The evening of December 5, 1945, the search for Flight 19 had been delayed for several hours due to the belief that the flight would make it back and the fact that a storm front was moving in that could prove dangerous for search aircraft. Only one PBM had been launched so far, and this was from Miami’s Dinner Key station. But, adding again to the confusion of that night, it was not communicating with base and had missed its check-in time.
By 7 p.m. that night there was heavy overcast over Florida. Out to sea there was increasing wind and isolated rain showers. Nevertheless, despite the worsening weather a search had to be launched, for it was becoming clear Flight 19 was not going to make it back to base. The much anticipated order was given to commence around 6:30 p.m.
Banana River NAS was a main cog in the Search and Rescue wheel over Florida. It was also the base devoted to training men in the PBM Martin Mariner, the aircraft used most frequently in rescuing downed crew because it could land on water and it also had enormous range. It was nicknamed, perhaps not-so-affectionately, the “flying gas tank.” Right now two night training flights, Training 49 and Training 32, were being prepared for routine training flights. One was to be piloted by Harrie Cone, with 2 other co-pilots, and 9 crew under training. Initially, they were scheduled to take off around 7 p.m. But now the flights were commandeered for active Search and Rescue. In this instance, a fully qualified command pilot had to be placed aboard. Lt. Walt Jeffrey was scheduled for only a local flight and therefore volunteered to command Training 49 into the Atlantic in search of the flight.
Training 49 and Training 32 departed Banana River Naval Air Station around 7:27 p.m. Training 32 headed straight out into the Atlantic while Training 49 went north along the coast and then cut out to sea to home-in on Flight 19’s 5:50 p.m. radio position fix.
So far, so good. But mystery was to strike, sudden and without warning. Training 32 reported in on time, but nothing was ever heard from Training 49 again. It wasn’t until 9:12 p.m. that night that a message came over the teletype at Air-Sea Rescue Headquarters in Miami reporting that the freighter s.s. Gaines Mill saw a huge fireball explode. The report said it was at 7:50 p.m. This indicated some form of midair tragedy. But the report was so nebulous that SAR thought it might have been a massive midair collision of Flight 19.
Training 32 was diverted. They had been searching Flight 19’s last reported position fix (the radio fix at 5:50 p.m.) far out to sea and immediately headed to the location of the explosion (about 25 miles off New Smyrna Beach), arriving there at about 10:45 p.m. Lt. Gerald Brammerlin, the pilot, and his crew saw no trace of any debris or explosion. He confirmed there were no rain showers, no lightning, or anything that could have caused the explosion.
No vessel reported finding any trace as well, including the Gaines Mill which had immediately diverted after the explosion to search. However, the captain of Mill had reported that members of his crew claimed to have seen oil and debris. (A sample of oily water brought back for examination proved not to be oil at all.)
The Navy was able to ascertain that the explosion was indeed the Martin Mariner. For some reason it had blown to pieces. This was confirmed by the carrier USS Solomons. It later reported that its radar had been following the Mariner’s blip since it took off from Banana River, and where the Gaines Mill reported the fireball is where their radar saw the blip fall from the scope.
Yet no trace was ever found.
The upshot was, of course, that 6 aircraft and 27 men ended up vanishing that night. The Navy confessed to having no explanation for anything that went on that night, and news headlines as much as 5 months later still read this night’s events were the “number one mystery of the naval air arm.”
Mystery though it was, there is little reason to doubt that the Mariner blew up. The mystery is, what caused it to blow up? Mariners underwent rigorous preflight checks by a ground technician and then by the plane captain, a machinist’s mate who always flew on the assigned plane. These guys flew with the plane; they didn’t cut corners in their inspection.
There is some confusion, even within the records of the Board proceedings, as to what exactly was seen by the Gaines Mill. Some say that the crew saw a plane on fire, then saw it hit the ocean and explode, while most reports claim there was merely a huge fireball indicative of a midair explosion. The first report read: “At 7:50 p.m. hundred foot burst of flame lasting several minutes seen” doesn’t clarify too much, as well as the later reports trying to clarify it further.
