By the time Dixon resurfaced it was after midnight. When the sub broke the surface Richard climbed onto the top to get the crane hook attached. The sub raised out of the ocean and he jumped off onto the deck, racing to the control room. The ten by ten room filled with computers and high definition screens was crowded with all the research personnel. Richard had to push through them to get to the 30 inch screen that had the frozen image of an engine and the clear digits 73209.
Richard looked around the room at everyone’s faces. “This serial number matches up exactly with Flight 19?” No one spoke only Murray nodded up and down. “What about the other planes?”
Murray responded, “We pulled a serial number off one other engine it matches up. They checked the markings on the plane you investigated and a tail section the ROV found, it all matches up.”
Silence, Richard turned and faced the crew. “None of this leaves the ship until they have confirmation by outside sources. Tomorrow I want the ROV back in the water documenting and re-documenting every inch of the site. Have the ship sweep the whole area in case they missed anything. I want a 3D map of the whole thing.”
8 a.m. the next morning Richard was on the phone with an expert in Florida. Archibald Adams has been working in the field of aircraft archeology long before Richard was born. In 1991 he determined that five Avengers found within two miles of each other were from five separate crashes and not Flight 19. Richard explained the discoveries so far and Archie said he would come on board as soon as possible.
What they did not know was in a dark, temperature controlled, and humidity free room a keyword in their conversation triggered the system to flag and save for review.
Archie was picked up by a helicopter and on the ship by noon. Archie is 75 years old but has more drive and vigor then men a third his age. He sported a full head of white hair, and though age had deteriorated his physique, being a former Marine, Richard still wouldn’t mess with him.
Scientists are skeptical by nature and Archie was no different. He was led straight to the control room and they showed him the findings. For the first time since the sonar hits the control room was empty except for Murray, Archie and himself. Archie starred at each screen in order and then went back and starred at each again.
After an hour and some notes, Archie turned to them. “I have little doubt about the wreckage but I won’t confirm it until I can see it in person.” Murray and Richard looked at each other and nodded simultaneously. Archie spoke again, “I do have one question.” He walked over to the monitor with the clearest picture of the serial number and pointed a few inches beside it. “What is this hole from?”
Murray and Richard again responded simultaneously, “A bullet.”
As Archie and Richard dropped to the sea floor he asked, “Do you truly believe that is a bullet hole?”
Richard looked right at Archie, “I can’t think of anything else that could pierce metal so cleanly. Plus there is more than one.” He pulled out his tablet and showed him the riddled parts that were found on the other planes.
Archie spoke, “Who was shooting at them? Could it have been one of the planes in the group?”
These were all questions no one had answers too. Archie then began to tell the story of Flight 19. It was December 5, 1945 when five TBM Avengers took off on a routine practice run from Ft. Lauderdale. They flew east to Hen and Chicken Shoals and conducted a mock bombing run. From there they were to fly over the Grand Bahamas and then turn back to Ft. Lauderdale. Along the way there were countless radio transmission and radar hits. At 18:20 the last transmission was received and by that time rescue planes were being dispatched to locate the lost squadron.
At 21:15, around when Flight 19’s fuel would have been exhausted the USS Gaines Mills reported seeing a fireball in the night sky and an oil slick on the surface. This was confirmed by the USS Solomons losing radar contact with one of the two PBM-5 Mariner seaplanes sent to find Flight 19. In the matter of hours six planes, carrying 27 men vanished without a trace.
The story was rife with speculation and confusing information. Numerous searches and expeditions have been conducted from the Florida Straits, the Gulf of Mexico, and the wide open Atlantic Ocean. Though there was plenty of facts of analyzing the strength of radio transmission to the triangulation of multiple radar towers it was like looking for a grain of sand in the ocean. There were even reports of radar hits over land, and a group that has been attempting to locate Flight 19 in the Okefenokee Swamp.
“How many searches have been made?” Richard asked.
“Gotta be close to 100. Some more serious than others.”
Richard had already seen every inch of the crash sites, this was all for Archie’s benefit. Two of the planes looked like they were knocked from the sky by violent explosions and had almost nothing left. Richard piloted the sub to the most intact Avenger and let it hover as Archie took it all in. They went over every inch counting about 30 bullet hits.
