There are few events in U. S. history that spark the imagination to “what happened” than the disappearance of Flight 19 on December 5, 1945. In brief, for those unfamiliar with the story, Flight 19 was a training flight of five Grumman TBM Avenger Torpedo Bombers that took off from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, FL on the afternoon of December 5, 1945. The training flight was to take them east and fly near the Bahama Islands and then return to Fort Lauderdale. The purpose of the training was to teach dead reckoning skills and using speed, heading, and elapsed time to navigate. The first part of the flight in getting to the Bahamas was successful. It was on the return when things took a different turn. One of the compelling aspects of this story compared to others of ships or aircraft lost in the Bermuda Triangle is that the air stations along eastern Florida were either listening to or in communication with the flight commander Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor as the flight was getting lost. Starting around 3 PM, transmissions from the lost planes began to be received. For the next three hours, naval air stations listened to the growing confusion and frustration of the commanding pilot as he tried to figure out how to either get back or land somewhere safe. Then the radio transmissions ended about 6:30 PM that evening with LT Talyor saying that they might have to ditch at sea unless they found land and that when the first plane goes below 10 gallons of fuel, then all will ditch together.
Sadly, this was only the first part of this tragedy. The Navy sent out units to search for the lost planes as early as 6 PM that evening. Among the search and rescue units were two PBM-5 Martin Mariners, large seaplanes, from Naval Air Station Banana River, FL that took off at 7:27 PM. One the PBM-5’s made a routine call at 7:30 PM and then was never heard from again. There is some evidence that the Mariner may have exploded in mid-air because there were reports from vessels at sea near the Mariner’s patrol area saying they saw a “fireball” approximately around the time another ship lost RADAR contact with the plane.
The U. S. Navy was baffled by the loss of both the Avengers and the Mariner, and so they investigated.
Among the newly added series of digitized records to the National Archives Catalog is National Archives Publication M1657: Folder A17: Fort Lauderdale-5 TBM Crash-December 5, 1945 THRU PBM-1946, a single reel of microfilm that is part of the series Subject Files, 1945-1958 in the Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments (Record Group 181) that are in the custody of the National Archives at Fort Worth, TX. The microfilmed series is a collection of materials that was eventually used in the Navy’s Board of Investigation including weather observations, the history of the aircraft and engine logs, a rough crash log, radio station logs, preflight forms, communication logs, incident reports, air/sea rescue plans, maps of the search area.
In addition to these records, there are related records in other series that have not been digitized in the custody of the National Archives at College Park - Textual Reference. In the World War II Command Files that are part of the Records of the Chief of Naval Operations (Record Group 38), there is a file unit titled Shore Establishments, Jacksonville Naval Air Station Board of Investigation 5 TBM Avengers 7 December 1945 that includes a copy of the findings of the Board of Investigation (Box 419). There is another copy of the Board of Investigation in file units Type of Command, Training, Naval Air Advanced Training Command, Jacksonville, FL Board of Investigation into Missing TBMs and PBM Airplanes December 7, 1945 Part I and Part II (Box 373).
In the Casualty Assistance Branch Ships, Stations, Units, And Incidents Casualty Information Records in the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (Record Group 24), there are casualty reports filed under NAS Fort Lauderdale (Box 109) and under NAS Banana River (Box 108). These files include correspondence from the Casualty Assistance Branch regarding the circumstances of the losses and any legal changes to their status. Part of the file addresses the aircrews’ status as missing versus being declared dead.
On the other side of the story, not only were trained personnel lost, but so were several planes. The accident reports for the aircraft can be located in the series titled General Correspondence, 1943-45 in the Records of the Bureau of Aeronautics (Record Group 72). The five Avengers are filed under “VTBM1/L11-1 1945” in Box 5181 and the Mariner is filed under “VPBM5/L11-1 1945” in Box 4766. These accident reports include a form report describing the circumstances of the loss of the aircraft, who was aboard at the time, additional information related to the search efforts, and the general decision on who or what was to blame for the loss. In this particular case, a decision was made, based on the evidence on hand, but deferred the final decision to the Board of Investigation to be held later.
In addition to the records at the National Archives in College Park, there may be other relevant records relating to Flight 19 that were created by local naval air stations and the regional naval district. The records of the 7th Naval District (Florida) and the naval air stations that were involved in the incident are in the custody of the National Archives at Atlanta. An example of these records are the Central Subject Files, 1942-1945 of the 7th Naval District. Because these are administrative files, they are arranged using the Navy Filing Manual 4th Edition, 1941. A short of list of select filing designations are A17-9 (Naval Courts and Boards), A17-24 (Court of Inquiry), A17-25 (Board of Investigations), L11-1 (Material Loss), the different aircraft types, VTBM1 and VPBM5, and the different naval air stations NA29 - Jacksonville NAS, NA59 - Cocoa and Banana River NAS, and NA106 - Fort Lauderdale NAS.
Besides these records that directly relate the topic of Flight 19, there may be other series in record groups that are overlooked because they are not as well known and somewhat difficult to use. An example of this are the records in Record Group 313: Records of Naval Operating Forces. Located at the National Archives in College Park and in the regional branches like the National Archives in Atlanta, this record group is divided into naval commands, and there may be several entries per command that cover World War II through the late 1950’s. These records are difficult to use because most, not all, have not been processed and described, and therefore do not have easy to use finding aids. As an example of this method, using the information from the Board of Investigation, it references the Gulf Sea Frontier and Commander, Training Command, Atlantic Fleet as being contributors of reports in the investigation and recipients of copies of the investigation. The training flight and the aircraft were organized under Naval Air Training Command, Atlantic Fleet, which is a subordinate command to Commander, Training Command, Atlantic Fleet, and the search and rescue effort were conducted by units from the Gulf Sea Frontier. So any records from these commands could potentially have relevant records.
Located at the National Archives in College Park, there are two series of correspondence both the Commander, Gulf Sea Frontier and the Commander, Training Command, Atlantic Fleet. The majority of the series in RG 313 still are unprocessed and undescribed. In many cases, the agency paperwork that came with the records are used as ad hoc finding aids. This is in part why these series in RG 313 are often overlooked.
For the Gulf Sea Frontier, there are the Unclassified Correspondence, 1940-1946 and Formerly Security Classified Correspondence, 1940-1946, which are arranged using the Navy Filing Manual, so the suggested filing designations are a good place to start. As it is these series have been processed with container lists, so they are more accessible.
For Training Command, Atlantic Fleet are the Confidential, Restricted and Secret General Administrative Files, 1944-1945 and the Confidential and Unclassified General Administrative Files, 1941-46. Both series are arranged by the Navy Filing Manual. These two series have not been processed or described, so the record dossiers would be the finding aids.
The loss of the planes in Flight 19 and the search plane PBM5 in 1945 with all the new innovations of RADAR, IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) Transponders, and the myriad of equipment that was available to pilots and crew to help them survive a crash, stay afloat and help searchers find them goes to show how big the ocean still is. Six, relatively small, planes proved to be impossible to locate in churning waters of the Atlantic and in among the miles of shore lines of Florida, Grand Bahamas, and elsewhere. The loss of the planes and crew of Flight 19 remains a mystery to this day.