Coast Guard Lt. Commander William T. Murphy was called upon to testify and explain exactly what had happened. But his testimony sometimes does not help either. At his first appearance he made no mention of the carrier Solomons’ report that a blip believed to have been the Mariner dropped off their radar scope at the precise time and location as the explosion. But when recalled days later, after the Board had been pursuing the case, he produced the statement in court. There remained, however, a lackadaisical attitude about pursuing an explanation to the Mariner. Although he admitted the water in the area is only 78 feet deep, he was negative to the Board question about diving for the wreck even though the precise coordinates were known.
All this paved the way for the legend in the 1960s. The Mariner was written up as a mysterious disappearance. It, too, was sucked into the void with Flight 19. Perhaps it had gotten too close to the flight, and whatever ushered the flight away also took the PBM. When enough information was dug up suggesting the Mariner had exploded, its explosion became, as it should, a center of controversy. Naturally, the easiest excuse became the most popular. This was the fuel leak theory.
Perhaps this is true, but the known chain of events doesn’t really suggest it. This theory overlooks the reports that the plane was in flames in midair. This would indicate the crew knew there was a severe problem. Yet they sent no SOS, no matter how terse. An aircraft with more than one pilot who knows his plane is going down is able to shout something into the mic or have the radioman, sitting behind him, send out the message.
With hindsight, some of the other things the Gaines Mill reported don’t make sense either. How could the plane give off a 100 foot fireball for several minutes? Perhaps this is only a condensed version of what was later reported. Supposedly, the burning plane hit the surface where the wreckage continued to burn for a while. Yet this is hard to believe for a few reasons. One, is that I inspired a huge search for the wreckage. My book, They Flew into Oblivion, (while still in ms form) inspired NBC to retain the late David Bright to command 2 vessels to do a 5 mile grid search over the area where the Gaines Mill reported itself to be. I had precise coordinates for the sighting that night. This week-long search yielded an enormous shock and surprise.
It is true that the Gaines Mill did not state which direction it was heading. Therefore it was hard to tell exactly off what quarter they saw the fireball. Although the first report said “overhead,” the radio operator or captain, whoever was responsible for that word, must have had a fairly dynamic interpretation of what “overhead” meant. If it had been directly over the Gaines Mill, Bright should have easily spotted some of the wreckage in the area since we had the precise coordinates of the Gaines Mill.
The lack of finding anything would indeed indicate that the Mariner blew to pieces in midair and no piece large enough to be easily detected hit the ocean to sank intact to the bottom. This is an unusual amount of destruction even for a plane disparagingly nicknamed a “flying gas tank.”
What could have happened? If a fuel leak was responsible, then the fire struck quickly and completely disintegrated the aircraft. If an engine caught fire, the Gaines Mill might have seen this fire trailing from the aircraft, but those aboard the ship should also have reported 2 explosions. The engine and wing fuel tank would have gone up and then the body tanks, creating two huge explosions one after the other that would have sent the plane to the sea in seconds. Yet still, should not debris have been found?
The destruction of the Mariner is an unfortunate event, but it is even a more unfortunate coincidence with the loss of Flight 19. The latter has caused us to overlook this very unusual incident. Its loss is explained without any real explanation. It is merely blamed on disappearing into mystery. Or it is written off as merely a fuel leak.
Truth, as always, lies in between. For the Mariner, the answer is not other world forces. Nor perhaps is the answer the banality of a mere fuel leak. The lack of wreckage on the bottom indicates an unusual and disturbing level of destruction. Could the middle ground here be something the Triangle is indeed noted for?
Reports of unusual lights were made along the Florida east coast here that night so long ago. Those described as white, hovering, descending then simply winking out, can be ascribed to “parachute flares” the other search aircraft were dropping to illuminate the ocean. But another type of odd light was seen here. These were green lights or glowing auroras. They were even reported from civilian land observers on shore. Their sources were never determined, though the Coast Guard and Navy made attempts.
