Lady Be Good: The time an aircraft vanished without a trace during World War II

In 1958, while flying over the Libyan Sahara Desert, an oil exploration team working for British Petroleum spotted the wreckage of an aircraft on the desert floor. Local authorities quickly investigated but found there was nothing on record to suggest any aircraft had gone missing in the area. The wreck was marked for future reference, but no further action was taken at that time. Then in 1959, after several more sightings of the aircraft, another team of oilmen located the wreckage on the ground and were surprised to find a B-24D Liberator bomber from the second world war. According to documents and equipment found onboard, the aircraft was named the Lady Be Good. Returning from a mission to Naples, she had crashed in 1943, believed lost at sea at the time.

wreckage of the Consolidated B-24D Liberator Lady Be Good
The wreckage of the Consolidated B-24D Liberator Lady Be Good in the Libyan Desert, circa 1958.

The dry desert conditions had left the aircraft remarkably well preserved. Having landed at a shallow angle, the tail section had broken off just behind the wings and lay askew, and the number four engine, which had still been running at the time of the impact, had torn free of the wings. But the Lady Be Good came to her final resting place largely intact. When tested in 1959, investigators found that the machine guns would still fire. They also found rations inside, as well as partially filled water tanks. There was even a flask of coffee. What was not found were any human remains or parachutes, and so one of the men involved with the discovery wrote to the US army requesting an investigation into the matter. As a result, the US army’s quartermaster corps mortuary affairs service dispatched a small team to investigate the crash site. Originally known as the graves registration service, it was the job of mortuary affairs to identify, retrieve, and repatriate soldiers from any conflict. After an extensive search of the ground area around the crash site, the team was able to locate signs that the crew of the Lady Be Good had indeed survived the crash and had headed Northwest. Several markers had been made from parachutes and rocks indicating the direction of travel. But no human remains were found. When the trail led into an area of soft shifting sand dunes, the investigation team concluded that the crew of the Lady Be Good had perished, and their bodies buried under the shifting sands. As a result, the search was called off and a final report written.

The Lady Be Good Crew
The crew of Lady Be Good: (left to right) W. J. Hatton, R. F. Toner, D. P. Hays, J. S. Woravka, H. J. Ripslinger, R. E. LaMotte, G. E. Shelly, V. L. Moore, S. E. Adams.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But in 1960, another oil exploration team discovered the remains of five US Army airmen. The skeletal remains were found 78 miles Northwest of the crash site in a tight group and surrounded by personal belongings and equipment. The most significant find was that of a small diary belonging to Lt Robert Toner, the co-pilot of the Lady Be Good. In it was the harrowing tale of the crew’s fate and how they came to be lost in the desert, jumping from the aircraft after becoming lost and low on fuel, surviving on few rations and half a canteen of water between them. After walking for eight days, enduring blistering heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night, the men were half-blind and too exhausted to continue. The diary also gave clues as to the fates of the four remaining crewmen. It indicated that they had been unable to locate 2nd Lt John Woravka after parachuting from the aircraft. Of the remaining three unaccounted for, Tech Sergeant Harold Ripslinger, Staff Sergeant Vernon Moore, and Staff Sergeant Guy Shelley had gone on ahead in the vain hope of finding help. Armed with the information in Toner’s diary, the mortuary affairs team began a second search of the area. 37 miles North from where the first five bodies had been discovered, Guy Shelley’s skeletal remains were found, then later those of Harold Ripslinger. Ripslinger had also kept a diary, and although it was in poor condition it told the same story of hardships endured by the crew on their long walk. His last entry had been “Still struggling to get out of dunes and find water”. With no clues as to the whereabouts of the final two men’s remains, all large-scale search operations would come to an end in 1960. But yet another team of oil surveyors would come to locate the body of John Woravka. Woravka was located closer to the wreck of the aircraft, his body still wearing a Mae West life preserver and entangled in the cords from his parachute. It is believed that his parachute hadn’t opened fully, and he had died on impact with the ground. The body of Vernon Moore was never found.

Vernon L. Moore
S/Sgt Vernon L. Moore, a gunner on Lady Be Good whose body was never recovered.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

With the events of the crash pieced together, it is now accepted that the crew of the Lady Be Good was returning from a failed bombing mission over Naples. Flying in the dark, they were alone and inexperienced, having never worked together as a crew before. With a tailwind giving them a boost of speed, no one had noticed that they had successfully crossed the Mediterranean Sea and were flying over land. The pilot, 1st Lt William Hatton, attempted to use a radio direction station close to their home base at Soluch airfield in Benghazi. But the limitations of the station’s equipment meant that the bearing they received would be the same no matter if they were flying towards or away from the station. And so, the Lady Be Good continued flying into the night over the Sahara Desert. Running low on fuel, Hatton trimmed the aircraft to fly straight and level on its one remaining engine, and the crew bailed out expecting to land in water. After regrouping and with no sign of John Woravka, the Lady’s men decided to head North believing Soluch airfield was around 100 miles northwest, but in reality, it was over 400. The aircraft would come down approximately 15 miles from where the crew landed. At that time, the radio would still have been in working order, and there would have been ample supplies for the surviving men to await rescue or trek south to a nearby oasis.    

The wreckage of the Lady Be Good now sits in storage in Tobruk. Many of the artifacts recovered from the wreck can be viewed on display at the Airforce Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

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