The B-24 Liberator named “Lady Be Good” was anything but lucky.
On April 4th 1943, the Consolidated B-24D Liberator “Lady Be Good” and her crew of nine men took off on their first combat mission from Benina airstrip in Soluch near Benghazi in Libya to bomb the harbor of the Italian city of Naples…but flew into history instead. The aircraft disappeared without a trace. Written off as one of the thousands of American heavy bombers lost during the war, the Lady would most likely remain undiscovered and her disappearance would almost certainly remain unsolved. At least until 15 years later.
The Lady was assigned to the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) 514th Bomb Squadron of the 376th Bomb Group (Heavy). Part of a 25 bomber mission that day, the Lady was supposed to bomb Naples harbor as a part of the second wave of a two-wave attack. The Lady was crewed on that fateful day by pilot First Lieutenant William J. Hatton from Whitestone in New York, co-pilot Second Lieutenant Robert F. Toner from North Attleborough in Massachusetts, navigator Second Lieutenant D.P. Hays from Lee’s Summit in Missouri, bombardier Second Lieutenant John S. Woravka from Cleveland in Ohio, flight engineer Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger from Saginaw in Michigan, radio operator Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte from lake Linden in Michigan, gunner and assistant flight engineer Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley from New Cumberland in Pennsylvania, gunner and assistant radio operator Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore from New Boston in Ohio, and gunner Staff Sergeant Samuel E. Adams from Eureka in Illinois.
The Lady’s departure from Benina Airstrip was routine but the Liberator ran into a Sahara desert sandstorm with high winds and obscured visibility which prevented the aircraft from joining up with the rest of the formation. Most of the other aircraft returned to Benina upon encountering the sandstorm but the Lady continued the mission. Upon reaching Naples at approximately 1950 local time the primary target was obscured so only two of the B-24Ds dropped their bombs on the primary. Two others, including the Lady, jettisoned their bombs in the Mediterranean. The Lady flew back to the airstrip at Benina alone.
At 0012 local time command pilot Hatton radioed Benina to indicate that his automatic direction finder (ADF) was not working properly. He asked for steer back to the base that the Lady never received. By all accounts the Lady overflew Benina Airstrip but failed to observe flares fired from the ground to attract the crew’s attention. The Liberator continued its flight…deeper into the Sahara desert until 0200 local time when the crew abandoned the Lady, parachuting to the desert ground. The B-24D flew another 16 miles before she crashed landed in the Calanshio Sand Sea. A search and rescue mission was immediately mounted from Benina but all efforts to locate the Lady and her crew failed to find any trace of the aircraft or the men. At that point the fate of the Lady Be Good became another unsolved mystery of the Sahara.
The first to sight wreckage of a B-24D that could be the Lady was a British Petroleum (BP) oil exploration team roaming the Libyan deserts on November 9th 1958. When the Brits contacted the nearest American base (Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli in Libya), they were told that there were no records of an American plane that had been lost in the area. As a result, no immediate attempt to examine the wreckage was made but the BP team marked the location of the wreckage on their maps. Sighted from the air again on May 16th 1958 and June 15th 1958, a recovery team finally arrived at the wreck on May 26th, 1959.
From the condition of the wreck it was deduced that after the crew abandoned the aircraft the Lady continued flying southward. The wreckage was in large part intact and there was evidence that suggested one engine was still operating at the time of impact. This in turn suggested that the Liberator lost altitude only gradually in a shallow descent, eventually belly landing on the desert sands. Although the plane was broken into two large pieces the desert had not ravaged the Lady quite as much as the recovery team expected.
Her machine guns were still functional. So too was her radio. The remarkably well preserved fuselage still contained supplies of food and water. Liquid tea found in the wreck was still drinkable. One engine was found to be operational. But there were no human remains in or around the Lady and she contained no parachutes. In February of 1960, the United States Army sent a search team to determine the crew’s fate. The remains of Bill Hatton, Bob Toner, D.P. Hays, Bob LaMotte and Sam Adams were found in close proximity to each other on February 11th 1960. Subsequent Air Force searches (collectively dubbed Operation Climax) eventually found the remains of Guy Shelley and Harold Ripslinger. John Woravka’s remains were found by another BP oil exploration crew a few months later. The remains of Vernon Moore were never found.
Unraveling the mystery of the Lady Be Good and her crew’s fate began with finding their bodies but continued with a diary found in Bob Toner’s pocket. The diary recorded the crew’s actions. It was discovered that John Woravka and died separately from the others as a result of a malfunctioning parachute. After remaining eight crew members located each other on the desert floor, they began walking north in an attempt to reach the Libyan coast they believed was much closer than it actually was.
Toner’s diary indicated that none of the men knew the Lady was flying over land when they abandoned her or that they were approximately 400 miles away from the coast. The crew left a trail of personal equipment shaped in arrows indicating their path behind them as they walked. The crew had one canteen of water to share between them for eight days. The remains of the five crew members found close together indicated that the crew had split up, with three of the crew continuing north to find help. Help they never did find. Those three crew members were found individually having continued northward until each of them succumbed to thirst, fatigue, and hopelessness.
It is at least possible the crew could have survived their ordeal had they known where they were. Had the crew walked south instead of north an oasis (Wadi Zighen) was within walking distance. Had they found the relatively intact wreckage of the Lady, they might have been able to use her still-operational radio to call for help. After the Lady was identified and analyzed parts of her were distributed to museums and town halls over many years. In 1994 the remaining hulk of the Lady Be Good, mysterious no more, was moved to a Libyan military base where it remains today.
The story has a strange postscript. Some of the parts recovered from the wreck of the Lady were used in other aircraft. The story goes that an American Douglas C-54 that received propeller control parts from the wreck of the Lady experienced propeller problems bad enough to force the transport to jettison cargo in order to land safely. A Douglas C-47 Dakota that received a radio receiver from the Lady was forced to ditch in the Mediterranean. And the strangest one of all is the United States Army deHavilland DHC-3 Otter single engine transport that received an armrest that once belonged to the Lady Be Good. The Otter subsequently crashed into the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast while carrying ten men. No trace of the men was found. One of the few pieces of the destroyed Otter to wash up on the Libyan coast was…that same Lady Be Good armrest!