Lady Be Good

Lady Be Good, as discovered 16 years later, in 1959

She was named after a popular song that had been written by George Gershwin. It had been turned into a movie.

She was a nearly new B-24D, just flown from the States to serve in the 376th Bomb Group at Soluch Airfield, Libya where the Group was tasked with bombing Italian ports feeding Hitler’s war machine.

Her crew of 9 were typical of men during that time, all in their 20s, some leaving young wives and fiancées. They had never been on a combat mission previously.

On April 4, 1943 with mission number 109, she would fly to Naples to bomb the harbor with a very reduced number of planes – the sand at Soluch would get into the engines and takeoffs involved the 4 Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43s ingesting a lot of it blown from the Liberators in front on the runway. SOP dictated that any plane that was disabled en route would return to base and abort their mission.

Thus, by the time they got to Naples, much of the original group of 25 had turned back. The Captain of the Lady, Lt William Hatton, was now, due to all of the attrition, the mission commander. Because of the night and poor visibility, he ordered the mission aborted with the remaining planes to return back to base.

And unlike the trip to the target with a tight formation, each Liberator would fly on their own back to Soluch.

All but the Lady returned to the base, and the Lady would fly on to a 16 year mystery. For all those years, it was thought that she had crashed in the Mediterranean, and some search and rescue teams went to scour the sea. One Army Air Force Lt thought she may have overflown the base, and took a B-24 on his own to look south, extending his search to a point he thought they might have run out of fuel.

But that search turned up empty.

He might have flown right over it, but the camouflaged paint, called Desert Pink, might have concealed her. And from a normal altitude, she would have looked like a pinhead in the vast sea of sand. Like the Coast Guard looking for a bobbing head in the unforgiving sea.

It might have been during that 16 year interval that the winds and the desert sands removed enough of that Desert Pink to reveal her original USAAF Olive Drab.

The first reported sighting of the crash site was on November 9, 1958, by a British oil exploration team working for British Petroleum (BP) in the northeast of Libya’s Kufra District [Flying over – Ed.]. The team contacted authorities at Wheelus Air Base, but no attempt to examine the aircraft was made as no records existed of any plane believed to have been lost in the area.

 However, the location of the wreckage was marked on maps to be used by oil-prospecting teams that were due to set out to explore the Calanscio Sand Sea the next year.

On February 27, 1959, British oil surveyor Gordon Bowerman and British geologists Donald Sheridan and John Martin spotted the wreckage near 26°42′45.7″N 24°01′27″E, 710 km (440 mi) southeast of Soluch. 

The mystery wasn’t even solved then, because when Sheridan and Martin returned to the plane later, they realized that the crew had bailed out. There was no sign of human remains.

Amazingly, it was thought that the Lady had flown right over Soluch, but because of wartime security, the lighting was minimal.

Over the next 18 months or so, The Army and Air Force found all but one of the crew. The desert here had very little shifting sands. One man found had probably been the lucky one, his chute becoming tangled in his body. He was killed by the impact. A group of 5 was actually discovered 70 miles north of the wreckage, having only a canteen and a diary one kept. That’s how we know of their tragic ordeal over 8 days.

Can you imagine walking with only a capful of water a day to sustain you in 120 degree heat? Their skeletal remains were all found together, as if at that point 8 days later, they all decided to lay down and die.

I got interested in this subject by reading this book, which I believe is the definitive source on this subject. There must be several dozen pictures.

If you don’t want to read the book, there is an excellent History Channel production on YouTube, which in 40 minutes, gives a good summary.

Most shocking to me in the video was a statement by Dr. Don Sheridan, one of the geologists who returned and was the first to see it on the ground, as they worked their way up to the navigator’s station.

“The most astonishing thing I found all of his instruments were there – his parallel ruler, his capstan, his protractors and scales, his compass, his chronometer. It was all there. It was all boxed; it couldn’t have been used.

Whatever the circumstances, we found he was a doodler…. I just thought, and I still think, that that navigator never navigated.  He was just a man who went along for the ride. Bored out of his mind, he didn’t know what to do. This is a great slander maybe but I think it’s the truth. He was really just a passenger.

The geologist reported the find to the US military and with the supplied unit numbers, the connection to the Lady Be Good was made.

I’d like to think that he had hypoxia. You can do some strange things with oxygen deprivation, and not even be aware of it.

