TOP: The sea monster sketched by Edward McCleary for Tim Dinsdale in 1965
MIDDLE: The sinking of the USS Massachusetts in 1921
BOTTOM: An exhibit from the Creation Museum, wherein a child plays with a dinosaur in the Garden of Eden!
In May 1965 readers of Fate magazine were treated to a remarkable tale, penned by then 19-year-old Edward Brian McCleary. Titled 'My Escape from a Sea Monster,' the story has achieved near-legendary status in cryptozoological circles, and forty years after the fact inspired a bizarre Internet parody.
The facts of the case—if facts they are—may be simply summarized. On Saturday, 24th March 1962, McCleary and four young companions left their homes in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for a diving expedition offshore from Pensacola. Their target was the USS Massachusetts, a decommissioned battleship deliberately sunk by naval gunfire in January 1921, still popular today with scuba divers who enjoy exploring wrecks. Joining McCleary on that fateful day were 17-year-old Warren Salley Jr, 16-year-old Eric Ruyle, 15-year-old Larry Bill, and 14-year-old Bradford Rice.
Aboard an rubber raft, the five companions paddled toward the Massachusetts, but they ran afoul of unexpected currents, gale-force winds, and fog that left them stranded on a buoy anchored to the sunken hulk. At nightfall, according to McCleary, a long-necked and foul-smelling sea monster approached the buoy, prompting all five boys to swim in panic through the fog. McCleary saw the beast grab Eric Ruyle and drag him underwater, followed shortly by the sound of Salley shouting, "It's got Brad!" Moments later, a scream signaled Salley's fate, while McCleary lost sight of Larry Bill in the mist. McCleary alone reached the shore, spending the night in World War II-era gun emplacement near Fort McRae, where a helicopter crew from Pensacola's Naval Air Station found him at 7:45 A.M. on Sunday.
Writing three years after the supposed event, McCleary claimed that he immediately shared his monster tale with personnel at Pensacola's naval hospital, where he was treated for shock and exposure to the elements. E. E. McGovern, a verified member of the Escambia County Search and Rescue Unit, allegedly listened in awe, then said, "The sea has a lot of secrets. I believe you, but there's not much else I can do."
Two months after Fate published his story, McCleary sent an abbreviated and amended version to Loch Ness researcher Tim Dinsdale, who apparently accepted the tale at face value and remarked on "the potential danger faced by those who swim in waters inhabited by these animals, which must be fish-eating carnivores." As for the fate of McCleary's friends, Dinsdale wrote, "I feel Mr. McCleary has been right to omit the details in his letter, because the facts cannot be proven."
Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans briefly recapped McCleary's story in 1968, suggesting a possible hoax but leaving room for speculation. Sensationalist author Warren Smith presented the tale as fact eight years later, suggesting that "a storm, unfamiliar waters, or other factors affecting behavior could trigger a vicious attack by these beasts." In 2007 researcher Matt Bille told Internet readers: "As so often happens in cryptozoology, we are left with a story with no corroborating evidence. That story, as unbelievable as it sounds, still could be true. But we don't know. Until and unless we get a specimen of a creature that matches McCleary's beast, the death of four young men will remain a mystery of the sea."
Or will it?
While researching Florida's Unexpected Wildlife in 2005, I attempted to locate any available corroboration of McCleary's tale. Fate had referred to stories published in the "Pensacola Journal" (actually the News Journal) and the Playground News of Fort Walton Beach, but I struck a dead-end on that front. Archivists at the News Journal denied any record of the case in their paper (incorrectly, as I later learned), while the Playground News eluded me, having changed titles during 1988. Strangely, despite published descriptions of a full-scale search for the five young divers, my inquiries to local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard likewise proved fruitless. No one, it seemed, had any record of the case.
Enter Kent Hovind, a Christian evangelist who once styled himself "Dr. Dino" while promoting a doctrine of creationism, including tales of living dinosaurs cited to prove that Earth is only 6,000 years old. Presently incarcerated at Jesup Federal Correctional Institution in Georgia, serving a term for tax evasion that will keep him caged until August 2015, Hovind formerly referred skeptics to Val Bill, stepmother of alleged monster victim Larry Bill, as a corroborating witness.
According to Hovind, Mrs. Bill approached him following a sermon he delivered in 1998, relating the tale of her son's grisly fate. "You can write her a letter," said Hovind, providing an address in Fort Walton Beach. I did so, and received no answer.
