Lady Be Good

I am grateful to the social media presence of the National Museum of the United States Air Force for a reminder.  I would never have realized that November 9th  is the anniversary of the day in 1958 when some British oil prospectors, flying over the Calanscio Sand Sea in Libya, spotted the wreck of an aircraft lying on the surface of the desert below.  It would take another four months to confirm that what they had seen, as they suspected, was the wreck of a B-24 Liberator, but what galvanized the US Air Force was the fact that the Liberator on the desert floor had been reported missing in April 1943 from a raid on Naples, Italy.

The ill-fated crew of the Lady Be Good photographed in front of a different B-24. From the left: 1st Lt. W.J. Hatton, pilot; 2nd Lt. R.F. Toner, copilot; 2nd Lt. D.P. Hays, navigator; 2nd Lt. J.S. Woravka, bombardier; Tech Sgt. H.J. Ripslinger, engineer; Tech Sgt. R.E. LaMotte, radio operator; Staff Sgt. G.E. Shelley, gunner; Staff Sgt. V.L. Moore, gunner; and Staff Sgt. S.E. Adams, gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The Wreckage of Lady Be Good discovered in Libya, November 1958
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Be Good was a Consolidated B-24D-25-CO Liberator with AAF serial 41-24301, allocated to the 541st Bomb Squadron / 376th Bomb Group based at Soluch Airfield, Libya (also known as Benina, after the adjacent town) 12 miles east of Benghazi. Having been ferried across the Atlantic by a brand-new crew, the B-24 arrived at Soluch on March 25th 1943.  The crew which would fly it on the raid to Naples, commanded by 1st Lt. William J. Hatton, had arrived a week earlier, on March 18th.  The Naples raid would be the Hatton crew’s first combat mission.  

The attack was intended to be carried out by two formations of twelve aircraft. A sandstorm caused eight aircraft from the second wave to turn back to Soluch, leaving four aircraft, including Lady Be Good to complete the attack.  Visibility over Naples was poor.  Two aircraft bombed a secondary target and the other two jettisoned their bombs while heading back to North Africa. 

Hatton apparently radioed his base around midnight asking for directions and reporting his Direction Finder was inoperative.   People on the ground at Soluch reported hearing an aircraft flying overhead which continued South.  It was assumed that Hatton’s B-24 had crashed in the Mediterranean on its way back from Naples. A brief search launched over the sea from Soluch the following day failed to find any wreckage or other indications. Strangely, no connection was made between the aircraft flying overhead and Lady Be Good.

The discovery of the wreck in 1959 upset this narrative.   In March 1959 a British oil exploration crew examined the wreckage and the surrounding area, and started taking souvenirs from the aircraft. The B-24 was in a remarkable state of preservation, and there was enough evidence in the form of maintenance records and logs to name the crew members, but no trace of the crew themselves.  One of the oilmen was on friendly terms with the USAF officer commanding  Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli, and wrote a long letter detailing the discovery. This information was passed to USAF Europe in Frankfurt. The wheels of officialdom ground into motion.

Wreck of the Lady Be Good in the Libyan Desert – from “History and Units of the United States Air Forces In Europe”, CD-ROM compiled by GHJ Scharringa, European Aviation Historical Society, 2004. Image source listed as United States Army Air Forces via National Archives (via Wikimedia) This photograph is said to date from “approximately 1957” but the tire tracks around the wreck suggest the photograph was taken sometime after March 1959 when the first ground exploration located the remains of the aircraft.

In February 1960, the U.S. Army conducted a formal search of the area for the remains of the crew.  The search discovered piles of discarded equipment and trail markers cut from parachutes, weighed down with small rocks, indicating the presence of a group of people, specifically the crew of the Lady Be Good.

Five bodies – those of Hatton, Toner, Hays, LaMotte, and Adams – were found on February 11, 1960 at a location 81 miles from the crew’s post bail-out assembly site.  The searchers found evidence, specifically diaries,  which recorded the crew’s suffering on the walk northward. None of the men were aware they had been flying over land when they bailed out, or how far inland they had flown. As they walked, the group left behind footwear, parachute scraps, Mae Wests and other items as markers to show searchers their path.

A prayer service at the location of the bodies of the “Lady Be Good” crew members in the Libyan Desert provided a simple but solemn commemoration. Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William G. Woods, Chief of Wheelus Chaplains, conducts the service while members of the US Air Force investigating party and oil exploration personnel listen in silence. Local ID: 342-B-ND-075-4-92672AC (National Archives)

The diaries also recounted that the group survived for eight days with only a single canteen of water, a few energy sweets, and no other survival equipment.  Three of the strongest surviving crew members – Ripslinger, Shelley, and Moore – continued walking. The ninth crew member, Lt. Woravka had never joined up with the other eight.  Significantly they had also never found the wreckage of the B-24 which had continued south after they bailed out. 

In the summer of the 1960 the U.S. Army and Air Force commenced a joint operation – Climax – to search for the remaining bodies, although ironically it was another British oil crew who discovered the body of Sgt. Guy Shelley on May 11.  Shelley’s body was found 37.5 miles beyond the group of five.  Sgt. Ripslinger’s body  was discovered 26 miles from the main group on May 17th by the US search teams.

