In 1943, a B-24D bomber left its air base on a mission. On their way back, the crew radioed the base and requested help. Although they received a response, they were never heard from again. The plane had vanished. For 17 years, no one knew where the plane was. And when they found it, the crew had seemingly vanished into thin air.
The story of Lady Be Good has haunted people for decades. She is one of the only lost World War II planes to be discovered, and the fate of her crew has harrowed people for decades. This is their story.
A Crew Vanished Into Thin Air
On April 4th, 1943, a WWII bomber flew to Italy on her first and final mission. On their way back home, the crew reported aircraft damage and a blinding sandstorm. Then, without explanation, they vanished. The plane wouldn’t be found for over 15 years.
The story of the aircraft Lady Be Good has raised eyebrows for over 70 years. One reason is that a plane disappearing for so long is eerie, to say the least. Another reason is that, after people found the plane, they saw no signs of the pilots. You’ll want to know all about this jaw-dropping historical mystery.
How Lady Be Good Entered World War II
In 1943, the Allied forces turned their attention toward Italy. During that year, Italian citizens had rallied against the war and their dictator, Benito Mussolini. The American Army aimed to take advantage of this unrest, and by doing so, gradually regain the rest of Europe.
Before the ground troupes could invade Italy, the Army sent pilots to destroy some of the nation’s strongholds. They gathered several squadrons of pilots for these missions. One of these was the USAAF B-24D Liberator named Lady Be Good.
According to the plan, Lady Be Good would fly out from the United States’ airforce base in Libya. She would soar over the Mediterranean to attack Naples on April 4th, 1943. Then, Lady Be Good and her crew would return to Libya for their next mission.
Of course, if this mission had played out smoothly, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Lady Be Good departed at the scheduled time and joined the squadron, but her journey would be plagued by bad weather and an inexperienced crew.
The Inexperienced Crew
Lady Be Good received a nine-person crew, the 376th squadron. They included pilots William Hatton and Robert Toner; navigator D.P. Hays; artillery soldiers Guy Shelley, Vernon Moore, and Samuel Adams; radio operator Robert LaMotte; and flight engineer Harold Ripslinger. All of them were new, having just arrived in Libya that March.
Although the nine men were new to the squadron, they weren’t new to flying. They had substantial military training to pull off the feat. But it was the first combat mission for many members, including the head pilot, Lieutenant Hatton.
Falling Behind From The Start
On March 25th, Lady Be Good had been assigned to the 514th Squadron. She would fly with 24 other B-24s to attack Naples’ harbor. The mission was arranged in waves. Twelve planes left first, followed by the additional 13. Lady Be Good was the last plane in the second wave.
At 2:15 p.m., Lady Be Good left her base at Soluch Field. The crew was already behind the rest of the formation, but their luck would only drop when a sandstorm hit the squadron of B-24s.
And A Terrible Start It Was
During the trip, an intense sandstorm obscured everyone’s vision. In the second squadron, nine B-24s decided to return to Soluch. The sand had gotten into their propellers and made the mission dangerous. Because Lady Be Good’s propellers were still going strong, Lieutenant Hatton decided to continue forward.
But their flight was far from easy. Bombarded by harsh winds, Lady Be Good drifted farther away from the rest of the squadron. The crew located Naples through their automatic direction finder. It’s a miracle that they even made it there.
One Of The Few That Continued Flying
Lady Be Good reached Naples around 7:50 p.m. However, she was far away from the rest of the squadron, which had already begun the attack. Plus, the visibly didn’t clear over Naples. The crew couldn’t locate their primary or secondary targets.
Meanwhile, the rest of the B-24s didn’t have an easier time. All reported limited visibility. However, the mission went moderately well; two bombers attacked their secondary targets on the return trip, dumping the rest of their explosives in the Mediterranean sea. But Lady Be Good wasn’t one of those planes.
Before They Even Fought, They Turned Back
Although some of the B-24s carried out their mission in Naples, Lady Be Good never did. With their limited vision, the crew decided to return to Soluch. As the rest of the planes ambushed Naples, the crew of Lady Be Good turned around to begin their solitary journey.
Although the lonely flight sounds daunting, the pilots were equipped to handle it. Like other B-24s, they dumped their bombs into the sea to lighten the plane’s weight and reserve fuel. They would fly for five hours with no trouble until the pilot Lieutenant Hatton radioed in.
Calling For Help
At 12:12 a.m., pilot Hatton sent a radio message to the base. “My ADF has malfunctioned,” he sent. “Please give me a QDM.” To translate, Hatton said that the plane’s automatic direction finder had broken. He requested the base’s coordinates to return home.
Soldiers at the Soluch base sent the crew their coordinates. But for an unknown reason, Lt. Hatton never received their response. People have suggested that a German soldier interfered with their radio signal, but this has never been confirmed.
