"Exorcizing the Devil's
By Howard L. Rosenberg
Sealift no. 6 (Jun. 1974): 11-15.
During the past century more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft sailed into
oblivion in the area known as the Devil's Triangle, Bermuda Triangle,
Hoodoo Sea, or a host of other names.
Exactly what happened to the ships and aircraft is not known. Most
disappeared without a trace. Few distress calls and little, if any,
debris signaled their disappearance.
Size of the triangle is dictated by whoever happens to be writing about
it, and consequently what ships and the number lost depends largely on
which article you read.
Vincent Gaddis, credited with putting the triangle "on the
map" in a 1964 Argosy feature, described the triangle as
extending from Florida to Bermuda, southwest to Puerto Rico and back to
Florida through the Bahamas. Another author puts the apexes of the
triangle somewhere in Virginia, on the western coast of Bermuda and
around Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Sizes of the areas
described ranged from 500,000 to 1.5 million square miles.
Whatever the size or shape, there supposedly is some inexplicable force
within it that causes ships and planes to vanish.
According to Richard Winer, who recently completed a TV film documentary
on the area, one "expert" he interviewed claims the missing
ships and planes are still there, only in a different dimension as a
result of a magnetic phenomenon that could have been set up by a UFO
(Unidentified Flying Object).
Winer is currently writing a book on the subject and has traveled most
of the area in his sailboat. He confesses he "never saw anything
Winer's TV program dealt mostly with the strange disappearance in 1945
of five Navy TBM Avengers with 14 fliers who flew from Ft. Lauderdale
into the triangle never to return. A PBM Mariner with a 13-man crew was
sent out to search for the fliers. It too, never returned.
Few have really dug into all the aspects of this mystery, but many are
content to attribute the loss of Flight 19 to some mysterious source,
like UFOs. Michael McDonnel did do some digging. In an article he wrote
for the June 1973 edition of Naval Aviation News, he suggested
the most realistic answer to the loss of Flight 19 was simple, that
after becoming lost, they ran out of gas. Many question that possibility
by asking, "How could such experienced pilots get lost? How could
all the compasses be wrong?"
If the planes were flying through a magnetic storm, all compasses could
possibly malfunction. Actually, man's knowledge of magnetism is limited.
We know how to live with it and escape it by going into space, but, we
really don't know what exactly it is.
As for the pilots' experience, Flight 19 was a training flight. Though
advanced, it was still training. Even the most "experienced"
pilots make mistakes.
McDonnel concludes his article with the statement, "Former TBM
pilots that we questioned express the opinion that the crew of an
Avenger attempting to ditch at night in a heavy sea would almost
certainly not survive the crash. And this, we feel was the case with
Flight 19. The aircraft most probably broke up on impact and those
crewmen who might have survived the crash would not have lasted long in
The PBM Mariner was specifically designed as a rescue plane with the
ability to remain aloft for 24 hours. But the Mariners
were nicknamed "flying gas tanks" by those who flew them. It
was common for a pilot to search the crew members before each flight for
matches or cigarette lighters because gas fumes often were present.
After this Mariner disappeared, the Navy soon grounded all others.
Another mysterious disappearance that baffles researchers is that of the
SS Marine Sulphur Queen. Bound for Norfolk, Va. from Beaumont,
Texas, the tanker was last heard from on Feb. 3, 1963, when she
routinely radioed her position. The message placed her near Key West in
the Florida Straits.
Three days later, Coast Guard searchers found a solitary life jacket
bobbing in a calm sea 40 miles southwest of the tanker's last known
position. Another sign of the missing tanker or her 39-man crew has ever
The absence of bodies might be explained by the fact that the waters are
infested with sharks and barracuda. As for the tanker, she was carrying
15,000 long tons of molten sulphur contained in four metal tanks, each
heated to 275 degrees Fahrenheit by a network of coils connected to two
No one knows for sure whether she blew up, but it is a possibility. If
gas escaped from the tanks and poisoned the crew, the radio officer may
have not had time to send a distress call before being overcome. The
slightest spark could have set the leaking sulphur afire in an instant.