Image from Operation Climax. Local ID: 111-CC-17245 (National Archives)

Operation Climax never found the body of Sgt. Moore. However, it is possible that a body which was discovered by a British Army patrol on a desert exercise in 1953 may have been his.  Since the patrol had no inkling that allied aircrew were missing in the area, the remains were recorded, photographed and buried.  The photographs came to light in 2001 but no conclusive evidence could be drawn from them.

The body of Lt. Woravka, the Bombardier,  was discovered in August 1960, 16 miles North East of the crash site of the B-24 by yet another British oil crew and recovered from its resting place by officers from Wheelus Air Base. Woravka’s parachute had failed to open and the body was covered in shroud lines and the partially deployed parachute when found. While in the area, the recovery team almost literally stumbled upon a pile of discarded parachute harnesses, flight boots and signal cartridges. This was the crew’s assembly point after the bale-out, whose location was previously unknown.   It was less than half a mile from the point where Woravka’s body had been lying. By a cruel twist of fate one of the items on Woravka’s body was a canteen of water which was still more than half-full after 17 years in the desert.

Propeller from Lady Be Good – ex Wheelus AB,Libya, now at Lake Lindon, MI. June 2020. Photo by Kairotic, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the years that followed, the wreck of the Lady Be Good became a navigational point and target for military and civilian explorers.   The wreck was systematically stripped by numerous visitors over the intervening years and no doubt hundreds of individual pieces are in the hands of private individuals around the world. Several pieces were removed by the US Air Force during its examination of the wreck, which are now mostly to be found in the NMUSAF and the Army Quartermaster’s museum in Fort Lee, VA. One of the propellers was taken to Wheelus Air Base.  Another was said to be at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  The propeller which had been at Wheelus was sent back to the USA and is now outside the village hall in Lake Linden, MI which was the home town of Robert LaMotte  

In 1968 an RAF team removed one of the engines from the wreck. Following examination my McDonnell Douglas it was passed to the NMUSAF where I photographed it in 2002. It has since been joined by another propeller although I’m not sure which one this is.  

Fascinating picture of an RAF Vulcan overflying the wreck of Lady Be Good which I believe was taken in the late 1960s in a navigation exercise. It is worth noting that the tail of the aircraft has been re-aligned with the fuselage, all the engines have been removed – the left horizontal stabilizer (tailplane) is partly missing and the port vertical stabilizer / fin is missing entirely. The nose of the aircraft is now also completely severed from the rest of the fuselage.

The B-24’s broken tail section was moved and re-aligned with the rest of the fuselage by visitors to the wreck, and in some of the last photographs I saw, the entire port vertical stabilizer had been hacked off and removed. Its location is a mystery.   Finally, in 1994 the wreck was sectioned and removed from the crash site by a team of Libyan archaeologists.  It sat for a while in a compound in Tobruk, although it may have been moved again to another location in Libya, which I believe to be Gamal Abdel Nasser Airbase (aka RAF El Adem in a previous life).  I don’t suppose anyone is going over there to take a look in the foreseeable future.  

Sectioned wreck of Lady Be Good is removed from its resting place by Libyan Archaeologists, 1994. The wreck by this time had been thoroughly stripped with only the bare frame remaining. Even one of the vertical stabilizers had been removed by souvenir hunters.

In Memoriam:
1st Lieutenant William J. Hatton, Pilot – Whitestone, NY
2nd Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, Copilot – North Attleboro, MA
2nd Lieutenant Dp Hays, Navigator – Lee’s Summit, MO
2nd Lieutenant John S. Woravka, Bombardier – Cleveland, OH
Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger, Flight Engineer – Saginaw, MI
Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, Radio Operator – Lake Linden, MI
Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley, Gunner/Asst Flight Engineer – New Cumberland, PA
Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore, Gunner/Asst Radio Operator – New Boston, OH
Staff Sergeant Samuel E. Adams, Gunner – Eureka, IL

2 thoughts on “Lady Be Good

  1. I first learned this story when I was in the 10th (1967-68) grade and came across the book “The Lady Be Good” in the Denver, CO library. I finally bought a copy of the book in 1990 and it was THAT book that finally got my then 9-year-old son interested in reading. I eventually gave him the book when he was in his teens because he loved it so much. In 2004 I searched the ‘net and found another copy for ME. 

There was also a “Twilight Zone” episode with a B-25 which gave a nod to the story, and then the movie “Sole Survivor,” also using a B-25, also used “The Lady Be Good” story as its basis. I have both, of course.

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    • Hi Glenn! I had a copy of Great Mysteries of the Air by Ralph Barker at about the same time as you. My copy is London, Pan Books, 1968. It has a chapter on Lady Be Good and refers to the work by Dennis McClendon. I’ve never owned a copy of the McClendon book (although I’ve read it!) but I did get a copy of Lady’s Men by Mario Martinez (London, Leo Cooper, 1995) which raises some interesting issues about which McClendon may have known nothing at the time. The report of the wreck recovery in Libya by Dr. Fadel Ali Mohamed was in “After The Battle” Magazine. I’ll dig out a citation for this. I recorded “Sole Survivor” on a VHS cassette about 30 years ago – now long gone. 🙂

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