These odd glows and corona manifestations have been seen in the area even today. Sometimes when seen at a distance they are labeled a “weird version” of St. Elmo’s Fire. Although aircraft are equipped with “static lines” to discharge electrical charges, aircraft have been seen to glow green with a charge from “regular” St. Elmo’s Fire until, as in one case (observed by famed pilot Martin Caidin), it simply exploded. In the case of another pilot, Chuck Wakely, in 1964, his Cessna glowed iridescent green, his navigational equipment went erratic, his radio dead, and his plane was under its own control before the manifestation finally dissipated and he came back on course.
Could the destruction of the Mariner be attributed to these mysterious green “auras and charms”? We must remember that the crew of the Gaines Mill sent conflicting reports. Some must have seen something they considered fire enveloping the aircraft. Yet the explosion was just one incredible burst, jolting enough for a passing freighter to report it and, as we know now, disintegrating the plane so that no debris could be found at the spot where the freighter reported itself.
There is obviously an unusual electric component to these charms or St. Elmo’s Fire, one that might be powerful enough to set off a plane known as a “flying gas tank.”
In the 1970s another weird mystery latched onto The Bermuda Triangle and through time even onto Flight 19. “The Philadelphia Experiment” became a popular “urban legend” that found connection with The Bermuda Triangle via Charles Berlitz’s poplar 1974 book on the Triangle. In an interview with Dr. J. Manson Valentine contained therein, the good doctor spoke of such a secret wartime experiment that had proven Einstein’s Unified Field Theory. It had occurred at Philadelphia Naval Yard in 1943. Supposedly the Navy was trying to render a ship invisible as a form of camouflage. By use of magnetic degaussers they had hopes of scrambling the electromagnetic wavelengths around the ship, rending it largely invisible. The surface of the sea would look more like the blur ahead in a long country road on a hot day. This blur is really sky, and it is created by the curve of the earth and the bending of light. The same principle was involved in the test. The degaussers would bend the wavelengths, along which we see, and render the ship “invisible.”
Discussion of this topic was merely an adjunct to Berlitz’s inquiry into the Triangle, but his interview with Valentine ignited interest in this sleeping legend. It would come into its own with Berlitz’s and William L. Moore’s 1979 book The Philadelphia Experiment. Altogether this laid the groundwork for an unusual event in the 1990s that connected the infamous secret cloak and dagger experiment with Flight 19.
The Paonessa family, (George Paonessa was a radioman on Powers’ plane, FT-36) finally tried to get information on what might have happened that confusing night so long ago. They pursued the matter even to their congresswoman, Nita Lowey, and received in reply, on letterhead mind you, a statement that all she could find out was that Flight 19 was associated with some at-sea experiment called “The Philadelphia Experiment.”
This has to be the biggest gaff ever made on Congressional letterhead. But it does reveal that Lowey did try to probe into it. However, it seems certain that she encountered only governmental rumors, for there was no project named “The Philadelphia Experiment.” This name stems purely from the popular press.
Several have researched the possibility there was some form of secret wartime project that is the basis of the legend before the embellishments were added. The truth of it is that there could have been a project that tried to render a ship “invisible” to magnetic mines. Magnetic mines were a nightmare during the war and the Navy would most definitely have experimented with demagnetizing them somehow. Degaussers might have been used on the ships and strong electromagnetic force fields generated. As with many experiments, something inadvertent was probably discovered and then later pursued with another project.
According to the legend, the experiment produced bright and eerie corona manifestations and glowing auras around the ship. The legend claims invisibility and other forms of electromagnetic effects like fusion of dissimilar substances also occurred. But the most visible were bright corona manifestations and auroras. Even the experiment ship turned invisible, and then even the crew!
The kernel of truth appears to be a Navy project on trying to deflect mines. If this is the case, then we must assume the original experiment (project name unknown) was carried out in 1943. During this experiment, unexpected phenomena occurred. The most appreciable were corona discharges, often greenish lights.
