|Date||April 4, 1943|
|Site|| Libyan desert
|Fatalities||9 (1 initially, 8 subsequently)|
|Aircraft type||B-24D Liberator|
|Operator||United States Army Air Force|
|Flight origin||Soluch Airfield|
|Destination||Soluch Airfield or Malta|
Lady Be Good was an USAAF B-24D Liberator that mysteriously disappeared without trace on its first combat mission during World War II. The plane, from 376th Bomb Group, had been on a bombing raid to Naples on April 4, 1943 when it was lost. The aircraft was originally thought to have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, with the loss of its nine-man crew. However, the wreck was eventually found 710 km (440 mi) inland in the Libyan Desert when accidentally discovered by an oil exploration team from BP.
Investigations concluded the crew failed to realize they had overflown their air base in a sandstorm possibly assuming from the moonlight reflecting over the wavey sand dunes that they were still flying over sea. After continuing to fly south into the desert for many hours well beyond their ETA, they bailed out when the plane's fuel ran out. The survivors then died in the desert trying to walk to safety. The remains of all but one of its crew have been recovered.
In 1943, the Lady Be Good was a new Liberator bomber that had just been assigned to the 514th Bomb Squadron on March 25. The squadron was part of the 376th Bombardment Group (Heavy) based at Soluch Field in Soluch in Libya. The plane, which had the AAF serial number 41-24301, had the group identification number 64 stencil-painted on its nose. Its given name, Lady Be Good, was hand-painted on the starboard, front side of the forward fuselage.
The Lady Be Good crew were all new, too, as they had only arrived in Libya a week before on March 18. On their first mission together, they would be flying one of the twenty-five B-24s assigned to bomb the harbor of Naples late in the afternoon of April 4. The operation consisted of a two-part attack. A flight of twelve B-24s would go first, followed by a second wave of 13 planes, including the Lady Be Good. After the attack, all planes were expected to return to their bases in North Africa. The crew of the Lady Be Good on the Naples mission were:
The plane, which was one of the last to depart, took off from Soluch Field near Benghazi shortly after 3 pm. Almost immediately, high winds and obscured visibility prevented it from joining the main bomber formation, so it continued the mission on its own.
Nine B-24s returned to base because of the sandstorm, and four aircraft continued on. They arrived over Naples at 7:50 pm. at 7600 m (25,000 feet). With bad visibility, they did not bomb the primary target, but two B-24s hit their secondary target on the return trip, and two dumped their bombs into the Mediterranean to reduce weight and save fuel.
Lady Be Good flew back alone from Italy on its return trip to its home base in Libya. At 12:12 a.m. the pilot, Lt. Hatton, radioed to say his automatic direction finder was not working and asked for a location of base. The plane apparently overflew its base, failing to see the flares fired to attract its attention. It continued into the interior of North Africa deeper into the Sahara desert for the next two hours. At 2 a.m. the crew parachuted to the ground as the Lady Be Good flew 26 km (16 mi) more with no one aboard. It crash-landed in the Calanshio Sand Sea of the Libyan Desert. A search and rescue mission from Soluch Air Base failed to find anything. With no trace of the crew or aircraft, the incident became known as a mystery.
After the crew abandoned the aircraft, it continued flying southward. The mostly intact wreckage and evidence showing one engine was still operating at the time of impact suggests the aircraft gradually lost altitude in a very shallow descent, reached the flat, open desert floor and landed on its belly.
The first reported sighting of the crash site was on November 9, 1958 by a British oil exploration team working for British Petroleum (BP). The team contacted authorities at Wheelus Air Base, but no attempt to examine the aircraft was made as no records existed of any plane believed to have been lost in the area.:p.25 The location of the wreckage was however marked on maps to be used by oil-prospecting teams that were due to set out to explore the Calanshio Sand Sea the next year.:p.25
On February 27, 1959, British oil surveyor Gordon Bowerman and British geologists Donald Sheridan and John Martin spotted the wreckage near , 710 km (440 mi) southeast of Soluch, following up the first sighting from the air on May 16, 1958, by the crew of a Silver City Airways Dakota, and another on June 15. A recovery team made initial trips from Wheelus Air Base to the crash site on May 26, 1959.
