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Bermuda Triangle mystery still haunts
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12/22/2005 01:03 PM
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Bermuda Triangle mystery still haunts
40 years after plane's disappearance, families have no answers
By MEG JONES
Posted: Dec. 17, 2005
[link to www.jsonline.com]
The last words were innocuous: "Roger. Miami overseas, 6567."
For more than 10 years, the 440th Air Wing in Milwaukee has had a C-119 Flying Boxcar on display at the unit, commemorating the anniversary of the disappearance of a 440th Air Wing plane in the Bermuda Triangle. Ten men and the C-119 were never heard from again while flying from Florida to Grand Turk Island near the Bahamas.
A plaque with the names of the 10 missing crewmen from a 1965 flight of a C-119 Flying Boxcar through the Bermuda Triangle are on display inside the 440th Air Wing.
It was probably Louie Giuntoli's voice. The 41-year-old pilot of the C-119 Flying Boxcar sounded calm on the radio as he acknowledged switching to a clearer frequency of 6567 kilocycles.
He didn't sound like a man in distress.
He didn't sound like a man about to disappear.
The crew from Milwaukee's 440th Airlift Wing was flying over the Atlantic Ocean south of Florida on the heavily traveled Yankee Route. Though maps don't identify the area as such, it's known as the Bermuda Triangle. Another half-hour and the 10 men on board should have arrived at their destination, Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas.
It was a clear night with good flying weather. When they didn't land, radio traffic controllers started calling Plane No. 680. The crew didn't answer.
Nothing more was heard from Plane No. 680. Nothing was found. Not the men. Not their aircraft. Only a few scraps of debris that could have been tossed out of the cargo plane.
It's as if they were just swallowed up by the turquoise waters.
That was 40 years ago. It's been four decades of silence. And pain. For the families and friends and colleagues of the missing 440th crew, their questions will never be answered. And even though the Air Force Reserve wing in Milwaukee will soon close, Plane No. 680 hasn't been forgotten.
All that is left now is a plaque dedicated to the crew that hangs at the 440th headquarters and a C-119 plane painted exactly like the missing aircraft that's on display near one of the facility's gates.
The loss left a hole in the 440th - an entire flight crew plus experienced maintenance specialists. Kids grew up without their dads, wives continued their lives without their mates, co-workers wondered about the fate of their friends and colleagues.
Two brothers, different fates
It was a routine mission: drop off an engine and a maintenance crew on Grand Turk Island, pick up bundles of concertina wire in Puerto Rico and drop them off in the Dominican Republic. Then return home to Milwaukee.
Dick Nugent was a loadmaster for the 440th, and so was his brother Thomas. Dick Nugent had just finished a week of air drops at Fort Benning, Ga., and since he had reached his allotment of military flights, his 30-year-old brother took his place on Plane No. 680.
"He was my kid brother. I got off and he got on," said Dick Nugent, now 72.
Dick Nugent knows he could just as easily have been on that plane on that day, and it would be his brother Thomas who would be asking questions four decades later.
"I wanted to go down there and help in the search, but they wouldn't let me. It was awful hard to take," he said.
Phyllis Adams dropped off her husband, Milt, 36, a flight engineer, at the 440th headquarters at Mitchell Field on June 5, 1965. It was a Saturday. Her daughters, 14 and 8, and 7-year-old son came along.
"Well, myself and my three kids took him to the airport and he said goodbye and he said, 'I'll see you in a few days.' And that was it," said Phyllis Adams, 73, who met her husband while she was on a date with Milt's cousin.
Milt Adams disappeared not long before he would have celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary. Someone from the 440th called her the day after she dropped her husband off and told her his plane was overdue but that she shouldn't worry.
"Famous last words," she said.
She has thought of him every day since June 5, 1965. She has questions that will never be answered. She has read the official accident report and noted the number of pages that are missing or blacked out.
"Let me put it this way: That was a big aircraft. There were 10 people on board. They had another engine on board. There was luggage," Phyllis Adams said. "You mean to tell me that if that plane crashed that nothing was found?
"I don't buy it, I will never buy it."
Also on the plane that night: the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Lawrence F. Gares, 27, of Milwaukee; the navigator, Capt. Richard J. Bassett, 32, of Milwaukee; and the maintenance crew, Raoul P. Benedict, 35, of Milwaukee; Duane W. Brooks, 32, of Caledonia; Norman J. Mimier, 34 of Muskego; and Frank Ellison, 41, of Muskego.
