In early November, 1958, a British oil exploration team was flying over North Africa’s harsh Libyan Desert when they stumbled across something unexpected… the wreckage of a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) plane from World War 2. A ground crew eventually located the site, where a quick inspection of the remains identified it as a B-24D Liberator called the Lady Be Good, an Allied bomber that had disappeared following a bombing run in Italy in 1943. When she failed to return to base, the USAAF conducted a search, ultimately presuming that the Lady and her crew perished in the Mediterranean Sea after becoming disoriented.
The British oil surveyors found that the desert environment had preserved the aircraft’s hardware astonishingly well; the plane’s 50 caliber machine guns still operated at the pull of the trigger, the radio was in working condition, one of the engines was still functional, and there were still containers filled with water on board. But the remains of the crew were nowhere to be seen.
It took the US military over a year before they took the sighting seriously, but eventually they dispatched a search operation which scoured the desert for the remains of the crew. The search teams found several improvised arrow markers at varying distances to the northwest— one made of boots, others made from parachutes weighed down with rocks— but the markers stopped at the edge of the vast, shifting sea of sand known as Calanscio. The group was unsuccessful in finding any further trace of the crew.
The Lady Be Good had been crewed by nine men:
1st Lieutenant William J. Hatton, Pilot
2d Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, Copilot
2d Lieutenant Dp Hays, Navigator
2d Lieutenant John S. Woravka, Bombardier
Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger, Flight Engineer
Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, Radio Operator
Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley, Gunner & Assistant Flight Engineer
Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore, Gunner & Assistant Radio Operator
Staff Sergeant Samuel R. Adams, Gunner
The official search was eventually called off on account of equipment problems from the harsh environment. But quite by accident, all but one of the crew were located during the year of 1960, over sixteen years after the Lady had disappeared into the desolation. Combined with the findings from the crash site, the clues found with the remains of the crew told the story of men’s final days.
The April 4th, 1943 bombing run on Naples had been the first call to action for Lady Be Good and her crew. That afternoon they launched from the Benina air strip in the city of Soluch in Libya. They departed amidst a sandstorm which incapacitated two other bombers in the flight group, forcing them to return to base. Lady’s engines ingested some of the airborne sand as well, but seemed to be running normally, so Lieutenant Hatton opted not abort the mission. En route to the target, the aircraft was buffeted by severe winds that pushed her off course and further away from the bomber group, forcing numerous course corrections on the way to Naples. By the time they neared the target, the other Liberators had long since come and gone, and visibility was reportedly poor. So the pilot turned back, dumping their bombs into the Mediterranean Sea.
The last contact from the crew of Lady Be Good was a radio transmission from her pilot, William Hatton: “My ADF has malfunctioned. Please give me a QDM.” This indicated that his position-finding equipment had failed, and due to the thick cloud cover he had become disoriented. For reasons unknown, Lt. Hatton never received a response to this request for a position report, but it has been suggested that the radio tower suspected a German trick. Later, in the darkness, the distinct droning sound of a B-24 emanated from the clouds over Benina airport. Flares were launched to signal the bomber, but the engine sound passed overhead, and faded into the distance.
Realizing that they were hopelessly disoriented, several members of the Lady’s crew made notations in their logs indicating that they had become lost. A notepad belonging to bombardier Lt. John Woravka revealed one side of a written conversation, probably penciled so their pilot wouldn’t hear them over the intercom. It suggests that there may have been some disagreement in the cockpit:
“What’s he beeching (bitching) about?”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Are we going home?”
Running dangerously low on fuel and probably believing they were over the Mediterranean Sea, the nine men donned parachutes and ditched the aircraft to take their chances. It’s likely that the men were surprised when their boots hit sand rather than water. Using revolvers and flare guns, the seven scattered survivors managed to find one another in the desert. They decided to get underway immediately, knowing that the unforgiving Libyan desert reached daytime temperatures of up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lady Be Good flew on through the dark night, slowly descending to crash-land sixteen miles from the men’s gathering place. Not realizing that their plane and its supply of food and water were a scant sixteen miles away, the men estimated that travelling northwest would bring them back to the airbase in Soluch. They set out on foot with what supplies they carried. By their calculations, they were no more than 100 miles from the base. In reality, the distance was over 400 miles.