So Close To Home…
At the base, soldiers heard the distant droning of a B-24. Assuming that it was Lady Be Good, they sent up flares so that the crew could see them. Reportedly, at least one soldier heard an engine sound pass overhead. But Lady Be Good never landed there.
The crew had overshot the base. Because of the cloud coverage, they did not see the flares that the base fired. After passing over Soluch, Lady Be Good and her crew would continue to fly in a random direction for over two hours.
The Crash, And Then…Nothing
Soldiers at Soluch never heard from Lady Be Good after that. When the weather cleared, a search rescue team dispatched to find the plane. They found nothing. With no clues or visible traces, the soldiers at Soluch assumed that she had crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.
Lady Be Good wasn’t the only plane to disappear during World War II. However, she was one of the few aircraft to eventually be found. Thirteen years after the end of World War II, Lady Be Good would accidentally be discovered, and this would only heighten the mystery.
An Accidental Discovery
In 1958, oil explorers scavenged the deserts of Libya. The D’Arcy Oil Company–later renamed to British Petroleum–was one of the businesses involved. On November 9th, an oil exploration team flew over the northeastern Kufra Distract.
During their flight, the crew noticed a crashed plane in the desert. They shared their findings with Wheelus Air Base. However, the authorities didn’t react. They had no records of a lost plane and therefore had no reason to pursue a supposed wreck. Still, the oil team marked the plane’s location on their map.
Approaching Lady Be Good
Although Lady Be Good had been found, she wouldn’t be investigated until the next year. In that year, two other pilots had spotted the crash–the crew of a Silver City Airways Dakota and another anonymous pilot. When British oil surveyors and geologists spotted Lady Be Good on February 27th, 1959, Wheelus Air Base finally took action.
On March 26th, 1959, a recovery team reached the remains of Lady Be Good. She had landed 440 miles (710 km) southeast of Soluch. No one expected to find what Lady Be Good contained.
Like The Crew Had Suddenly Vanished
Although Lady Be Good had split in two, she was remarkably intact. Despite the crew’s lack of contact during the night they disappeared, the radio still worked. The 50-caliber guns were still functioning and fully loaded. But other details suggested that the crew had vanished into thin air.
To start, no bodies were in the cabin. There was still some food and water that, for some reason, the crew didn’t bring with them. Even a thermos filled with tea was still drinkable. If the soldiers weren’t there, and they hadn’t taken supplies with them, where did they go?
The Mystery Continues
The crash site raised more questions than answers. If the crew members weren’t in the Lady Be Good, where could they be? Why didn’t they take any supplies with them? And if the radio was still working, why didn’t they contact the Soluch base?
The search lasted from May to the end of August in 1959. During this time, the American Army conducted both ground and air investigations. They searched for so long that their equipment began to deteriorate from the sand and wind. But beyond locating some boots and parachutes, they found no trace of the Lady Be Good crew.
Launching The Second Search
During the initial search, a D’Arcy Oil Company surveyor, Gordon Bowerman, accompanied the rescuers from Wheelus Air Base. After he explored the plane, he sent the details in a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Kolbus. Neither man had an answer for what had occurred.
With Kolbus’s help, Wheelus Air Force Base launched another investigation with the Army Quartermaster Mortuary from Frankfurt, Germany. But by the beginning of 1960, the Quartermaster Mortuary crew left the search. The remaining search party stayed behind, hunting for answers.
Finding Five Of The Crew Members
In February 1960–two years after Lady Be Good was found–rescuers uncovered the crew. The five men were found on February 11th, buried beneath Saharan dunes. They were identified as Lt. Hatton, Lt. Hays, Lt. Toner, Sgt. La Motte, and Sgt. Adams. After this discovery, the Army Quartermaster Mortuary returned to aid the workers.
Several items accompanied the men. These included flashlights, pieces of parachutes, flight jackets, and one canteen. But the most noteworthy was a diary kept by Lieutenant Robert Toner, Lady Be Good‘s co-pilot.
With the first five men discovered, the U.S. Army joined the investigation. They named the final stretch “Operation Climax” and set out to uncover the other four crew members. The mission stretched from February through May.
Soon, they located Sgt. Shelley, 21 miles northeast of the other five men. Sgt. Ripslinger was found 26 miles north of Sgt. Shelley. How did they end up so far apart from each other? And why were two men separated from the rest? With fewer answers than before, Operation Climax ended.
What Likely Happened
Although we can never know for sure what happened to Lady Be Good‘s crew, experts have pieced together an answer from the remains. A notepad from bombardier Woravka indicated some of the crew’s conversation: “What’s going to happen? Are we going home?”
