times” he was lost are actually only twice in his whole flying career. Once was in the Atlantic when he got lost and then reoriented himself and made it back, just short of the carrier. He had to ditch in its wake. The other was in the Pacific when he failed to find Guam in a banged up Avenger with malfunctioning equipment. Taylor himself had caught his squadron commander in the Pacific leading them in the wrong direction. What was it William L.P. Burke said? It was Burke, his old skipper in the Keys, who got Taylor’s reputation posthumously exonerated in 1947 before the Bureau of Correction of Naval Records. Taylor had rescued him twice when he got lost out of the Keys. Getting lost twice in 4 years of flying big oceans was not excessive. But, again, it was only Taylor’s mistakes that were put under the spotlight in Kusche’s The Disappearance of Flight 19

   One particularly offensive misuse of private papers given to Kusche by Taylor’s sister and brother-in-law, Georgia and Whitney Lowe, shows his weak scholarly approach. He used it to bolster the rumor that laziness and nothing else motivated Taylor trying to get out of his flight that day. Kusche notes that Burke’s defense of Taylor ignored Clark Miller’s (see later in this article) claims that Taylor had merely gotten out of flights “for the sake of getting out of them.”  Kusche writes: “And Mrs. Taylor, understandably, did not recall an incident that had occurred several years before. On January 16, 1942, Taylor, then in training at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, had told an officer in charge that he could not fly that day because of a stomachache. He reported to sickbay, then went to his mother’s home to rest. ‘Instead,’ Mrs. Taylor wrote to her sister later, ‘he took the car and insisted on going to the Chef to eat.’ ” Playing hooky once in several years and Clark Miller’s dubious claims are a weak brush with which to paint Taylor as a goldbricker.

   Kusche’s desire seems repeatedly to undermine the legend of Flight 19, and nothing more. Why else bring up all of the above (and more)? The result can only be to minimize the significance of Taylor supposedly asking to be excused from the flight that day. And this, of course, is the basis for the legend of Taylor’s “premonition,” another main cog in Flight 19’s mythos. Yet in what appears to be his desire to further undermine the legend, Kusche introduces angles and claims that clumsily cancel each other out. For example, he underscores that Willard Stoll challenged the whole idea of Taylor trying to get excused. Stoll admitted he was actually not the designated leader of Flight 18. He took over for the assigned instructor when the instructor, feeling ill, asked him short notice. He thought that Curtis confused his flight with Taylor’s. Which is correct? If Stoll is right, the legend of Taylor’s premonition is removed, but so is the one piece of  “evidence” that inspired Kusche’s “sources” to “remember” Taylor as slovenly. 

     There is, actually, reason to defer to Willard Stoll. His Flight 18 took off at 1:45 p.m. Yet the legend of Flight 19 says that Flight 19 was 20 minutes late in takeoff. Presumably that’s because Taylor was busy trying to get excused. If true, this would mean Flight 19 was scheduled for near the same takeoff time as Flight 18. This is obviously impossible. Two flights cannot be flying the same mission and performing the same maneuvers over the Bimini wreck.  Flight 19 probably took off on time, and Taylor probably never asked to be excused.

   Illogical progression is also found in Kusche’s use of “MT-28” to paint Taylor as disturbingly confused. “The fact that Taylor first gave his call sign as MT-28 (M for Miami), rather than FT-28, indicates that, at least at the beginning, he was thinking he had flown out of Miami, rather than Fort Lauderdale.” Agenda is always made clear by someone’s rank inability to contextualize. Contextually it is clear Taylor is using “Mike Tare” out of force-of-habit. He plainly says in the same breath that he is looking for Fort Lauderdale.       

   The staggering lack of analysis in Kusche’s work beggars the imagination. Unfortunately, it gets even more offensive when Kusche latches on to Clark Miller’s fanciful recollections next, crediting him enough to paraphrase them from Lee Pearson’s notes. (Lt. Clark Miller was Taylor’s roommate at Fort Lauderdale at the time of the loss. In 1961 he spoke in depth to Lee M. Pearson, the Bureau of Naval Affairs historian. Miller, then a Commander in the Navy, apparently unloaded on Pearson. Some 14 years later, Pearson went over it with Kusche based on his firsthand notes.)  Some of what Kusche offers from these notes shows his ability to ferret red herrings. Kusche said Pearson characterized Miller as “quite bitter about the loss,” especially the 1947 exoneration. He considered it a whitewashing of the man responsible. Miller described Taylor as “carousing all night and sleeping during the day,” and even, as Kusche paraphrases, “given to taking naps on his flights.” 