When the plane’s wreckage was located in 1958, desert survival experts predicted that the airmen could only have moved up to thirty miles on foot, particularly considering the fact that they were unprepared for the unforgiving desert environment. Much to the amazement of investigators, the remains of the first group of men were found about eighty miles north of the wreck. A British oil survey team discovered the five bodies, closely grouped together in an area strewn with personal effects such as wallets, flashlights, pieces of parachutes, flight jackets, first-aid kits, and most importantly, the diary of Lieutenant Robert Toner which described his final eight days with a sober brevity:
Sunday, Apr. 4, 1943
Naples—28 places—things pretty well mixed up—got lost returning, out of gas, jumped, landed in desert at 2:00 in morning. no one badly hurt, cant find John, all others present.
Start walking N.W., still no John. a few rations, 1/2 canteen of water, 1 cap full per day. Sun fairly warm. Good breeze from N.W. Nite very cold. no sleep. Rested & walked.
Rested at 11:30, sun very warm. no breeze, spent P.M. in hell, no planes, etc. rested until 5:00 P.M. Walked & rested all nite. 15 min on, 5 off.
Wednesday, Apr. 7, 1943
Same routine, everyone getting weak, cant get very far, prayers all the time, again P.M. very warm, hell. Can’t sleep. everyone sore from ground.
Hit Sand Dunes, very miserable, good wind but continuous blowing of sand, every[one] now very weak, thought Sam & Moore were all done. La Motte eyes are gone, everyone else’s eyes are bad. Still going N.W.
On 9 April, Lieutenants Hatton, Toner, Hays and Sergeants Adams and LaMotte ended their trek, too exhausted to continue. Sergeants Shelley, Moore and Ripslinger continued northward in search of help. There was no further written record for the three men who departed, but with negligible water, no food, and temperatures as high as 130 degrees, the misery of their last few days is difficult to imagine. Lieutenant Toner continued to keep his diary as they waited:
Shelly [sic], Rip, Moore separate & 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, good n wind, no shelter, 1 parachute left.
Saturday, Apr. 10, 1943
Still having prayer meetings for help. No sign of anything, a couple of birds; good wind from N. —Really weak now, cant walk. pains all over, still all want to die. Nites very cold. no sleep.
Still waiting for help, still praying. eyes bad, lost all our wgt. aching all over, could make it if we had water; just enough left to put our tongues to, have hope for help very soon, no rest, still same place.
No help yet, very cold nite
The entry from Monday, April 12 was the last, written in thick pencil lines.
Of the three men who continued on, the remains of two were eventually found; Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley was discovered twenty-one miles north of his five crewmates, and Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger may have been the last to fall, having crossed an incredible 109 miles of open desert. Radio operator Moore has never been located.
Later that year, the remains of the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Woravka, were found a few miles from the crash site. His parachute was still attached but appeared to have malfunctioned during evacuation, causing him to fall to his death. Under the circumstances, he was probably the most fortunate of his crew.
When they set out after evacuation, had the survivors trekked southeast towards the wreckage of Lady Be Good, they would have greatly increased their chances of survival by retrieving the food and water stored there, and using the radio to call for help. But they had no way to know how far Lady had glided before landfall. And had their emergency maps included the area where they bailed out, they might have realized the severity of their predicament, and instead headed for an oasis to the south. Good fortune certainly did not favor the crew of Lady Be Good on her first— and last— battle mission. But the toughness of the crew is unquestionable, surviving days of marching across unforgiving desert with only a half-canteen of water to share between them.
The remains of the eight crewmembers which were found were all returned to the United States. Today the wreckage of the plane is stored in a compound in Libya, but many of the crew’s personal effects and a few parts from the plane are on display at the Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia.