Charles Berlitz and the Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle (1974) Charles Berlitz

Rating: ★★★★☆

Charles Berlitz, 90, the eminent linguist who wrote the bestsellers ‘The Bermuda Triangle’, ‘The Lost continent of Atlantis‘ and ‘The Philadelphia Experiment’, died Dec. 18th 2003 at Tamarac, Florida.

Mr. Berlitz was the grandson of Maximilian Berlitz, who founded the language schools that bear the family name. Charles was born in New York in 1913 and grew up in a household where he was encouraged to learn a new language every year. By age 3, he spoke four languages and had created his own.

I didn’t realize my family were speaking different languages,” he told The Washington Post in a 1982 profile. “I thought every person had their own particular way of speaking. Since I’d hear my mother switch to German when she spoke to my grandfather, I thought everyone had to learn everyone else’s way of speaking to communicate. I wanted my own language, too.”

Berlitz spent 26 years of his life in the US Army, half of that on active duty, serving as an intelligence officer. He served in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Over the years, he also did counter-intelligence and investigative work for the military.

The Washington Post reported that he married Valerie Seary Berlitz  in 1950, and he was also survived by a daughter, Lin Berlitz-Hilton; and two grandchildren. His daughter summed up the manner in which her father lived his quite extraordinary life, “He was the last of the real gentlemen. He taught me that every person you meet has the ability to teach you something interesting.”

He met his future wife when she was studying at a Berlitz school in Australia and asked for a refund. He said the encounter resulted in a marriage proposal but no money, explaining: “Hard company to get a refund from.”

During his life, he learned 30 languages from Arabic to Zulu. He wrote dozens of books about language, a subject he described as more than simply communication. Words also indicate how people of different cultures think, he said, citing as an example how the colour red in China symbolizes joy, celebration and marriage, while white is associated with death and mourning.

His book “Native Tongues” (1982) was a compendium of anecdotes about the development of language. He noted that the Italian greeting “ciao” came from the word for “slave,” schiavo, or “I am your slave..”

Studying past civilizations and as an expert scuba diver, his interest in underwater archaeology, led to a successful, if much derided, career focused on the subjects many professional archaeologists shy away from, the fascinating oddities that are difficult to explain.

In his bestseller “The Bermuda Triangle” (1974), he wrote about seemingly inexplicable disappearances of planes and ships in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda. (Berlitz, by the way, did not invent the name; that was Vincent Gaddis in “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle,” which appeared in the February, 1964, issue of Argosy magazine.) Despite stringent criticism, the book sold an estimated 10 million copies and spurred  Berlitz to write ‘Without a Trace’ (1977), which included personal stories of people who claimed to have been affected by the Triangle. He also reported in the book the existence of a giant pyramid on the bottom of the ocean.

“I don’t say all this stuff about the Bermuda Triangle is supernatural,” he told an interviewer.  “I just don’t think we’re at a point to fully understand it.”

The Bermuda Triangle is a triangular area in the Atlantic Ocean bounded roughly at its points by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. Legend has it that many people, ships and planes have mysteriously vanished in this area. The size of the triangle varies from 500,000 square miles to three times that size, depending on the author. (Some include the Azores, the Gulf of Mexico, and the West Indies in the ‘triangle’.) Some trace the mystery back to the time of Columbus. Even so, estimates range from about 200 to no more than 1,000 incidents in the past 500 years. Howard Rosenberg claims that more than 50 ships and 20 planes have gone down in the Bermuda Triangle within the last century.

Many bizarre theories have been given to explain the extraordinary mystery of these missing ships and planes. Extra-terrestrials, residue crystals from Atlantis and vortices from the ‘fourth dimension’ are favourites among fantasy writers. Strange magnetic fields and/or other physical phenomena such as methane gas up-welling from the continental slope are favourites among the technically-minded. Freak weather (thunderstorms, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, high waves, currents, etc.), pirates, explosive cargoes, incompetent navigators, and other natural and human causes are among the reasons given by sceptical investigators.

There are some who argue that the facts do not support the legend, that there is nothing that needs explaining. The number of wrecks in this area is not extraordinary, given its size, location and the amount of traffic it receives. Investigations to date have not produced scientific evidence of any unusual phenomena involved in the disappearances.

The modern legend of the Bermuda Triangle began soon after five Navy planes (Flight 19) vanished on a training mission during a severe storm in 1945. The most logical theory as to why they vanished is that lead pilot Lt. Charles Taylor’s compass failed. The trainees’ planes were not equipped with working navigational instruments. The group was disoriented and simply, though tragically, ran out of fuel. Many people believe no mysterious forces were likely to have been involved other than the force of gravity on planes with no fuel.

“One of several commentators who believes that the Bermuda Triangle is nothing more than a coincidence..has observed,’ Those who believe in the Bermuda Triangle also believe in sea-serpents’, although this is not necessarily a proof that if one does not exist the other does not either, or that if a sea-serpent is finally and satisfactorily identified, then other legends of the sea automatically become more credible. In general, people are unwilling to confront mysteries which cannot be explained or are incapable of theoretical explanation in terms they can understand.. If the phenomenon cannot be explained, the best response is to ignore it- a more reassuring course of action and, in a way, more innocent.” (p193)

Charles Berlitz rightly pointed out that much of what we take for granted, and scientists theorize about, would be regarded as supernatural in even recent historical times. As an example, the Alchemist’s ancient dream, the transmutation of matter, turning lead into gold, is now a reality, if expensive!

His other titles included ‘The Mystery of Atlantis(1969), and ‘Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds (1972).

The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility (1979), alleged that the Navy had found a way to make matter invisible and hide its warships. A feature film was made of ‘The Philadelphia Experiment’ in 1984.

He later wrote ‘Atlantis: The Lost Continent Revealed (1984), and ‘The Lost Ship of Noah(1987).