Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 17

Vanishings: The World's Most Mystifying Disappearances

History is filled with numerous mystifying and often sinister disapperances of ships, planes, people and even entire civilizations. These vanishings have passed into legend, and the elusive reason behind them continue to remain unexplained by historians. A survey of the world’s most infamous disappearances reveals an unsettling truth about life the world can suddenly and inexplicably erase anything it wants, without warning and without a trace.


For over 100 million years, dinosaurs roamed and reigned supreme over our planet, until they were abruptly and mysteriously eradicated from the face of the earth. While the sudden extinction of these enormous reptiles has been tentatively attributed to adverse climate conditions brought about by an asteroid hitting the earth 65 million years ago, other mass disappearances throughout history have resisted any logical explanation. One of the most bewildering examples of this strange phenomenon centers around the ancient Mayan civilization, which flourished in Central America from 1500 BC to the 9th century AD, when it seemingly vanished into thin air.

The Mayans were a highly sophisticated people skilled in architecture, mathematics and astronomy. Their magnificent cities had elaborate roadways, pyramids and irrigation systems. A wealthy elite ruled their lands and controlled a large working class of craftsmen and farmers. Then, in the 9th century, the Mayans appeared to inexplicably evacuate many of their cities in what is now northern Guatemala and faded into the outlying jungles. Historians theorize that the Mayans, like other powerful civilizations, wanted to expand their empire by conquering neighboring tribes, but the wars and their costs ended up fracturing the Mayan culture, forcing the survivors to relocate to other areas out of economic necessity. Other theories suggest that the Mayans’ system of food cultivation was crippled by extensive clearcutting of surrounding forests, making it necessary for the Mayans to flee to other, more fertile regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. Yet evidence suggests that the Mayans deserted their great cities overnight, never to return, leaving them to be reclaimed by the jungle.

If the Mayans did relocate to another area of the country, why did they cease building their magnificent cities and revert to a primitive, jungle culture, forsaking all knowledge of architecture, astronomy and science? This question has perplexed researchers for decades and still defies all sensible explanation.

Another civilization that apparently vanished into the mists of history is the Anasazi people of the US southwest. The Anasazi, or "Ancient Ones," lived from 100 AD to 1300 AD in elaborate stone buildings like the five-story, 800-room pueblo in Chaco Cultural National Historic Park in New Mexico. Archaeologists have long puzzled over the fact that the Anasazi seemed to have suddenly disappeared in the 14th century, leaving behind their intricate dwellings and cultural centers. A severe drought lasting 25 years is thought to be a major catalyst for their demise, while other evidence suggests that the Anasazi were driven out of their lands by an enemy attack, forcing them to integrate into other communities. There are others who contest that the Anasazi, who were a mystical race, simply evolved beyond the confines of their physical bodies to inhabit a higher, more spiritual plain of existence.


Nearly 300 years after the disappearance of the Anasazi, the English settlers of Roanoke Island, a three-mile stretch of land off the coast of what is now North Carolina, likewise vanished under mysterious circumstances. The 117 men, women and children had landed on Roanoke Island in 1587 at the behest of Sir Walter Raleigh, establishing the first major English settlement in the New World. A few years prior to this, Raleigh had dispatched a small garrison of troops and tradespeople to the island as a sort of trial run for a larger community, but this mission was a resounding failure. The garrison arrived too late in the year to plant crops, supplies were quickly exhausted, and to make matters worse, the leader of the group antagonized a neighboring Indian tribe by killing the tribe’s chief. In 1586, most of the Englishmen returned to Britain for reinforcements, leaving behind a tiny force of 15 men. These men were subsequently murdered by the Roanoke Indians. Such was the grim, tense situation on Roanoke Island when more than 100 English colonists arrived in 1587.

These settlers were ferried to the island by a Portuguese privateer, Simon Fernandes, who departed ten days later for England in the company of John White, the new settlement’s governor. White wanted to bring back additional supplies to the virgin colony. The burgeoning war between England and Spain, however, delayed his return voyage to Roanoke Island for nearly three years. When he finally set foot upon the island again in August of 1590, everyone was gone.