As Lady Be Good ran out of fuel, the crew had no choice but to abandon the plane. They had likely expected to parachute into the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, they landed in the Calanshino Sand Sea, an area of endless sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara desert.
Why They Abandoned All Their Supplies
Meanwhile, Lady Be Good flew an extra 16 miles (26 km) south before it crashed. That explains how the crew left their supplies in the aircraft. Believing that they were close to civilization, they likely planned to find help instead of sticking with the plane.
The crew had no idea that they were within walking distance of their plane, which contained all of their water, rations, shade, and a working radio. Had they run into Lady Be Good, they might have survived and been rescued. Unfortunately, they traveled in the opposite direction.
Regrouping With One Less Person
After the crew parachuted to safety, they located each other by firing flares and revolvers. Eight of the nine crew members reunited this way. The final member, Lt. Woravka, struggled with his parachute and died in the fall. But his fellow soldiers didn’t know that.
The rest of the story was pieced together through Toner’s diary. According to him, the crew assumed that they were close to the Mediterranean coast, but they were actually 400 miles (640 km) inland. Experts suggest that, from the plane, the desert floor looked like the sea at night.
In The Desert With One Canteen Of Water
According to Toner’s diary, the remaining crew chose to head northwest. They set out through the Sahara Desert with a few rations and only one canteen of water to share. They each drank one capful per day.
As the group walked, they left behind some items such as flight vests, pieces of parachutes, and shoes. Experts believe that they left those as markers so they could return to their crash site. Toner wrote that they walked at night and rested during the day.
Their Miserable Journey
By Wednesday, April 7th, Toner wrote that his crew was having a hard time. “Can’t sleep,” he jotted in his brief entries. “Everyone sore from ground.” Three days of little water and food were beginning to weigh on the crew, but it was about to get worse.
The next day, sandstorms hindered their eyesight. “La Motte eyes are gone,” Toner wrote, likely indicating that he had gone blind from the sand. “Everyone else’s eyes are bad.” Despite the storms, they continued to travel northwest.
The Group Separates
After four days, the crew had walked 81 miles (130 km) from their original crash site. Five men felt too exhausted to continue. Against all odds, three of the crew–Shelly, Ripslinger, and Moore–moved forward to find help.
Toner stayed behind, and he recorded their final days in his diary. For four nights, he wrote that all men were praying for help. “Nites very cold,” he recorded. “No sleep.” We have no lasting accounts of what happened to the three to continued to search for someone–anyone–to help them.
Their Final Days
Toner’s final entry on Monday, April 12th, read in thick pencil lines: “No help yet, very cold nite.” That was the last account of the group before all five perished in the desert. Sadly, they had no idea that they had walked the opposite direction from Lady Be Good.
Shelley was found 20 miles (32 km) away from the rest, while Ripslinger managed to walk 27 miles (43) farther. Moore has never been found. In total, they survived eight days in the Saharan desert.
Honoring The Fallen Soldiers
When the remains of the eight men were found, soldiers covered them in American flags. The search team gave them a proper military sendoff in the middle of the Saharan desert. Then, they sent the crew’s bodies to their families in the United States and buried.
Today, the Wheelus Airbase displays a memorial to the crew of Lady Be Good. The stained-glass memorial stands in the base’s chapel. Lady Be Good’s propeller also stands as a memorial in Lake Linden, Michigan.
But What Happened To The Plane?
During its 17 years in the desert, Lady Be Good fell victim to souvenir scavengers. As a result, pieces of the B-24D have popped up in several locations. Other parts are held by the March Field Air Museum in California.But the bulk of the plane is stored at Jamal Abdelnasser Air Force Base in Libya. Some of the parts were sent to the United States Army after Lady Be Good was identified. After they were evaluated, the parts were reused for future aircraft.
The discovery of the soldiers became a media sensation. In particular, the release of Toner’s diary disturbed, saddened, and captivated people at the same time. The entire nation mourned for both the fallen soldiers and their families.
How Their Story Influenced The World
Despite the evidence, there were always skeptics who didn’t buy the story. They argued that the crew had actually been sold as Bedouin slaves. Since they never presented evidence for this theory, these skeptics remained few and far in between. Most people acknowledge the story of Lady Be Good through the photo evidence and Toner’s diary.
Over the years, the sudden disappearance of Lady Be Good and the heart-wrenching struggle of the passengers has piqued peoples’ imaginations. The crew’s story inspired many fictional stories.
In 1964, Elleston Trevor wrote The Flight of the Phoenix which displays many similarities to Lady Be Good. The novel was turned into a 1965 film and a 2004 film. During the episode of The Twilight Zone called “King Nine Will Not Return,” a grave marker in the desert says “5 April 1943.” This is the date when Lady Be Good was lost.