Enter Dusty Ricketts, a reporter with the Northwest Florida Daily News (formerly the Playground News). Armed with a copy of my book, Ricketts launched his own investigation of McCleary's story and phoned to get my take on the events. He had unearthed copies of four newspaper articles about the case, published between 26 March and 2 April 1962, providing me with photocopies that shed more light on McCleary's article in Fate and his letter to Tim Dinsdale. (He had also located McCleary, hoping for an interview, apparently in vain.)
First, it should be noted that McCleary hedged his bets in Fate, claiming that Florida reporters warned him they could not publish a monster story, which was "better left unmentioned for all concerned." And in fact, the Pensacola News Journal quoted McCleary at length on 26 March 1962, including this description of the fatal incident:
"Larry, Eric and I tried to swim together. Eric suddenly developed cramps. Larry and I tried to hold him up and suddenly my legs stiffened and I wasn't able to use them to swim with. I tried to get Eric to hold onto me. He finally started shouting that he couldn't make it. I told Larry that I didn't think we were going to make it and he said, 'We're sure going to try.'"
Whatever happened next remained unstated, as McCleary jumped ahead to his arrival on the shoreline, by himself. There was no mention of a monster, or indeed any description of what befell his friends. More to the point, the Playground News of 2 April 1962 reports the funeral of Brad Rice, washed ashore on 31 March, a presumed drowning victim. Larry Bill, Eric Ruyle and Warren Salley Jr. rated no mention at all.
Which raises the question: why not? Was the disappearance and presumed death of three teenagers so routine that the local paper in their relatively small town—19,992 residents as of 2008—chose to ignore their passing entirely?
In an effort to resolve that question, I consulted the U.S. Social Security Death Index, a public resource that purports to list dates of death for any resident of the United States who has possessed a Social Security card since Congress launched the program in 1935. No resident of the U.S. may legally work without first acquiring a Social Security number, and paying mandated taxes into the system. Warren Salley and Eric Ruyle were certainly of working age in 1962, while the other alleged monster victims may also have possessed Social Security cards. (I obtained mine at age 13, for my first summer job. Child actors may be registered in infancy.)
That said, a note of caution is required, since research on other projects has shown me that some persons who should be listed are not, including both the famous and infamous. With that in mind, my search for McCleary's companions revealed the following information:
According to federal records, only one Eric Ruyle has died in the U.S. since Social Security was established. Born in August 1883, he died at Alton, Illinois, in January 1965, aged 81.
Two Warren Salleys made the government's list. One was born in 1921 and died in Panama City, Florida, at 85, in March 2007. The other was born in 1925 and died a month before his namesake, in February 2007, at Derby, Kansas.
By comparison, we have too many Larry Bills. The only one with that precise name—Larry G. Bill—died at Naples, Florida, in April 2008, age 72. Five Lawrence Bills, born between November 1898 and November 1953, died in Virginia (July 1972), Louisiana (February 1983), New York (October 1985), North Dakota (June 1996), and Ohio (July 2006). Laurence B. Bill was born in 1935 and died in Pennsylvania, in October 1996.
Seeking other avenues of verification, I checked the weather for Pensacola, Florida, and environs on 24 March 1962, through the Old Farmer's Almanac online. The day was reasonably warm, with a high of 64.9° Fahrenheit. No precipitation or fog was recorded, visibility was cited as 4.8 miles, and the stormy winds that allegedly drove McCleary's raft off-course never topped 13 miles per hour.
So, was the story a shameless hoax?
One Internet prankster obviously thought so, when he mocked Kent Hovind's recitation of the case on the FARK "not news" Web site, quoting fabricated author "MacArthur Vick's" proclamation that "Dinosaurs are Sodomites!" In that piece, we are regaled with the story of 23 teenage divers swept off-course in March 1959, while searching for a shipwreck near "Surf City, New Jersey." Lost in a "satanic" fog, they are attacked and fatally buggered by a reptilian beast, which spares only survivor " Percival Patterson." "Atheist satanic scientists" dismiss the tale, but author "Vick" proclaims that the youths "had been ravaged and eaten by the sea monster."
And there, at least for now, the matter rests. Unless McCleary someday offers evidence supporting his account, whatever that might be after the passage of nearly half a century, logic demands dismissal of his claim.