The colony, known as the "Cittie of Raleigh," had been surrounded in White’s absence by a fort-like enclosure of timber, as if the settlers had been preparing for a siege or an attack. Upon one of the defensive stakes White saw the word "CROATOAN" carved into the wood, and on a nearby tree the letters "CRO" had been chiseled. Prior to his departure, White had instructed the colonists to move inland about 50 miles if they found themselves harassed by the Roanoke Indians, and he told them to leave some sort of sign that denoted their destination. Thus, White assumed the colonists had fled to Hatteras Island, the nearby home of the Croatoan Indians and their leader, Chief Manteo, a friend and ally of Sir Walter Raleigh. A hurricane damaged White’s fleet and prevented him from confirming this supposition, however, and he returned to England, never learning the true fate of the colony. The disappearance of the Roanoke settlers remains a mystery to this day.


It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war, and nowhere is this more evident than in the numerous unexplained disappearances of soldiers and entire platoons and units during combat. The truth behind many of these cases remains tantalizingly out of reach, even today. The extreme chaos and confusion of war make such disappearances inevitable, as does the sinister tendency of nations to hide evidence of wartime massacres and other large-scale atrocities.

One remarkable instance of a wartime vanishing is the case of the 266 men of England’s Fifth Territorial Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, who disappeared on August 12, 1915, during World War I. The battalion was fighting the Turks in Dardenelles, France, when witnesses reported seeing several strange clouds hovering above the battlefield, unaffected by the day’s strong winds. One cigar-shaped cloud 800 feet in length seemed to descend to the ground, and witnesses claimed that the battalion charged into or was engulfed by the cloud. The cloud then rose into the sky and sped away. The soldiers were never seen again. Many theories have been put forth to explain the incident, including a UFO abduction, but no evidence has surfaced to support any of them.

Another curious disappearance occurred in December 1937 during World War II, when 3000 Chinese soldiers vanished while battling the invading Japanese near Nanking, China. The battle raged throughout the night, but by dawn radio transmissions from the unit ceased. No trace of the men were ever found. Military experts concur that the soldiers could not have staged a mass desertion because the area had been surrounded by other Chinese units, none of which could account for the missing men.


Maritime history is littered with countless tales of ships lost to the unpredictable cruelty of the world’s oceans and seas. One of the most enigmatic of these cases is the Mary Celeste, a half-brig constructed in 1860 in Nova Scotia under the name Amazon. Ownership of the vessel changed hands several times, and by late 1872 her name had changed and she was an American- registered ship commanded by Captain Benjamin Briggs, a veteran seaman.

On November 5, 1872, Briggs, his wife and two-year-old daughter, and an eight-man crew guided the Mary Celeste out of New York’s harbor, bound for Genoa, Italy with 1700 barrels of grain alcohol for use in Italy’s wine-making industry. Only a mile from port, however, Briggs weighed anchor near Staten Island because of turbulent seas. The Mary Celeste resumed her voyage on November 7.

A month later, the Dei Gratia, an English brigantine, spotted the ship drifting aimlessly between Portugal and the Azores. No crew was seen on deck. A boarding party was dispatched and the Dei Gratia’s crew was perplexed to find no one aboard the derelict ship, even though the vessel was in good condition. Though there was no evidence of any major calamity or foul play, the boarding party did notice several things amiss: the hatch covers had been blown off, the compass had been heavily damaged and the lifeboat was missing, as was the ship’s register. It seemed clear that the crew of the Mary Celeste had abandoned ship in the midst of the ocean. What was not clear, however, was why.

Several theories have been put forth over the years to explain why the ship’s crew vanished, including a giant squid attack and possible abduction by pirates. One of the more logical explanations suggests that some sort of storm or undersea earthquake may have spilled the contents of nine of the barrels of alcohol (nine casks were indeed found empty) into the ship’s hold, causing a build-up of toxic fumes. A spark or flame from the galley may have then triggered a small explosion that blew off the hatch covers. Briggs, perhaps fearing another, more catastrophic explosion, then loaded everyone into the lifeboat, and then the boat was lost at sea. This, however, has not been proven, and the legend of the Mary Celeste still confounds historians to this day.

Strangely enough, in the same year as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste’s crew, another mysterious maritime vanishing occurred. The SS Iron Mountain, a steamship carrying molasses and cotton, set sail from Vicksburg, Mississippi, heading up the Mississippi River to Pittsburgh. The ship was towing several barges. Sometime after departure, however, the tow line was severed and the Iron Mountain became separated from the barges. The steamship vanished without a trace and was never seen again.


