One “paranormal” event which I remember hearing about when I was younger and which I’ve been fascinated with for years was a number of “mysterious” deaths which took place aboard a World War II-era airplane.  The original story is given by Charles Berlitz in 1988’s World of Mysterious Phenomena as “A Massacre in Flight:”

Something terrifying happened in the air one day in the late summer of 1939, and to this day the incident is shrouded in secrecy.

All that is known is that a military transport plane left the Marine Naval Air Station in San Diego at 3:30 one afternoon.  It and it’s thirteen man crew were making a routine flight to Honolulu.  Three hours later, as the plane was over the Pacific Ocean, a frantic distress signal was sounded.  Then the radio signal died.

A little later the plane limped back to base and made an emergency landing.  Ground crew members rushed to the craft and when they boarded, they were horrified to see twelve dead men.  The only survivor was the copilot, who though badly injured had stayed alive long enough to bring the plane back.  A few minutes later he was dead, too.

All of the bodies had large, gaping wounds.  Even weirder, the pilot and copilot had emptied their .45 Colt Automatic pistols at something.  The empty shells were found lying on the floor of the cockpit.  A foul, sulfuric odor pervaded the interior of the craft.

The exterior of the airplane was badly damaged, looking as if it had been struck by missiles.  The personnel who boarded the craft came down with an odd skin infection.  Strict security measures were quickly put into effect and the emergency ground crew was ordered to leave the plane.  The job of removing the bodies and investigating the incident was left to three medical officers.  The incident was successfully hushed up and did not come to light for fifteen years, when investigator Robert Coe Gardner learned of it from someone who was there.  The mystery of what the crew encountered in midair that afternoon in 1939 has never been solved.

Now, much has been written elsewhere indicating that Berlitz, like many other authors of “strange-but-true” paperbacks, was far from a reliable source.  So I had long taken it as more or less a given that this story didn’t quite happen as written, if at all.

What really did happen that day in 1939?  As it turns out, there were a number of incidents in the late 1930s which could have given rise to this story.  There was a mass flight of a 17-airplane convoy (which made the flight in record time) on July 7, 1938 from San Diego to Honolulu – the same route as the ill-fated plane was supposed to have taken – this could also line up with the “late summer” of the story [1].

Aviation milestones are all well and good, but if there is any kernel of truth in the tale it is likely one of the many aircraft crashes which took place in and around San Diego.  On August 11, 1939, T.R. Wood and V.P. Armstrong were killed when their bomber was accidentally shot down over Miramar Field, just north of San Diego.  Datewise, this would seem a very hopeful possibility; the plane, however, was a Curtiss SBC-3 Helldiver, a two-man biplane with little resemblance to the one described in the story [2].

800px-SBC-3_Helldiver_VS-3_in_flight_c1939
The Curtiss SBC-3 Helldiver, like the one that crashed on August 11, 1939.

A more likely possibility took place on the evening of February 2, 1938, when

The death toll of a mid-air collision of two giant bombers — worst plane disaster in American naval history — rose to 11 today as search by sea and air was made for the missing bodies of 10 airmen.

Rescued from the water after the bomber 11-P-4 fell in a splintering impact last night, J. H. HESTER, radioman, first class, of San Diego, died aboard the hospital ship Relief at San Clemente Island early this morning.

Three of his companions also were on the Relief, seriously injured, but expected to recover.

Three more of the 11-P-4’s crew and the seven men in its sister bomber, the 11-P-3, were hunted by the United States fleet, as Navy sources here admitted unofficially there was no hope they had survived.

The bombers, scouting for a theoretical enemy, collided during a sudden rain squall, within view of maneuvering surface ships.

The 11-P-3 fell in flames. The 11-P-4 smashed into a hundred pieces on the choppy sea.

Searchlights suddenly illuminated the scene and warship launches put out to rescue the men, while the entire war game of the fleet came to a halt.

[…]

The disaster overtook the bombers, attached to Squadron VP-11 of the North Island naval air base at San Diego, 26 days after a sister plane of the VP-7 squadron vanished off the California coast.

The full strength of the fleet was deployed for swift tactical tests 70 miles at sea, directly south of San Clemente Island, when the collision occurred.

As the concerted rescue attempt began, Admiral Claude C. Bloch lifted a rigid wartime “radio silence” to relay news of the tragedy to the Navy Department at Washington and to the press.

Cause of the crash, beyond bad weather, was not announced immediately, but naval officers ashore said the bombers, flying near each other, may have been crushed together by a sudden downdraft.

They were cruising at about 140 miles an hour, close above four battleships and 20 destroyers.

Only yesterday morning they had taken off from San Diego to join the fleet, which sailed out of Los Angeles’ Harbor Tuesday after a record concentration of ships there. Each was a twin-engined seaplane type [3].

One of the crew members of the 11-P-3, a Lt. Hutchins, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for remaining at the controls long enough to bring his plane to a safe landing and allow the rest of the crew to escape safely [4].  This implies that some, if not all, of the seven men of the 11-P-3 survived.

Here we have a few of the elements of the tale: a fairly sizable body count (though apparently not quite so large as initially feared, a “theoretical enemy,” a pilot who survives long enough to land his plane, and the indications of bad weather may be significant.

Consolidated_PBY-5A_Catalina_in_flight_c1942
A Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina.  The 11-P-3 and 11-P-4 were an earlier model of this aircraft.

What if the story originated not with Berlitz, but with Robert Gardner whom Berlitz herd the tale from?  Gardner first claimed knowledge of the story in 1954, and as it turns out, there were some significant events in 1954 that could be the story’s genesis, as well.

In the summer of 1954, a Vought F7U-3 Cutlass, nicknamed the “Gutless Cutlass” by pilots for its accident-prone nature (for instance, it was recalled how pieces of the airplanes often simply fell off mid-flight) – its pilot having bailed out and parachuted into the ocean – careened about madly before crashing into the water offshore from the famously haunted Hotel del Coronado, narrowly missing the 100+ people who were on the beach that day [5].

zoom-vc57
F7U-3 Cutlasses – the “Gutless Cutlass” – in flight.

Also in 1954, another accident-prone aircraft – the R3Y Tradewind built by San Diego-based Convair, was introduced.  A hefty cargo plane, the Tradewind had one fatal flaw – its propellers had a tendency to come off midflight.

Flying from Honolulu to San Francisco one night in January, 1958, Lt. Homer Ragsdale was piloting the Indian Ocean when one of the propellers came off, tearing a jagged hole “about the size of  Volkswagen” in the fuselage.  One can only assume that were crew members in the way of the blades, they would have received just the sort of gouge-like wounds described.  The plane limped onward to San Francisco, beginning to make an emergency landing, when the catastrophic failure continued and Lt. Ragsdale discovered that the engine controls were nonresponsive.  The crew managed to escape, but the plane ricocheted into a waterfront retaining wall [6].

800px-Convair_XP5Y-1_Tradewind_at_San_Diego_1950
The Convair R3Y Tradewind, another of the Navy’s poorer design decisions.

What really did occur that day?  Did either Gardner or Berlitz hear one of these stories and decide to embellish it somewhat for publication (most likely of the above, I feel, re the story of the two Catalinas or possibly a half-remembered account of a Tradewind propeller mishap)?  Were they truthful?  This option, from what we now know, seems nearly unbelievable in itself.  Charles Berlitz was notorious for his misinterpretation or outright invention; Robert Coe Gardner seemed to be little better.  Jim Moseley wrote that Gardner had a habit of claiming to have received top-secret, unreleased UFO pictures from government sources, which usually turned out to be clippings from the newspaper [7].  Is the story a complete invention?  This may be most likely of all, but I prefer to think most stories have some grain of truth to them, some actual event that happened, embellished as it might be.


[1] Hawaii Aviation 1930-1939.

[2] “Two Air Bombers Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 12, 1939.

[3] “11 Die As Navy Planes Collide,” Oakland (CA) Tribune, February 3, 1938.

[4] VP-11 History.

[5] I Was Almost Killed By a Navy Jet on a San Diego Beach.

[6] Last of the Great Flying Boats.

[7] Jerome Clark, Strange Skies: Pilot Encounters With UFOs (New York: Citadel, 2003), p. 142.

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