On a dark night in 1971, the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62) was operating independently in Caribbean waters on a routine training mission. The mid-watch was half-completed when the lookouts reported a series of faint lights dead ahead. Radar showed no corresponding pips, and, although visible through binoculars, no one could discern the lights with the naked eye. To add to the mystery, the strange lights seemed to be “hovering” ahead with no change in range or relative bearing.
The officer of the deck decided to maneuver to avoid, but as he reached for the sound-powered telephone to inform the captain, someone opened a door along the starboard catwalk, allowing white light to flood outward into the darkness. Such a breach of darken-ship procedures normally would be most unwelcome, but in this case it saved the OOD some embarrassment and the unnecessary waking of his sleeping captain. The light made visible the shafts of the 35-foot whip antennas arrayed vertically along the flight deck; it instantly became clear that what had been thought to be contacts in the sea ahead were actually the tips of those antennas, glowing with an electrical weather phenomenon that sailors long ago had dubbed St. Elmo’s fire.
The ship’s log dutifully recorded the incident but wisely left out the speculation that had occurred prior to the identification of the eerie “contacts.” Several watch-standers had pointed out that the ship was then steaming in that part of the world known as the “Bermuda Triangle.”
Although nautical charts do not acknowledge this area, it is known to most mariners. Sometimes called the “Devil’s Triangle,” with the apexes at Bermuda, Miami, and Puerto Rico, it has long been known as an area of many mysterious happenings, and even the U.S. Navy has not been immune.
During World War I, the mythologically named Navy collier USS Cyclops (AC-4) disappeared without a trace. Although she was more likely the victim of a German U-boat, an aura of mystery surrounds her loss because German records show no such sinking and her remains have never been found.
Shortly after World War II, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers—Flight 19—also vanished after taking off from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Adding to the mystery, a PBM Mariner patrol plane sent in search of the missing TBMs disappeared as well. The classic 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind offered an explanation of this disappearance that is not likely to find its way into official Navy records. But even discounting alien intervention, the puzzle remains.
Despite the temptation to attribute such occurrences to the supernatural, a glimmer of hope for reason is found in the fact that just before radio contact with the TBMs had been lost, the aircraft reported some kind of compass malfunction. That is of consequence, perhaps, because the “Triangle” is one of only two places on Earth where there is no compass variation—both gyro and magnetic compasses are perfectly aligned in both of these areas. The other region, located in the Pacific, is called the “Devil’s Sea,” for it, too, is known for mysterious disappearances. What that lack of variation might have to do with the strange occurrences in these two areas is still anyone’s guess, but it is nonetheless a scientific fact that gives hope that a rational explanation may someday be found.
Yet any sailor who has watched the changing moods of the sea, or seen the dancing stars of bioluminescence in a ship’s wake, or heard the ominous wail of the wind in a squall, will be tempted to think of powers beyond those of simple physics. The sailor’s realm is a hauntingly beautiful and sometimes ominous place to live, and work, and dream—and wonder.