Writing in the Seamen's Church Institute of New York's magazine, The
Lookout, Paul Brock said that officers on a Honduras flag banana
boat "reported to the Coast Guard that their freighter ran into a
'strong odor' 15 miles off Cape San Antonia, the western tip of Cuba,
just before dawn on February 3. The odor was acrid.'"
Brock speculates that they could have smelled the fumes coming from the Sulphur
Queen "floating somewhere over the horizon, her crew dead and
her cargo blazing."
According to Brock, T-2 tankers like the Sulphur Queen had a
history of battle failure. He said that "during the preceding
years, three T-2s had split in half." Brock also cites a case in
December 1954 when a converted Navy LST, the Southern District,
was heading up the North Carolina coastline when she disappeared without
a trace or distress call. Her cargo was powdered sulphur.
One of the most celebrated stories of Devil's Triangle victims, is that
of USSCyclops which disappeared in March of 1918.
In his television program, Richard Winer indicated the captain of the Cyclops
was rather eccentric. He was reputedly fond of pacing the quarterdeck
wearing a hat, a cane and his underwear. Prior to the Cyclops
disappearance there was a minor mutiny by some members of the crew which
was promptly squelched by the captain and the perpetrators were sent
below in irons. None of this really offers a clue to what happened to
the collier Cyclops, but it suggests something other than a
mysterious force might have led to her doom.
According to Marshall Smith writing in Cosmopolitan, September
1973, "theories ranged from mutiny at sea to a boiler explosion
which carried away the radio shack and prevented any distress
call." One magazine, Literary Digest, speculated that a
giant octopus rose from the sea, entwined the ship with its tentacles
and dragged it to the bottom. Another theory was that the shipped
suddenly turned turtle in a freak storm, trapping all hands inside.
Fifty years later, novelist Paul Gallico used the idea as the peg for a
novel called The Poseidon Adventure which was made into a
successful movie in 1972.
Cyclops was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation
Service, which became the Naval Transportation, which merged with the
Army Transport Service to become the Military Sea Transportation Service
and then Military Sealift Command. When she sailed she was loaded with
10,800 tons of manganese ore bound for Baltimore from Barbados in the
Information obtained from Germany following World War I disproved the
notion that enemy U-boats or mines sank the Cyclops. None were in
Another story concerns the loss of the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion
in the Devil's Triangle. It is impossible to stretch even the farthest
flung region of the triangle to include the position of the lost sub.
Truth is, Scorpion was found by the MSC oceanographic ship USNS Mizar
about 400 miles southwest of the Azores, nowhere near the Devil's
Triangle. Its loss was attributed to mechanical failure, not some
demonic denizen of the deep.
There are literally thousands of cases of lost ships ever since
primitive man dug a canoe out of the trunk of a tree and set it in the
water. Why all this emphasis on the Devil's Triangle? It's difficult to
It would seem that, historically, whenever man was unable to explain the
nature of the world around him, the problems he faced were said to be
caused by gods, demons, monsters and more recently, extra-terrestrial
Before Columbus set sail and found the Americas, it was believed that
the world was flat and if you sailed too far west, you would fall off
the edge. That reasoning prevails concerning the Devil's Triangle. Since
not enough scientific research has been done to explain the phenomenon
associated with the area, imagination takes over. UFOs, mystical rays
from the sun to the lost Continent of Atlantis, giant sea monsters and
supernatural beings are linked to the mysterious disappearances in the
To someone unprepared to take on the immense work of scientific
research, supernatural phenomenon make for an easy answer. But, it is
amazing how many supernatural things become natural when scientifically
There are a number of natural forces at work in the area known as the
Devil's Triangle, any of which could, if the conditions were right,
bring down a plane or sink a ship.
Many reputable scientists refuse to talk to anyone concerning the
Devil's Triangle simply because they do not want their good names and
reputations associated with notions they consider ridiculous.