A 10th person, John W. Lazenry, was also on board. The Air Force airman was picked up in Miami and hitching a ride to the Bahamas on the Flying Boxcar, which got its name from the bulky cargo area between the distinctive twin tails.
Crews used to joke that the C-119 traveled so slowly that the Earth rotated underneath it.
Other planes vanished, too
The Milwaukee C-119 wasn't the first, the biggest, nor the last aircraft to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle.
Though the triangle has been the subject of many books and TV documentaries, Plane No. 680 is simply one more incident in a long list of mysterious disappearances in the area loosely defined as stretching from Bermuda to Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In 1945, 14 men in five TBM Avengers flying in formation on a routine two-hour exercise on a sunny day disappeared after leaving Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A PBM Mariner and its 13-person crew sent out to search for the missing planes vanished, too. Six planes and 27 men. Gone.
In 1948, a DC-3 with 31 people on board disappeared while flying from Puerto Rico to Miami during the Christmas holiday. The DC-3 signaled Miami air traffic controllers when it was about 50 miles away. Then nothing.
Gian J. Quasar, author of "Into the Bermuda Triangle," said aircraft have vanished as radio tower controllers watched them. Many disappeared in good weather, many were being tracked on radar when the signal was suddenly lost, and quite a few have been lost in relatively shallow water.
"One thing is in common: They don't send out (a distress) signal, there's no indication they had an impact, and they all vanish," Quasar said. "One or two you can dismiss, but we're talking about hundreds" of disappearances.
Planes and ships were sent out to look for Plane No. 680, but nothing was found during the days-long search of 54,000 square miles - no oil slick, no life rafts, no debris. A few months later, Milwaukee newspapers reported that the Air Force eventually found a wheel chock with the plane's number, and near Grand Rock Cay in the Bahamas, part of a box lid with "ION KIT" stenciled on it - from a "Contact Mission Kit" - turned up.
The discovery of debris is not mentioned in the 104-page Air Force investigation report obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Seventeen pages have been deleted from the report released to the public, and numerous pages are blacked out because of personal information about the crew and testimony from military officials.
Osbee "Sam" Sampson watched his friends get on the C-119 that day, joked with them as he did on many other missions and saw them take off at 10:51 a.m. A maintenance crew member who later became a loadmaster and flew the same routes as the crew that disappeared, Sampson packed four yellow 20-person life rafts and 20 one-person life rafts on the plane for his friends in case something happened. Along with Sampson's buddies, the life rafts were never seen again.
"Frank Ellison, I remember his last words to me. He told me to behave myself. I told (Nugent), 'I hope they put enough food on the plane.' Man, he could eat," said Sampson, now 69. "There wasn't a time when I flew through the Bermuda Triangle that I didn't think that could happen to me. There wasn't anything you could do about it."
The flying crew was seasoned, with thousands of flight hours between them, and the maintenance crew were experts at their jobs, whether it was propellers or engines. So if there was a mechanical problem on the flight, there were plenty of people to take care of it.
Plane No. 680 landed at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida at 5:04 p.m., spent two hours and 43 minutes on the ground and took off at 7:47 p.m. ascending to 9,000 feet as it headed south to the Bahamas.
The radio chatter was routine. Then silence. Radio controllers in Miami, New York, San Juan, Puerto Rico and Grand Turk Island tried to find Plane No. 680 and asked each other if anyone had heard from the crew.
The investigation report notes the time the Flying Boxcar would have run out of fuel.
"It has to be an explosion or something for them not to say anything" on the radio, said Sampson, noting that with all of the gear on board, he was surprised that so little debris was discovered. "Even if you're having trouble, you switch on the radio so they can track you. There had to have been a big bang."
Word began to spread through the 440th the next day, a Sunday, that one of their planes was missing. Instead of going to church, many members went to the air wing's headquarters to talk, ask questions and comfort each other.
Some visited the families of the missing. Most held out hope on that first day and for the next few days that the crew would be found, said Joe Davis, 73, who spent three decades with the unit.
Their lockers at the 440th were left untouched for months.
'There's got to be an answer'
This is what went through Davis' mind: Maybe they panicked, but that's not likely since they were an experienced crew. Maybe it blew up, but if it did, there would have been a lot of debris. Maybe there was an engine failure and they tried to make an emergency landing on the water, but there would have been debris. Maybe they were shot down by a Cuban plane, but no oil slick was found.
"I think at the time everybody went through every scenario," said Davis, who coincidentally sold Benedict a $10,000 life insurance policy. "The hardest thing to dispel is there's got to be an answer.
"The crew was highly qualified. That's what makes it all harder that there was some scenario that they couldn't handle."
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