Richard suddenly had the urge to make a long distance call. The surface patched him through to the Very Small Array in Cogan Station, PA. The family company made a significant donation to SETI the radio arrays operator which would keep this facility operating for at least the next ten years. One of the perks of being the largest benefactor of the operator of 8 radio telescopes is you can borrow one of the dishes to talk to a special satellite. On the next pass Magne-Star would canvass the Okefenokee Swamp of southern Georgia.
The computer in the dark room was keyed in to monitor all calls made from the ship. It immediately converted the conversation to text and sent it in email format to someone that thought it was important to monitor their conversations.
It was going to be several hours before they had results which was fine because Archie wanted to see every piece of Flight 19 no matter the size or condition. Richard thought now as good a time as any to ask Archie a burning question, “Do you think they should raise any of the wreckage?”
Archie waited to answer until he had seen all the wreckage. “After all these years of staying in formation together would you be the one to separate them? Though I can’t stop you, the government can. This is the grave of these men, in his judgment they should remain in peace.”
Richard looked at Archie and answered with his exact intent. “I did not come here to find Flight 19 but I would like physical evidence beyond the photographs and video.”
Archie stared into his eyes, “Take the engine with the serial number that will be plenty.” Richard shook hands with Archie, “If you are not too busy I would like you to oversee the recovery.” Archie gripped his hand tight and Richard saw a twinkle in his eye.
Finding Flight 19 proved more reasonable then dealing with the Okefenokee. At the turn of the 20th century the swamp was logged extensively and much of the equipment was left behind. Some of the logging operations even laid railroad tracks across the swamp. An even greater problem was the titanium deposits in Trail Ridge making several false positive readings.
Richard remained on board Voyager but kept to his cabin. As exciting as a 70 year old mystery is, it was not what he was searching for. He hoped that somehow one mystery would link to another and everything would be put to rest. Richard couldn’t help but think that maybe the Morris or the Avengers accidentally fired on each other.
It took two weeks for the experts to sort out the satellite data versus old rail maps, timber cutter areas and the more recent survey maps made by DuPont before they cancelled the proposed titanium mining. Even with everything compared and plotted over one another the data was wildly inconsistent.
Richard finally had enough and decided to head to Okefenokee. He flew to the mainland where he made his way to Folkston, Georgia, where he contracted a helicopter. Richard had them fit a magnetometer and day by day they would sweep the swamp.
They started in the north making flyovers at about 60 feet, grazing some of the tallest trees and having to increase altitude around others. In 100 foot sweeps they methodically cover every inch of the swamp. They got plenty of hits from logging equipment and swamp boats and occasionally a random swamp house with a tin roof but nothing out of the ordinary.
Somewhere into the second week both the pilot and Richard were growing tired of it. Every hit that they investigated from the air was easily distinguishable from the swampy green background. They flew in from the east approaching the end of a lake system called Black Jack Lake. It was certainly lucky for them the magnetometer made a hit, then another a few hundred feet away. They swept back over a dense cypress grove but there was no break in the trees. Richard had the pilot hover over the water in an attempt to see through the swamp reeds. The first few feet of reeds blew down but it was thicker than the densest jungle.
Richard marked the spot on the map, dropped a dye pack into the reeds and dropped a homing buoy in the water. They then uneventfully finished sweeping the swamp. When they landed Richard asked the pilot for the best guide to get him back there. He told Richard to head south out of the airport and at the first dirt road make a right and take it to the end.
Luckily, Richard had rented an SUV, the dirt track looked like it had been washed out every year for a hundred years. He followed until the road abruptly ended at the swamp. He stopped and got out. The pilot had made a fool of him. Richard kicked the dirt and watched a rock soar through the air. It crashed down in some bushes a few feet away. His eyes followed past where it had landed and through the trees. There stood a rag tag barn where Richard could hear voices and see some lights.
Richard approached through the trees and saw a line of airboats. The building was rusted metal held together by rusted nails. He pushed the door open and it let out a horrific squeal. Everyone inside immediately turned, a few drew pistols, the barkeep pulled a double barrel shotgun. All the patrons drank from mason jars and brown unlabeled bottles.
Richard slowly raised his hands. He was well out of place, with his combed, shampooed hair, his white straight teeth, his clean clothes and leather Italian shoes. There was about 15 patrons all looking very similar both women and men. They all had unkempt scraggy hair, wearing tattered dirty clothes. The most noticeable difference between the women and the men was the facial hair though some of the women sported a tuft of hair on their face.