One expert on ocean currents at Yale University, who asked not to be
identified, exploded into laughter at the mention of the triangle and
said, "We confidently, and without any hesitation, often go to sea
and work in that area." Another scientist refused to talk about it.
Atmospheric aberrations are common to jet age travelers. Few have flown
without experiencing a phenomenon known as clear air turbulence. An
aircraft can be flying smoothly on a beautifully clear day and suddenly
hit an air pocket or hole in the sky and drop 200 to 300 feet.
Lt. Cmdr. Peter Quinton, meteorologist and satellite liaison officer
with the Fleet Weather Service at Suitland, Md., said, "You can
come up with hundreds of possibilities and elaborate on all of them and
then come up with hundreds more to dispute the original ones."
"It's all statistical," he said, "there's nothing magical
about it." According to Quinton, the Bermuda Triangle is notorious
for unpredictable weather. The only things necessary for a storm to
become a violent hurricane are speed, fetch (the area the wind blows
over) and time. If the area is large enough, a thunderstorm can whip
into a hurricane of tremendous intensity. But hurricanes can usually be
spotted by meteorologists using satellite surveillance. It is the small,
violent thunderstorms known as meso-meteorological storms that they
can't predict since they are outside of normal weather patterns. These
are tornadoes, thunderstorms and immature tropical cyclones.
They can occur at sea with little warning, and dissipate completely
before they reach the shore. It is highly possible that a ship or plane
can sail into what is considered a mild thunderstorm and suddenly face a
meso-meteorological storm of incredible intensity.
Satellites sometimes cannot detect tropical storms if they are too small
in diameter, or if they occur while the satellite is not over the area.
There is a 12-hour gap between the time the satellite passes over a
specific part of the globe until it passes again. During these 12 hours,
any number of brief, violent storms could occur.
Quinton said, "Thunderstorms can also generate severe electrical
storms sufficient to foul up communication systems." Speaking of
meso-meteorological storms, which she dubbed "neutercanes,"
Dr. Joanne Simpson, a prominent meteorologist at the University of
Miami, said in the Cosmopolitan article that "These small hybrid
type storm systems arise very quickly, especially over the Gulf Stream.
They are several miles in diameter, last a few minutes or a few seconds
and then vanish. But they stir up giant waves and you have chaotic seas
coming from all directions. These storms can be devastating."
An experienced sailor herself, Dr. Simpson said on occasion she has been
"peppered by staccato bolts of lightning and smelled- the metallic
odor of spent electricity as they hit the water, then frightened by ball
lightning running off the yards." Sailors have been amazed for
years by lightning storms and static electricity called "St. Elmo's
Aubrey Graves, writing in This Week magazine, August 4, 1964,
quotes retired Coast Guard Capt. Roy Hutchins as saying, "Weather
within the triangle where warm tropical breezes meet cold air masses
from the arctic is notoriously unpredictable." "You can get a
perfectly good weather pattern, as far as the big weather maps go, then
go out there on what begins as a fine day and suddenly get hit by a
75-knot squall. They are localized and build up on the spot, but they
are violent indeed."
Many boatmen, Hutchins said, lack understanding of the velocity of that
"river within the ocean" (Gulf Stream) which at its axis
surges north at four knots. "When it collides with strong northeast
winds, extremely stiff seas build up, just as in an inlet when the tide
is ebbing against an incoming sea."
"The seas out there can be just indescribable. The waves break and
you get a vertical wall of water from 30 to 40 feet high coming down on
you. Unless a boat can take complete submergence in a large, breaking
sea, she can not live."
Last year, the Coast Guard answered 8,000 distress calls in the area,
700 a month or 23 a day. Most problems could have been avoided if
caution had been used. The biggest trouble comes from small boats
running out of gas. According to the Coast Guard, an inexperienced
sailor is looking for trouble out there. A small boat could be sucked
into the prop of a big tanker or swamped in a storm and never be seen
Another phenomenon common in the region is the waterspout. Simply a
tornado at sea that pulls water from the ocean surface thousands of feet
into the sky, the waterspout could "wreck almost anything"
said Allen Hartwell, oceanographer with Normandeau Associates.
