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This Day in History: The lost story of Lady Be Good

On this day in 1960, a British oil exploration team makes an unexpected discovery, helping to solve an old World War II mystery. What happened to Lady Be Good, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-24D Liberator that disappeared in April 1943?

Lady Be Good had been on her first—and her last—mission when she was lost.

That mission was to begin at Soluch Field, in Libya. Two waves of bombers would fly towards Naples, Italy. They would bomb enemy targets, then return. Unfortunately, strong winds bedeviled the mission almost immediately. The winds blew in from the Sahara Desert, creating a sandstorm that made it hard to see.

Some planes turned back, but Lady Be Good continued on. She was just 30 minutes shy of Naples when a failing engine forced pilot William Hatton to turn around. He soon had a new problem: Night was falling, and a thick blanket of clouds had cut his visibility—again.

The crew: 1st Lt William J. Hatton; 2d Lt. Robert F. Toner; 2d Lt. D.P. Hays; 2d Lt. John S. Woravka; TSgt Harold J. Ripslinger; TSgt Robert E. LaMotte; SSgt Guy E. Shelley; SSgt Vernon L. Moore; SSgt Samuel E. Adams

As the plane neared the airfield, Hatton asked for guidance: He needed a fix on his position. Crews at the airstrip put out flares, but to no avail. Lady Be Good was gone. Search and rescue teams concluded that she’d been lost in the Mediterranean Sea.

They were wrong.

In reality, Hatton had already overshot the airport when he asked for help. He was flying over the desert. The crew bailed out, but the Liberator landed on its belly in the thick sand. Even that much would not be known but for some British geologists who spotted the plane wreckage in late 1958.

They were working for D’Arcy Oil Company (later merged with British Petroleum) at the time, but they reported the information to a nearby American base.

Extensive searches were conducted. Parachutes, flight boots, and arrowhead markers were recovered. Lady Be Good’s crew had deliberately placed these objects, indicating which way they were traveling. But the men themselves were nowhere in sight. Searchers assumed that the men’s remains had long since been covered by shifting sand.

The search was abandoned, but then British Petroleum employees made another discovery in February 1960.

The bodies of five men had been located, along with personal items such as canteens and flight jackets. Importantly, a diary was found. It enabled investigators to piece together the rest of the story.

The plane had been running low on fuel during that fateful night in April 1943. It was dark, and the pilot thought he was flying over the Mediterranean. Thus, he didn’t attempt to land, and the crew bailed out. One man had a faulty parachute and did not survive. The other eight did.

The men tried to find safety and would walk approximately 85 miles over the course of days; however, they lacked food, water, and shelter. Five men became too tired to continue, but the other three kept going, still trying to find help. Their bodies were later found in separate locations a few dozen miles from their crewmates.

The crew didn’t know something that would have helped: They’d parachuted to a location within 15 miles of Lady Be Good. They probably would have survived if they had chosen to walk in a different direction, towards their plane. Lady Be Good was stocked with food and water. Her radio was still operational.

Lady Be Good was just one of many aircraft to go missing during the war. Her story was recovered, but most won’t be. Perhaps today is a good day to remember some of these lost WWII crews and their unknown sacrifices.

Rest in peace, gentlemen.

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