I suppose it is easy to second guess people, particularly those who paid such a terrible price, but I wonder why Hatton didn’t at least have in the back of his head an approximate time back to base, assuming he was on the right heading?

From this book I am reading, it was suggested in the plane they thought that they were up against a strong headwind. And when they jumped, they thought they were close to the Med and headed north. More sadness – had they remained with the plane, they could have used the radio, which ironically still worked 16 years later. Even a thermos with coffee was tried and still good 16 years later. And had they walked south an equal distance (70 miles) they would have found an oasis.

But to their dying breaths they didn’t know where they were.

04-11-2022 – Having finished the book I referenced above, I had some additional thoughts. How do we know how far that group had walked? Because we know by the discarded equipment and parachute harnesses, 8 of the 9 assembled 1/2 mile from the wreckage. They all wondered what happened to the 9th crewman; he was killed on impact when his chute failed to open 12 miles from the site.

What astounded me is that I believe that the crew believed that they were close to the Mediterranean coastline all that time.

It astounded me how far that group of 5 had walked – all with just a cap full of canteen water per man per day (useless in that 130 degree heat). We know that from the diary the co-pilot kept.

This retired special forces soldier – an expert in desert survival – mentioned in the referenced YouTube film that that was almost unbelievable. From the diary we know that the nights were 35 degrees, the days up to 130 degrees. They walked mostly at night – 15 minutes walking, 5 minutes rest – all through the nights. The SF expert mentioned that what gets them from dehydration is the eyes lose their ability to tear up and remove the sand – and the sand eventually through abrasion causes blindness.

When they mentioned that they all wanted to die in the diary – I can believe it.

In the late 60s, McDonnell-Douglas wanted to study the effects of the long-term desert on certain aircraft components, so an expedition was started to retrieve the #2 engine, among other things.

What they found is that, during the short time Lady Be Good was at Libya, that sand was already around every moving internal part. Camshaft, piston rings, valve train. The air filter, I assume., could not keep all of it out. That is why so many planes had to turn back. They also found that it had slight damage from a German 20mm shell fired from a night fighter after the Naples bombing run. . Was the engine even operating on the return trip? The author suggested the damage was minimal, and quite possibly the crew wasn’t even aware of it.

Maybe the biggest mystery of all – why wasn’t the navigator navigating on the return trip? That almost amounted to a death sentence, unless the pilot got lucky. That moonless night, you couldn’t tell the ocean from the sand.

Only the navigator knows the reason.

It is easy to second guess people when hindsight shows they made a wrong decision by leaving the plane and walking north. But I am reminded of this book I reviewed some years ago on wilderness survival – why some people – in some cases, the most unlikely people – survive and others don’t. The author, a psychologist, was giving not the physical reasons but the mental reasons people do what they do. Most likely, they were certain that the coast was near.

And what they should have done was first at that rendezvous point assess the situation. They were suddenly in what was (and is) one of the the most inhospitable places on earth. At that rendezvous point, did they consider alternatives and debate the situation? Were some for staying with the plane? Being a crew, did they decide what the majority (or CO) decided? Or did they just decide to start walking?

Only they have the answer.

Maybe they did debate and in their view, the best option was to take the parachute silk, start the trek north, and form large arrows with strips of that silk telling would-be rescuers where they were going (they did). They rolled the dice with the assumption that they were close to Libyan coastline.

But in that plane were more provisions and a “Gibson Girl” survival radio.

Those are mysteries that will ever remain mysteries this side of the veil.

Bill Brandt

04-16-22A friend of mine, with an impressive aviation resume spanning many decades, had an interesting hypothesis about the Lady Be Good.

He suggested that the entire crew was unconscious from hypoxia – flying too high without supplemental oxygen – or there was no O2 in the tank? They were on autopilot when explains the precise course over Soluch – According to the video they did make one navigational call on the return flight to Benghazi, but not an expected 2nd to determine whether they were ahead of Soluch or behind –

Although a B-24D had a top speed of a hair over 300 mph, its cruise speed was 175 mph. That’s a bit over 2.5 hours to go the additional 450 miles past Soluch. All without any more communication. As the engines failed from fuel starvation and they lost altitude, and the autopilot still faithfully keeping them on the right heading, they regained consciousness and bailed out just before it crashed.

That seems to make the most sense to me out of this mystery, but only the crew knows for sure.

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Filed under Air Force, Army Aviation, History, USAF

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