     Even a cursory examination of what Miller said would cause one to disregard it instantly. One, Taylor had been transferred to Fort Lauderdale in November, the 21st to be precise. This was only two weeks before he disappeared. His first flight was not until the 1st of December. Taylor had only 2 hops before Flight 19. This really isn’t enough time for Miller to be remotely familiar with C.C. Taylor’s flying habits. I have received the biggest laughs yet when asking TBM pilots “How do you take a nap in an Avenger?” After the laughter, the answer is predictable. “You don’t.” Even a pilot’s inner leg muscles are used in flying an Avenger. If you fall asleep, you die rather fast! I am also privy to the rumors that Taylor had a “cottage in Miami” at the time. If so, he spent little time on base at Fort Lauderdale. Miller’s punctuated two weeks as Taylor’s roommate therefore cannot qualify him as an authority on Taylor’s habits. What is interesting about his opinions is that they do not involve the accusation that Taylor was under the influence but only that he was a sloppy and careless pilot and semi-wild liver.

   Miller was not the only Naval officer to make blunders. Some were not ill intentioned, but merely the product of a poor memory. Kusche’s inability to challenge patently impossible “remembrances” frequently places Taylor in a lazy or sloppy light. In quoting Taylor’s comrades from the Hancock (in particular Bill Brewer) that were also transferred to NAS Miami, there comes the following story of how Taylor was as much as 2 weeks late in reporting to his new position, then when reproached seemed to shrug it off carelessly. “Bill Brewer remembers, ‘Lieutenant Commander Spivey asked ‘Where is Mr. Taylor? He’s supposed to be here, too.’ We had no idea where ‘Mr Taylor’ was; he’d left the Hancock months before we had. When Charlie finally came in two weeks later, [Commander] Spivey asked him where he’d been. ‘We’ve had the bloodhounds out after you,’ he said . . .Charlie sort of shrugged it off . . .”

   From his own personnel record, of which I have a copy, comes the truth: “April 11 detached Air Force, Atlantic Fleet [Norfolk, VA], and to Naval Air Operational Training, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, for temporary duty involving flying and for further assignment. Reported 16 April. April 17 Ordered to Naval Air Station, Miami, Florida, for permanent duty involving flying. Reported 18 April.”

   Where’s the two weeks? Where’s the tardiness? Where’s the careless attitude?

     The mix up seems a very basic mistake. Taylor was frequently confused for Captain George Stivers, one of the pilots in the flight on December 5. Stivers was a grad of Annapolis in 1942. He was immediately sent with the 3rd Ranger Battalion to the hell hole of Guadalcanal, where he would be commended twice for his bravery there. He would also be commended later for his bravery and devotion to duty on bloody Tarawa. But mid-war, Stivers was repeatedly falling sick to malaria. He had taken up drinking quite heavily. He had left the front ranks to become General Julian Smith’s aid, and then after more sickness he finally transferred to Naval Aviation. 

     Stivers was an exuberant character from Missouri. Everybody liked him, and he liked to party. He was a professional Marine, but he had seen an awful lot of tragedy in the South Pacific. He had greatly aged by 1945. He hardly looked like a 25 year old. And he drank heavily. He was no drunk. But he was a partier. On one occasion he was even confined to his quarters for 2 days for being intoxicated in public.

     It is the reputation that surrounded Stivers that Kusche seems to carelessly, and even accidentally, transfer to Taylor despite the fact that Kusche interviewed Taylor’s TBM crew from the Hancock, one of whom said he was basically a tea-totaler.

     Although Kusche was not remotely trying to label Taylor as a drunk, his indiscriminate wanderings on rumors has caused Taylor and the Navy some of its worst injuries. The image he left of a careless pilot is equally groundless. Georgia and Whitney Lowe, Taylor’s sister and brother-in-law,  freely gave him, a man who called them friends, family papers, pictures and stories, so that Kusche could make Taylor the center of his book The Disappearance of Flight 19 (1980) only to receive in return a book that characterized C.C. Taylor according to second- and thirdhand rumors, vague 35 year recollections, and then fingered him with the blame. Thus ended the friendship.

*A 1974 article in Argosy by Robert Marx hinted at the possibility he was not feeling well or was intoxicated. It was couched in the language of being based on unsubstantiated rumor.


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500 Leagues of Sea

500 Leagues of Sea
The Bahamas
Andros & The Tongue
Eleuthera & More!
San Juan
The Sargasso Sea
Sea of Expanding Shapes
Somewhere Between
Through the Electronic Fog
Fantastic Journey
The Eye

The “Lost Squadron”

The Disappearance of Flight 19
The Real Flight of Flight 19
The PBM Mariner
Views of the Okefenokee

Flights of Fancy

Bad Navigation?
Flight DUI
A 6th Avenger
Through the Hoaxing Glass


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