Thursday, 3 May 2018

WHERE DID YOU GO, LADY BE GOOD?

The remains of Lady be Good, Libyan desert, 1959 (US Public Domain)

A few minutes after 3 PM, April 4, 1943, at the height of World War II, a brand, spanking new B-24D Liberator heavy bomber--serial number 41-24301--belonging to 514 Bomb Squadron, 376th Bomb Group left the US Army Air Force base at Soluch Field near Benghazi, Libya, north of the Sahara Desert, and headed northeast over the Mediterranean Sea to bomb the harbor at Naples, Italy.

War crews thought the world of their aircraft, giving them names as if they were human. This crew was no different: They had the words Lady Be Good hand-painted on the starboard, front side. The bomber was named after the popular song Oh, Lady Be Good, written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1924, and had been performed by big band leaders Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and a few others up to that time. Besides given a new aircraft, the nine-man crew was on their first combat mission together, part of a two-prong attack containing 25 bombers, with Lady Be Good one of the 11-plane second wave.

The rookie crew consisted of…
--pilot: 1st Lt William Hatton from Whitestone, New York
--co-pilot: 2nd Lt Robert Toner from North Attleborough, Massachusetts
--navigator: 2nd Lt D.P Hays from Lee’s Summit, Missouri
--radio operator: T/Sgt Robert LaMotte from Lake Linden, Michigan
--flight engineer: Harold Ripslinger from Saginaw, Michigan
--bombardier: 2nd Lt John Woravka from Cleveland, Ohio
--tail gunner: S/Sgt Samuel Adams from Eureka, Illinois
--gunner/assistant radio operator: S/Sgt Vernon Moore from New Boston, Ohio
--gunner/assistant engineer: Guy Shelley from New Cumberland, Pennsylvania


April 4, 1943 was not a good day for this crew because too many things went wrong right from the start. High winds and bad visibility due to a wicked sandstorm hindered them from joining the other bombers in the stream. Nine aircraft returned to Soluch, leaving pilot William Hatton, and only three other pilots in the air, with Hatton taking the lead. Experiencing more high winds along the way and forced to make several coarse corrections, the four crews continued on. Arriving over the target at 24,900 feet and discovering the harbor blanketed in cloud cover and darkness, Hatton banked away, jettisoned his bombs over the Mediterranean, and headed back to Soluch, Libya. Little did he know his troubles were only beginning.

A few minutes after midnight, Hatton radioed Soluch to tell the operator his automatic direction finder was malfunctioning and asked for help to guide him to the runway. Despite the base staff lighting bright flares for the crew, the Lady Be Good B-24D Liberator vanished into the darkness. A search and rescue mission sent out at sunup found no trace of the crew or the bomber.


Lady be Good, Libyan Desert, 1959 (US Public Domain)
Where did it go? Two years later, the war was over and the incident was all but forgotten. Chalked up as one of those many World War II mysteries, it was presumed that the crew and aircraft Lady Be Good had gone down in the Mediterranean.

Then…

Fifteen years later, May 16, 1958, Captain Allan Frost, flying a twin-engine Dakota for Silver City Airways (a private British airline established in 1946), spotted a crashed four-engine aircraft deep in the Sahara Desert 440 miles south of Soluch, Libya. There were subsequent sightings of the broken aircraft over the next few months without much being done. By November 9 that same year, A British oil exploration team sub-contracting for British Petroleum (BP) reported the same crash site. The team marked the location and contacted the Americans at Wheelus Air Base on the Mediterranean coast near Tripoli, Libya.

By May 29, 1959, American boots were on the ground to inspect what turned out to be one of their own World War II bombers. To their surprise, they had discovered the elusive Lady Be Good. The bomber was well preserved, despite being snapped in two pieces along the fuselage. The machine guns and radio were still working, and food and water were discovered aboard. A thermos of coffee was found still drinkable. The lack of human remains and parachutes suggested that the crew had bailed out.

Following an extensive air search throughout the area beginning in February, 1960, plus a thorough analysis of the B-24’s flight and aftermath later, in addition to a BP exploration crew helping out, the whole story came together. And it was a strange tale indeed. All the bodies were found over the next few months except for one--Vernon Moore. His remains may have been discovered after a British Army desert patrol found a body in 1953. Unable to identify Moore, if it was him, and unaware that any American airmen were reported missing in the vicinity, they buried the body in an unmarked grave in an identified area.

The remains of John Moravka were discovered only a few miles away from the crash site. His parachute still attached meant his chute didn’t open and he probably died from the fall. Harold Ripslinger’s body was found the furthest from the others, an astonishing 200 miles from the Lady be Good’s crash site.
The crew of Lady be Good, 1943 (US Public Domain)
Going back to the flight…apparently, upon returning from Naples, the Lady Be Good experienced an extremely strong tail wind. Somehow mistaking the wind for a headwind and believing that his equipment was giving him false readings, Hatton flew over his base at Soluch, believing he and his crew was still over water. Instead, they flew approximately 440 miles into the desert beyond. By 2 AM, running out of fuel, the crew bailed out, while the bomber flew on for another 16 miles before landing flat on the desert floor and cracking apart.

One could just imagine the crew’s shock upon finding out they had actually landed on ground instead of the water they had expected. So, in the middle of the night, the crew rallied around the flares they lit and began the walk back to base which they were convinced was only a few miles away or over the next sand dune or two. Unfortunately, Soluch wasn’t that close.

Actually, had the crew realized where exactly they had landed in the Sahara that April 5, 1943 morning, they might have survived. First, by making a controlled landing on the desert bed, they could have used the radio to make a distress call. Or perhaps, after bailing out, they could’ve walked the 16 miles back to the bomber. Either way, they had provisions aboard, however meager, such as water and food, in 
addition to the radio. Also, they were within probable walking distance of Wadi Zighen, an oasis to the south with palm trees and ample water supply--five wells in all.

After the eight recovered bodies were shipped back to the United States for proper burials, pieces from Lady Be Good and crew mementos were exhibited in museums around the United States, including one of the props displayed in Lake Linden, the hometown of Robert LaMotte, the radio operator.

In August 1994, the remains of Lady be Good--the bomber that went on her first and last World War II combat mission--were removed from the crash site and taken to a Libyan military base in Tobruk, where they remain in storage today.