Since these unusual effects were doubtlessly not expected, it is possible the Navy halted the experiment and decided to probe more deeply into the value of these accidental discoveries. This seems suggested by a chain of project code names that have been uncovered. One of them is Project Rainbow. This name, found by researchers in the list of government projects taking place at the time, is more than interesting in that it may recall, and have been inspired by, the corona auroras produced during the alleged earlier experiment. It should be noted here for clarification that corona glows, invisibility of metallic objects, and fusion of dissimilar substances, as claimed in the legend, have been inadvertently produced in tests which involved electromagnetism (The Farnsworth Fusion Machine and in the Hutchison Effect, for examples.) What is particularly interesting is that these effects were not known at the time that “The Philadelphia Experiment” legend emerged into the public spotlight. The effects which Philo T. Farnsworth had discovered in the 1930s were only uncovered by historical research much later, and it would not be until the 1990s that John Hutchison would accidentally create such effects with old Navy surplus equipment he had bought.
The legend goes on to tell us more. For one, because of the high profile of such corona manifestations, the legend says that the Navy preferred to conduct “RAINBOW” at sea by 1945. Can this be the connection with Flight 19 or even with the Mariner? Was there a Navy ship out there generating force fields that deranged Flight 19’s compasses or electrified the atmosphere so much where the Mariner was flying that it blew up? It is interesting to report that Training 32 did report another ship in the vicinity of where the explosion occurred, but no other ship but Gaines Mill bothered to report the very noticeable fireball.
The rumors of something more sinister afoot that night find support in a rather disturbing telegram Corporal Joseph Paonessa received on December 26, 1945, 21 days after his brother George vanished with Flight 19. This more than anything finally prompted members of the family to pursue an answer much later.
Questions had nagged the family for decades about this telegram. It read: “You have been misinformed about me. Am very much alive. Georgie.”
The first question was, naturally, how could it have been from George? The second, who knew that his brother Joe was stationed nearby at Jacksonville? The family is certain nobody in Jacksonville knew George’s nickname. Why was Joe sent the telegram? Was it a sick “friend” that knew Joe’s brother was on Flight 19 and who also knew George’s family nickname?
Conspiracy theorists might like to speculate that George briefly escaped from whatever detention the crew were put in, after having seen “too much” of some experiment, then sent a telegram to his nearest relative before he was recaptured.
The scenario, of course, seems too farfetched. The language of the telegram is suspicious for being a bit too Twainian, recalling Mark Twain’s famous lines when he emerged on stage and said the rumors about his death had been greatly exaggerated. It is easier to credit Lowey with having made a mistake and having repeated mere sensational rumor (especially since she used what is only a popular name for the project). It is even easier to believe the mistake was never made. NBC’s producers went out of their way to get a copy of the letter. When finally securing it, they could find no such comment. Frank Paonessa, jr. wasn’t sure how the mistake started.
All this confusion makes finding the kernel of truth hard. But when found, it could not grow into any appreciable tree. There probably is truth behind the legend of “The Philadelphia Experiment,” but a connection with Flight 19 and the Mariner is too improbable.
The truth of the Mariner, as I said, possibly lies in between the extremes. It is possible that on this very electric and stormy night it conducted a very rare “version” of St. Elmo’s Fire or some other electrical phenomenon which rendered its radio temporarily dead and then ignited the whole aircraft in one massive explosion.
This theory may not favor the extremes of secret experiments or time warps, but it makes more sense than a mere fuel leak given the fact the Mariner disintegrated and no piece could be found. One thing remains: 6 aircraft in one night vanished. No trace has been found of the squadron. No trace was found of the 6th even when its precise location was reported. No trace then, no trace now on the bottom. Rumors persist. Rumors of weird lights, a telegram from the missing, rumors of secret experiments. It will not surprise me if something extraordinary is found one day. It can be no more extraordinary than the events of that strange day and night so long ago.