In November, 1958, a team of British engineers surveying potential oil fields in the Kufra District of Libya’s vast Calansio Sand Sea came upon the wreckage of a WWII American B-24D Liberator bomber, surprisingly intact. On its front starboard side was the stenciled name “Lady Be Good” and on the opposite side the large white-painted number “64”. Inside the torn fuselage they found food and water, a working radio, machine guns still in operable condition, and a thermos of perfectly drinkable tea. The parachutes were missing and there was no sign that the plane’s crew had ever been in the immediate area of the undisturbed piece of surrounding desert.
When the first news clipping describing the mysterious discovery found its way into my hands, I was both a private pilot and still active in the U.S. Air Force Reserve with a special interest in aviation safety and crash scene investigation. My interest was immediate, and the unfolding story would be on my personal radar screen for the next twenty years. It would be that long before all the pieces of the puzzle would come together.
To begin with the Sahara desert of North Africa is the most desolate and inhospitable piece of real estate on earth, covering an area the size of Europe, and secondly there was no record of a lost aircraft in an area so remote from any logical flight course in WWII operations; the wreckage was therefore uncharted on any wartime maps.
In fact, “Lady Be Good” belonged to the 376th Bomb Group of the U.S. Ninth Air Force headquartered at Suluk AAF near Benghazi, and had supposedly gone missing over the Mediterranean Sea while returning from a bombing mission to Naples, Italy on April 4, 1943, its nine-man crew reported as “missing in action” to stateside families at the time. Why did the B-24 show up 400 miles from the sea, fifteen years later, and where were the nine men who had left behind not so much as a footprint in the undisturbed sand?
Unlike its much-admired four-engine Boeing counterpart, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the Liberator was a literal “bear” to fly, requiring the manual strength of both pilots every minute of its time in the air. For lst Lieutenant William Hatton, from Whitestone, N.Y. and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Toner from No. Attleboro, Mass., the afternoon of April 4th was even more of a challenge. It would be their first combat mission since arriving at the bomber base from the States just days earlier, and probably nearly the first for B-24 serial No. 41-24301 which was new and “just out of the box”. Weather conditions with blowing sand produced visibility so bad that most of the thirteen planes on the mission aborted and turned back, leaving “Lady Be Good” alone, and running too far behind to catch up with others still en route to Italy. In the end the long mission was a failure, with most bombs dropped on secondary targets or jettisoned into the sea.
Just after midnight, Hatton’s navigator, 2nd Lt. D.P. Hays from Lee’s Summit, Mo. radioed the base at Benghazi to say the plane’s direction finder was not working and asking for a compass heading, without realizing they had just flown over the base and would now be flying away from safety and into the dark unknown; and into the history books.
What we now know is that as fuel drained away, the crew parachuted into what they thought was the just-offshore waters of the Med., the abandoned B-24 continuing on its course, its engines failing one-by-one, eventually flying into the desert at a shallow angle with one engine still running, 440 miles south of its home base.
A USAF-coordinated search in 1960 uncovered the bodies of the crewmen, first a group of five and then, 26 miles farther on, three more. Together they had survived for eight days, traveling more than 100 miles, sharing a single canteen of water. Unfortunately they had mistakenly traveled north. The body of S/Sgt. Vernon Moore of New Boston, Ohio who is believed to have died on impact when his chute failed to fully open, was never found.
If my travels ever take me to the village of Lake Linden, Michigan, home to T/Sgt. and radio operator Robert LaMotte, I will visit the town hall where one of the propellers from “Lady Be Good” stands guard.
Photo No. 1 A nose view of “Lady Be Good” as seen by Air Force search teams in 1958. By the way, it was American composer George Gershwin who first gave meaning to that name with the 1924 lyrics to a song featured in a 1941 motion picture. U.S. Air Force Photo
Photo No. 2 The only photo I know of picturing the proud crew of “Lady Be Good”. From left to right pilot Hatton, co-pilot Toner, navigator Hays, bombardier Woravka, flight engineer Ripslinger, radio operator LaMotte and aerial gunners Shelly, Moore and Adams. U.S. Air Force Photo