Hartwell explained that the undersea topography of the ocean floor in
the area has some interesting characteristics. Most of the sea floor out
in the Devil's Triangle is about 19,000 feet down and covered with
deposition, a fine-grained sandy material. However, as you approach the
East Coast of the United States, you suddenly run into the continental
shelf with a water depth of 50 to 100 feet. Running north along the
coast is the Gulf Stream which bisects the triangle carrying warm
Near the southern tip of the triangle lies the Puerto Rico Trench which
at one point is 27,500 feet below sea level. It's the deepest point in
the Atlantic Ocean and probably holds many rotting and decaying hulks of
Spanish treasure galleons.
Many articles concerning the triangle have made the erroneous statement
that the Navy formed Project Magnet to survey the area and discover
whether magnetic aberrations do limit communications with ships in
distress, or contribute to the strange disappearance of ships and
Truth is that Navy's Project Magnet has been surveying all over the
world for more than 20 years, mapping the earth's magnetic fields.
According to Henry P. Stockard, project director, "We have passed
over the area hundreds of times and never noticed any unusual magnetic
Also passing through the Devil's Triangle is the 80th meridian, a degree
of longitude which extends south from Hudson Bay through Pittsburgh then
out into the Triangle a few miles east of Miami. Known as the agonic
line, it is one of two places in the world where true north and magnetic
north are in perfect alignment and compass variation is unnecessary. An
experienced navigator could sail off course several degrees and lead
himself hundreds of miles away from his original destination.
This same line extends over the North Pole to the other side of the
globe bisecting a portion of the Pacific Ocean east of Japan.
This is another part of the world where mysterious disappearances take
place and has been dubbed the "Devil Sea" by Philippine and
Japanese seamen. Noted for tsunami, the area is considered dangerous by
Japanese shipping authorities. Tsunami, often erroneously called tidal
waves, are huge waves created by underground earthquakes. These seismic
waves have very long wave lengths and travel at velocities of 400 miles
per hour or more. In the open sea they may be only a foot high. But as
they approach the continental shelf, their speed is reduced and their
height increases dramatically. Low islands may be completely submerged
by them. So too may ships sailing near the coast or above the
Quite a bit of seismic activity occurs off the northern shoreline of
Puerto Rico. Seismic shocks recorded between 1961 and 1969 had a depth
of focus ranging from zero to 70 kilometers down. Relatively shallow
seaquakes could create tsunamis similar to those in the Pacific Ocean,
but few have been recorded.
A distinct line of shallow seaquake activity runs through the
mid-Atlantic corresponding with the features of the continental shelf of
Some claim we know more about outer space than we do about inner space,
including the oceans. If that is true, much information has yet to be
developed concerning the Devil's Triangle. As recently as 1957 a deep
counter-current was detected beneath the Gulf Stream with the aid of
sub-surface floats emitting acoustic signals. The Gulf Stream and other
currents have proved to consist of numerous disconnected filaments
moving in complex patterns.
What it all adds up to is that the majority of the supernatural
happenings offered as explanations for the Devil's Triangle mysteries
amount to a voluminous mass of sheer hokum, extrapolated to the nth
Mysteries associated with the sea are plentiful in the history of
mankind. The triangle area happens to be one of the most heavily
traveled regions in the world and the greater the number of ships or
planes, the greater the odds that something will happen to some.
Each holiday season the National Safety Council warns motorists by
predicting how many will die on the nation's highways. They are usually
quite accurate, but, no monsters kill people on highways, only mistakes.
Seafarers and aircraft pilots also make mistakes. Eventually scientists
will separate fact from the fiction concerning the Devil's Triangle.
Until then, we can only grin and bear the ministrations of madness
offered by triangle cultists.
If you happen to be passing through the triangle while reading this
article, don't bother to station extra watches to keep a wary eye out
for giant squids. Better to relax and mull over the words of poet Henry
"Wouldst thou," so the helmsman answered,
"Know the secret of the sea?"
Only those who brave its dangers,
Comprehend its mystery.
12 May 1996