On April 4, 1943, a B-24D Liberator nicknamed Lady Be Good took off from Soluch, an airstrip located near Bengazi, Libya, for what would be her first and final mission. During that fateful trip, Lady Be Good carried nine members of the 514th Squadron, 376th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force. Their names:
- 1st Lieutenant William J. Hatton, Pilot
- 2d Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, Copilot
- 2d Lieutenant Dp Hays, Navigator
- 2d Lieutenant John S. Woravka, Bombardier
- Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger, Flight Engineer
- Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, Radio Operator
- Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley, Gunner/Asst Flight Engineer
- Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore, Gunner/Asst Radio Operator
- Staff Sergeant Samuel R. Adams, Gunner
The plan had been for the aircraft to leave Soluch in waves, thus requiring those leaving last to catch up with the formation. Unfortunately, strong winds in the Sahara Desert resulted in sandstorms and poor visibility for the bombers. Many of the aircraft ultimately aborted their mission to Naples, Italy, and returned to Soluch. Despite everything, Lady Be Good and her crew valiantly carried on.
Lady, which had been one of the last planes to depart for the mission, never caught up with the formation. She eventually turned around just prior to reaching the target in Naples. It was on the solo trip back to Soluch that things went awry.
The last contact with Lady Be Good came from Lt. Hatton, who had radioed Soluch airfield for assistance. He stated that the aircraft’s automatic direction finder was no longer operating correctly and they needed guidance. The crew never received the help that they requested and consequently, Lady overshot Soluch. A search and rescue team was deployed but the ill-fated crew could not be located. At the end of the search, it was reported that Lady Be Good and her crew had been lost over the Mediterranean Sea.
By the end of WWII, the loss of Lady Be Good remained a mystery. Her story was not necessarily unique, as she was just one of many aircraft and crew to go missing during the war. However, unlike others to go missing, the story of Lady Be Good and her crew would eventually be pieced together.
In November 1958, British geologists working for D’Arcy Oil Company (later merged with British Petroleum) were flying over the Libyan Desert when they spotted a crashed plane. They noted the location and contacted Wheelus Air Force Base. At the time, Wheelus did not have any record of an American plane having been lost in the area, therefore, they did not react immediately to the call. The team of geologists sighted the downed aircraft during subsequent surveys and in March 1959, D’Arcy Oil Company dispatched a ground team to investigate.
The initial inspection of the site was conducted by a D’Arcy surveyor, Gordon Bowerman, who happened to be a friend of Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Kolbus, commander of Wheelus Air Base. According to the Army Quartermaster Foundation, after visiting the site, Bowerman wrote a letter to Lt. Col. Kolbus. The letter contained information from the plane’s maintenance inspection records, as well as crew names found on clothing and other equipment. This information prompted officials from Wheelus Air Force Base and the Army Quartermaster Mortuary in Frankfurt, Germany to investigate the crash site. Finally, after sixteen years, the story of Lady Be Good would be told.
The initial investigation by military officials of the Lady Be Good crash site began in May 1959 and ended in August 1959. During this time, U.S. Military completed extensive ground searches, in addition to ground-controlled air searches. Despite looking in the area for months, the team was unable to locate any of the crew’s remains. Though, military personnel did recover some of the crew’s equipment, such as parachutes, flight boots, and arrowhead markers. The markers were presumably used by the crew to mark their trail. After months of looking, “the search was abandoned when equipment began to deteriorate and fail and the probability of the airmen being completely covered by shifting sand made the dangers of further search impractical.”
In February 1960, six months after ending the first search, the remains of five crew members were located. Just like the initial discovery of the crash site, British Petroleum employees were also responsible for locating the men. Officials from the Army Quartermaster Mortuary returned to Libya to process the site. The remains were identified as belonging to Lt. Hatton, Lt. Toner, Lt. Hays, Sgt. Adams, and Sgt. LaMotte. Many personal items were also recovered at the site, including canteens, flashlights, pieces of parachutes, and flight jackets. The most insightful item to be found was a diary belonging to Lt. Robert Toner.
After locating five of the nine airmen, the military made one last effort to find the remaining four crew members. This final search, named “Operation Climax”, was a joint operation by the Army and Air Force. Operation Climax led to the discovery of two more crew members. Sgt. Shelley was found 21 miles northwest of the location where the first five men were found. Sgt. Ripslinger was located 26 miles north of Sgt. Shelley. Operation Climax ended at the end of May 1960 with two men still missing.
British Petroleum would make one more discovery in August 1960, finally locating the remains of Lt. John Woravka. Lt. Woravka had been the only crew member that did not meet up with the group after bailing out of the aircraft. The remains of the ninth airman, Sgt. Vernon Moore, have never been found.
With all of the evidence at hand, military officials were able to piece together the final moments of Lady Be Good and her crew.
It is assumed that, after overshooting their destination, Lady Be Good began to run out of fuel. It was dark during their return from the mission, which, combined with their inexperience, spelled disaster. It is believed that the men assumed they were flying over the Mediterranean, explaining why they did not make any attempt to land the plane. Instead, all nine men made the decision to bail out of the aircraft; eight of the crew members survived the jump. The men landed approximately fifteen miles from where Lady Be Good had crashed. However, the men never made it back to their airplane. Instead, the eight men, who only had half a canteen of water, walked 85 miles from where they landed after parachuting out of Lady Be Good. Five of the men became too exhausted to continue their journey. The remaining three men tried to carry on, though they too were unable to locate help. All men perished in the middle of the desert.
Given the circumstances, Lady Be Good appeared to be in decent shape, staying pretty well preserved after 16 years in the desert. Officials reported that the airplane was stocked with survival gear, including food rations and water. Moreover, the radio was still in tact and working. It is thought that, if the men had only searched for their plane, they may have survived the ordeal.
Though the Lady and her men did not survive, their story continues to be shared and remembered through blogs, books, movies, museum exhibits, paintings, and even a stained glass window (now on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force).
All of the above images were scanned from photographs held in NARA’s Still Pictures Division.
Army Quartermaster Foundation. Lady be good. https://www.qmfound.com/article/lady-be-good/
Holder, William. Epitaph to the lady – 30 years after. Air University Review. http://www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/airchronicles/aureview/1973/mar-apr/holder.html
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Lady be good. http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196178/lady-be-good/
Walton, Bill. The B-24 that crashed but the bad luck didn’t end there! AV Geekery. http://www.avgeekery.com/the-b-24-that-crashed-and-then-parts-from-it-crashed-again-and-again-and-again/
Mecca, Peter. A veteran’s story: The Ghost liberator – Lady be good. Warbirds News. http://www.warbirdsnews.com/warbirds-news/wwii-events/veterans-story-ghost-liberator-lady-good.html