Remembering the Desert Ghost

13Jan15

In April, 1943 a B-24 Liberator nicknamed “Lady Be Good,” and her crew of nine began their first and only combat mission of World War II.

Lady Be Good was crewed by:

  • Pilot William J. Hatton,
  • Co-pilot Robert F. Toner, (from North Attleboro, Massachusetts,)
  • Navigator DP Hays,
  • Bombardier John S. Woravka,
  • Flight Engineer Harold J. Ripslinger,
  • Radio Operator Robert E. LaMotte, and
  • Gunners Guy E. Shelley, Vernon L. Moore, and Samuel E. AdamsConsolidated B-24D "Lady Be Good"

The B-24 was a long-range heavy bomber developed just before the start of the second world war. It was instrumental in air operations in Europe and the Pacific theaters.

Returning from a bombing mission to Naples, Italy the B-24 crossed over the Mediterranean Sea heading for her base in Libya. Her mission would not end until August of 1960.

When Lady Be Good failed to return to base, a search was organized. Planes fanned out over the Mediterranean looking for wreckage, life-rafts or any trace of the aircraft or crew. One plane searched the desert to the South of the base. Nothing was found. The crew were declared missing, and after a year passed, declared dead.

End of story…until 1958.

In May of that year, an exploration team working for British Petroleum spotted the wreckage of a B-24 in the desert some 440 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. They marked the location on their maps and continued their survey work. It was nearly a year later, in March 1959, that a team of oil explorers visited the crash site.

They found the Lady Be Good, broken in two behind the wings. The bomb bay doors and rear escape hatch were open and there were no human remains, life vests or life preservers to be found. It was clear the crew had bailed out before the crash.

lady-be-goodThree of the four engines were not running when the plane crashed, suggesting that they had been feathered as the plane ran dangerously low on fuel. The crew probably remained in the plane as long as they felt they could. The fact that they bailed out with their Mea West life vests suggests they thought they were still over water.

In 1960, the US Army conducted a formal search of the area for the crewmen’s remains. In February, five of the crew were found some eighty miles from the crash site, indicating they had walked for quite some distance after bailing out of the aircraft.

The desert in this region of Libya is not the endless vista of sand dunes one might imagine. Instead, much of it is a gravelly plain. Some researchers have proposed that they walked Northwest following truck tracks on the rocky surface of the desert. The crew had no way of knowing those tracks were over ten years old.

The eight survivors did not know the were some 440 miles from home. Sadly, had they chosen to walk South they would have, in all likelihood, found the wreckage of their plane and been able to gather some supplies before continuing South. Some have suggested that they would have also been able to use the plane’s radio to call for help.

A diary recovered from Robert Toner’s pocket documented the crews tortuous walk through the desert:

Sunday, April 4, 1943: Naples — 28 planes — things pretty well mixed up — got lost returning, out of gas, jumped, landed in desert at 2:00 in morning, no one badly hurt, can’t find John, all others present.

Monday, April 5: Start walking N.W. Still no John. A few rations, 1/2 canteen of water, 1 capful per day. Sun fairly warm, good breeze from N.W. Nite very cold, no sleep. Rested and walked.

Tuesday, April 6: Rested at 11:30, sun very warm, no breeze, spent p.m. in hell, no planes, etc. rested until 5:00 p.m. walked and rested all nite. 15 minutes on, five off.

Wednesday, April 7: Same routine, everyone getting weak, can’t go very far, prayers all the time, again p.m. very warm, hell. Can’t sleep. Every one sore from ground.

Thursday, April 8: Hit sand dunes, very miserable, good wind but continuous blowing of sand, everyone now very weak. Thought Sam and Moore were all done. LaMotte eyes are gone, everyone else’s eyes are bad. Still going N.W.

Friday, April 9: Shelly, Rip, Moore separate and try to go for help, rest of us all very weak. Eyes bad. Not any travel, all want to die. Still very little water. nites are about 35 degrees, good N. wind, no shelter, one parachute left.

Shelly, Ripslinger and Moore continued working their way Northwest.

Shelly’s body was recovered by a team of BP oil explorers 24 miles from the group of five and Ripslinger was located by the US Army 42 miles from the group in May, 1960.

Vernon Moore’s body has never been recovered. In 1953, a British Army patrol came across an unidentified body in the desert and buried it in place. It may have been Moore’s remains. It equally possible that he walked into the sandy portion of the desert where his body was eventually covered by drifting and shifting dunes.

The other eight crewmen’s remains were returned to the United States and were laid to rest. They gave their all and now, all we can do is remember them, and thank them.

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