Aviation history also has its share of sudden, inexplicable disappearances. Perhaps the most famous is the case of Flight 19, a squadron of five Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that vanished during a routine training mission from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station in Florida. The fourteen men of Flight 19 are regarded as victims of the sinister forces of the Devil’s Triangle, into which Flight 19 strayed on December 5, 1945.

The Devil’s Triangle, also known as the Bermuda Triangle and the Voodoo Sea, is a 400,000-square-mile triangular patch of the Atlantic Ocean, with southern Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico as the triangle’s vertices. Within this triangle, hundreds of sea vessels and aircraft have vanished under mysterious circumstances, many involving suddenly malfunctioning compasses and navigational equipment. Flight 19 fit this pattern.

The squadron departed on a practice bombing run that would have taken the men over Grand Bahama Island and then back to Fort Lauderdale. However, less than twenty minutes before Flight 19’s scheduled return, one of the pilots radioed the control tower to say that the squadron was off course and couldn’t see land. The navigational equipment of all the planes seemed to have suddenly stopped working.

Flight 19’s commander, Lieutenant Charles Taylor, reported to Ground Control that his compasses were malfunctioning. "Both my compasses are out, and I’m trying to find Fort Lauderdale... I’m over land... I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down..." Though an experienced aviator, Taylor was relatively new to the geography of this particular mission; it was his first mission over the Bahamas, and historians theorize that his unfamiliarity with the area caused him to erroneously assume that he was flying over the Florida Keys, which are slightly southwest of the tip of Florida, when he was most likely over the Abaco Islands, which are due east of Florida.

Believing he and his men were over the Keys, Taylor began using the sun as a navigational reference and ordered the squadron to head northeast, a course that would logically take them back to base—if they were over the Keys. However, if they were actually near the Bahamas, then a northeasterly course would only take them further and further away from Florida and over the empty expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Hours passed, and Flight 19’s increasingly frantic radio transmissions grew weaker and weaker, further suggesting that they were flying farther and farther from home. The last radio communique from Flight 19 was received around 5 pm: "If we’d just head west, we’d get home!"

The search for Flight 19 lasted five days and involved hundreds of planes and more than a dozen ships. Even the search and rescue effort was plagued by tragedy. One of the rescue planes was a 13-man Martin Mariner flying boat which also vanished in the Devil’s Triangle during the search. Over the past century a variety of wild theories have arisen to explain the numerous planes and seagoing vessels that have dissappeared within the Devil’s Triangle, ranging from alien abduction to worm holes in time.

Strange disappearances of aircraft have occurred in other areas of the world as well. In May 2003, a Boeing 727 departed from an airport in the African nation of Angola and vanished without a trace. US State Department officials were at a loss to explain the event, though they suspect it may have been stolen or sold to terrorists. There were no passengers aboard the aircraft, and it was allegedly being flown by someone who ominously claimed to be "the legitimate representative of the aircraft’s owner." The fate of the 727 is still unknown.

The pages of history are filled with many enigmatic instances of vanished civilizations, ships, planes and people. Many, if not most, of these cases have any number of prosaic explanations, but there are some that defy reason and puzzle us to this day. These cases remind us of the often cruel, otherworldly and invisible forces that are at work in the world, forces that can suddenly reach out and erase us, leaving nothing behind but rumors and dark legends.


1945: Five Navy TBM Avenger bombers disappear off Florida.
1947: Army C-45 Superfort vanishes 100 miles off Bermuda.
1948: Four-engined Tudor IV lost with 31 lives. 1948: DC-3 lost with 32 passengers and crew. 1949: Second Tudor IV vanishes. 1950: Giant US Air Force Globemaster lost. 1950: American freighter SS Sandra sinks without trace.
1952: British York transport plane lost with 33 aboard.
1954: US Navy Constellation vanishes with 42 aboard.
1956: US Navy seaplane, Martin P5M, disappears.
1962: US Air Force KB-50 tanker plane lost.
1963: American freighter Sulphur Queen vanishes with entire crew. No Mayday signals and no wreckage ever found. Two US Air Force giant stratotankers disappear on simple exercise. C-132 Cargomaster also vanishes.
1967: Military YC-122 cargo plane lost.
1970: French freighter Milton Iatrides disappears.
1972: German freighter Anita lost with crew of 32.