Although the plane was broken into two pieces, it was immaculately preserved, with functioning machine guns, a working radio, and some supplies of food and water. A thermos of tea was found to be drinkable. No human remains were found on board the aircraft nor in the surrounding crash site, nor were parachutes found. Evidence aboard the plane indicated that the men had bailed out. Records in the log of navigator Lieutenant Hays, who was on his very first combat mission, ended at Naples.
|Wreckage of the Lady Be Good|
In February 1960, the United States Army conducted a formal search for the remains of the airmen, and on February 11 five — Hatton, Toner, Hays, LaMotte and Adams — were found. Finding evidence that three other crew members had continued walking northward to seek help, the exploration concluded their bodies were likely buried beneath sand dunes. When the news media reported on the crashed plane and the five recovered bodies, an expanded joint effort of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army called Operation Climax took place in May 1960, using a C-130 cargo plane and two Army Bell H-13 helicopters. A British Petroleum exploration crew found the remains of Staff Sgt. Shelley on May 12, 1960, 38 km (24 mi) northwest of the five bodies that were initially found, and a U.S. helicopter found Tech. Sgt. Ripslinger on May 17, 1960. His remains were located 42 km (26 mi) northwest of Shelley. These two bodies were the only ones found during Operation Climax. The body of Lt. Woravka was later found by another British Petroleum oil exploration crew in August 1960, and his remains were then recovered by the U.S. Air Force. T/Sgt Ripslinger had walked in the desert for over 200 miles from the crash site and was 100 miles from the base.
Subsequent examinations of the remains and personal items prove that eight of the nine airmen managed to parachute safely out of the aircraft and down to the desert. They then located each other by firing their revolvers and signal flares into the air. However the ninth crewman, Bombardier Lt. John Woravka, could not be found. Unknown to the survivors, it appeared his parachute only partially opened and he died from the fall.:p.38
A diary recovered from the pocket of co-pilot Robert Toner recorded the crew's suffering on the walk northward. It indicated none of the men were aware they had been flying over land when they bailed out or were 400 miles (640 km) inland.:p.31 Speculation concludes the empty desert floor in the darkness may have appeared like open sea. The eight surviving crew members walked north because they believed they were fairly close to the Mediterranean coast. As they walked, the group left behind footwear, parachute scraps, Mae West vests and other items as markers to show searchers their path.
With only a single canteen of water to share, the diary reveals the group survived for another eight days in the desert. Remains of five airmen were found in a group nearly 80 miles (130 km) from the crash site. The other three (Guy Shelley, "Rip" Ripslinger and Vernon Moore) had set off to try to find help while the other five waited behind. Continuing north, the body of S/Sgt Shelley was found 32 km (20 mi) away while 43 km (27 mi) further on was the remains of T/Sgt Ripslinger.
The body of S/Sgt Moore has never officially been found. However his remains may have been recovered and buried by a desert patrol of the British Army in 1953. As they were unaware that any Allied air crews were missing in the area, the human remains were recorded but then buried without further investigation.[note 1]
The official report in the American Graves Registration Service states:
The navigator on the Lady Be Good thought he was flying on a direct path from Naples to Benghazi. But the base's radio direction finder only had a single loop antenna.:p.28 As the plane's direction finder could not distinguish between a signal in front or behind the aircraft, there was no way to identify reciprocal readings. The same bearing would be returned whether the plane was heading inbound from the Mediterranean or outbound inland.:pp.28–29
The crew might have survived if they had known their actual location. If they had headed south the same distance they walked north, the group might have reached the oasis of Wadi Zighen. After the crew bailed out Lady Be Good continued flying south for 26 km (16 mi) before coming to land, and there was also a chance that the crew might have found the aircraft's relatively intact wreckage, with its meager water and food supplies. The aircraft's working radio could have been used to call for help.:p.38
After the Lady Be Good was identified, parts of the plane were returned to the United States for evaluation. Some parts may be seen today at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. A propeller can be seen in front of the village hall in Lake Linden, the home of Robert E. LaMotte. The U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia has a collection of personal items, such as watches, silk survival maps, and flight clothing from the crew members who were recovered. Several of these items are on display. An altimeter and manifold pressure gauge were salvaged from the plane in 1963 by Airman Second Class Ron Pike and are on display at the March Field Air Museum just south of Riverside, CA. A Royal Air Force team visited the site in 1968 and hauled away components including an engine (later donated to the US Air Force) for evaluation by the McDonnell Douglas company. Other pieces were stripped by souvenir hunters over the years. In August 1994, the remains of the craft were recovered by a team led by Dr. Fadel Ali Mohammed and taken to a Libyan military base in Tobruk for safekeeping. They are now stored at Jamal Abdelnasser Air Force Base, Libya.
After some parts were salvaged from the Lady Be Good and technically evaluated, they were reused in other planes belonging to the American military. However some planes that received these spares developed unexpected problems. A C-54, which had several autosyn transmitters from the Lady Be Good installed, had to throw cargo overboard to land safely because of propeller difficulties. A C-47 that received a radio receiver crashed into the Mediterranean. A U.S. Army de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter with an armrest from the bomber crashed in the Gulf of Sidra. Only a few traces of the plane washed ashore and one of these was the armrest from the Lady Be Good.
The Lady Be Good incident was indirectly referenced in a couple of television shows and movies.
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