The Disappearance of the Lady be Good

The Lady be Good was a B-24 Liberator bomber, newly assigned to the 514th Bomb Squadron, based at Soluch Field in Libya, near Benghazi. The aircraft and its crew arrived at the Libyan base around 18th March 1943. The first operation for the aircraft and its crew was an attack on the harbour at Naples, one of the twenty-five aircraft assigned to fly on the raid, on the late afternoon of 4th April. The crew were:

1st Lieutenant (Lt) William J. Hatton, pilot—Whitestone, New York
2nd Lt Robert F. Toner, co-pilot—North Attleborough, Massachusetts
2nd Lt D.P. Hays, navigator—Lee’s Summit, Missouri
2nd Lt John S. Woravka, bombardier—Cleveland, Ohio
Technical Sergeant (T/Sgt) Harold J. Ripslinger, flight engineer—Saginaw, Michigan
T/Sgt Robert E. LaMotte, radio operator—Lake Linden, Michigan
Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt) Guy E. Shelley, gunner—New Cumberland, Pennsylvania
S/Sgt Vernon L. Moore, gunner—New Boston, Ohio
S/Sgt Samuel E. Adams, gunner—Eureka, Illinois

The attack would comprise of two waves of aircraft, the first of twelve aircraft followed by thirteen bombers in the second wave, to which the Lady be Good was allocated. After the attack, all aircraft would return to the North African base and not make a shuttle flight to England, which was a common mission profile at the time. The Lady be Good was one of the last to take off and early in the flight, high winds and poor visibility prevented the bomber from joining the rest of the formation.

The sandstorm caused nine B-24s from the second wave to return to Soluch, while four bombers went on to attack Naples, including the Lady be Good. The primary target was obscured by cloud, so two bombers attacked the secondary target on the return trip and two dumped their bombs at sea, to reduce weight and save fuel.

The Lady be Good flew alone on its return trip to Libya and during the return flight the pilot, Lieutenant Hatton radioed that his automatic direction finder was U/S and asked for the location of the base. The base sent up regular flares to guide the aircraft home. However, by 19:00 the Lady be Good was classified as missing and a subsequent air sea rescue search from Soluch Field found no trace of the aircraft and its crew. It joined the numbers of crews and aircraft that went missing without trace on air operations during the Second World War.

Discovery of Wreckage

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The wreck of the Lady be Good

On 9th November 1958, a British oil exploration team working for British Petroleum (BP) were surveying is the north-east of Libya’s Kufra District. They came across aircraft wreckage and notified Wheelus US Air Base in north-west Libya. No action was taken by the US Air Force to investigate the site, as there were no reports of missing aircraft in that area. However, the position of the wreck was marked on oil exploration charts of the Calanshio Sand Sea

On February 27, 1959, British oil surveyor Gordon Bowerman and British geologists Donald Sheridan and John Martin spotted the wreckage near 26°42′45.7″N 24°01′27″E, 440 miles south-east of Soluch, following up the first sighting from the air on May 16, 1958, by the crew of a Silver City Airways Dakota, piloted by Captain Allan Frost and another on June 15th. A recovery team made initial trips from Wheelus Air Base to the crash site on May 26, 1959.

The aircraft easily identifiable as the Lady be Good had broken into two major pieces and it was pristinely preserved in the dry, desert air. The machine guns were still functioning, there were provisions of food and water in the wreck and crucially, the radio still worked. The last entry in the aircraft’s log related to events over Naples. No trace of the crew or parachutes were found and it was assumed the crew had bailed out before the aircraft crashed.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Discovered crew remains draped with US flags

Eventually in February 1960 the US Army conducted a formal search of the area for the crew. Five were found (Hatton, Toner, Hays, LaMotte and Adams) on February 11th. The team concluded that other bodies were likely buried beneath sand dunes after finding evidence that at least three of the surviving crew members had continued walking northward. With the news that five bodies had been recovered, the US Air Force and US Army started an expanded search called Operation Climax in May 1960. The joint operation used a USAF C-130 cargo plane and two Army Bell H-13 helicopters.

The next body was found by a BP exploration crew, the remains of S/Sgt Shelly on 12th May 1960, located twenty-four miles northwest of the five bodies. On the 17th May of the same year a US helicopter found the remains of T/Sgt Ripslinger, 26 miles north-west of that of Shelly, some 99 miles from Soluch Air Base. Another BP crew found the remains of 2nd Lieutenant Woravka in August 1960. His body was then recovered by the U.S. Air Force. The only crewman not to be found was the last gunner, Staff Sergeant Moore.

Forensic examination of the crew’s remains and possessions showed that eight of the nine airmen had successfully parachuted down to the desert. They managed to locate one another by firing their pistols and flares. Bombardier Lt. John Woravka, was not found. Unknown to the survivors, it appeared his parachute only partially opened and he died from the fall. A diary was recovered from the pocket of the co-pilot Robert Toner, which recounted the suffering of the crew as they marched north. It indicated that the crew thought they were still over the sea when they bailed out. The moonlight on the dunes may have looked like the sea. The eight survivors headed north, believing they were not far from the Mediterranean coast, leaving items discarded in their wake.

They survived eight days in the desert and advanced eighty-one miles from the crash site, sharing a single canteen of water. Five of the airmen, exhausted by the trek, waited behind while Guy Shelley, “Rip” Ripslinger and Vernon Moore pressed on to die their lonely deaths. 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.

The official report in the American Graves Registration Service states:

The aircraft flew on a 150 degree course toward Benina Airfield. The craft radioed for a directional reading from the HF/DF station at Benina and received a reading of 330 degrees from Benina. The actions of the pilot in flying 440 miles into the desert, however, indicate the navigator probably took a reciprocal reading off the back of the radio directional loop antenna from a position beyond and south of Benina but ‘on course’. The pilot flew into the desert, thinking he was still over the Mediterranean and on his way to Benina.

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. As the aircraft’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.

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 16 miles before coming in to crash-land and there was also a chance that the crew might have found the aircraft’s relatively intact wreckage, with its meagre water and food supplies. The aircraft’s working radio could have been used to call for help.

I hope that the body that the British Army patrol buried in 1953 was that of S/Sgt Moore. I would like to think that the crew of the Lady be Good are reunited in a place or time, wherever it is that lost souls who share a common danger and fate go.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The crew of the Lady be Good

 

© Blown Periphery 2018
 

Audio file