“I am looking for a swamp guide.” No one spoke and none of their weapons lowered. Richard eyed a bulbous man sitting in the corner. He had a lip packed with chewing tobacco and drank out of what could only be described as a bucket. His hair and beard were bright red. His overalls were covered in mud and he was barefoot.
Richard pointed at him and said, “You are going to be his guide.” Everyone turned and looked, then they all began laughing. The giant red haired man grabbed his bucket and dumped it down his throat. He slammed it down and waited a moment before wiping the dripping fluid from his face and beard.
“What, you tink Iz bez helping you?”
Richard walked over to his table. “Why don’t we discuss it over a drink?”
The man grinned, “Uz gots meez attention for da moment.” He took his massive hairy foot and kicked a chair at Richard’s direction. He raised two fingers to the bar keep, who came over with two small glasses and a clear bottle of clear liquid.
The man sloppily poured two drinks. He slid it across the table to Richard, “Dayz call meez Hog Bear.” Everyone in the room was slyly watching his moves.
“My name is Rick Chosset.” Richard took the glass up and took a sniff. He made like the moonshine was revolting and put it back on the table.
Richard waited a moment, eyeing the glass before he snatched it up and shot it down without a hesitation or wince. It was not his first time with the powerful alcohol. Years of drinking hardened his stomach to handle whatever local taste could throw at him. Hog Bear was caught off guard and quickly reached for his glass so not to be shown up.
Hog Bear leaned into the table to pour them another round, his big round belly pushing the table a few inches away from him. “Whys uz come here?” He passed Richard the glass.
“I am looking for something in the swamp.” Richard slugged down the shot.
Hog Bear waited, “Peoples go lookin for lots of things in da swamp, dayz don’t always likes whats dayz find. So whys should Iz help uz?” Hog Bear took his drink up.
“I can monetarily make it worth your while.” This time Richard poured the drinks.
Hog Bears belly began to rumble and let out a deep laugh. “Uz money no good to meez, Iz gots everythings Iz need right heres in da swamp.”
Hog Bear shot down the next drink and Richard kept pace. They kept going long after their sobriety had left them. Neither of them would concede to the other. The entire bar was now watching them go drink for drink. Their inebriation was approaching deadly.
Neither one of them could pour their own drinks. The last time Hog Bear tried, he poured most the bottle on the floor and dropped his glass. He had a hell of a time picking it up. They had forgone talking to just laugh at each other and drink. The barkeep brought over a brown whisky jug and dropped it on the table. They both knew it was something to help them. Hog Bear dumped it on his head and took as much water into his mouth as his body could take. Richard did the same.
They waited a few minutes. In shaky hands they both raised their glasses. The two of them were standing leaning on the table as it struggled under Hog Bear’s mass. They took the glasses in their hands and clinked them together. Down the hatch they went, they both remained standing for a moment. Hog Bear irked a smile through his blazing red beard. He slowly lowered himself to his chair. He missed, Richard could see his eyes had already rolled back in his head. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Richard staggered for a moment, he looked around the room at all the faces though he could not make them out. He took his victorious glass in his hand and raised it up for all to see. Then Richard threw it at the wall in an act of defiance for his hosts doubting him. The only sound in the room was Hog Bear snoring. Richard took one step forward and collapsed on the table.
Richard awoke the next day to the sun burning at his eyes. He realized he was moving but not under his own power. Hog Bear had Richard slung over his shoulder and was walking across the field. He dropped Richard on the ground beside the SUV. “Uz a heck of a drinker. Uz urns meez respect. Todays you rest, Iz meets uz heres at dawn tomorrow.” Richard nodded his head and Hog Bear dropped the water jug in his lap.
Richard fumbled for his keys, and opened the back door. He pulled himself in and reached to the ignition. He turned the car on and blasted the air conditioning to relive the hangover and the southern heat. He promptly fell asleep.
Richard woke up in early afternoon and was sober enough to drive back to the hotel. He ordered from the diner across the street and threw an extra ten spot to have them deliver it to him. Richard couldn’t finish the burger but it tasted like the best one he ever had. He turned the air conditioner down so it would make ice cubes and jumped in the shower. He laid in the tub, the cool water raining down on him. A few minutes later Richard was asleep.
He was out for a couple of hours, the only reason he came to he thought he heard the hotel room door close. Richard jumped up and threw a towel on. He ran to the door and opened it but he didn’t see anyone. Richard looked around at his things everything seemed in place but something just did not feel right.