Sunday, July 3, 2011

Interesting Random Piece of History 9

The crew of the Lady Be Good.

Anybody ever hear of the American World War Two bomber the Lady Be Good. Not quite as famous as the Enola Gay or the Memphis Belle, the Lady Be Good was a B-24 Liberator that suffered a particularly tragic end on its first mission but unlike the fate of most downed bombers, what happened to the Lady Be Good and its nine crewmen remained a mystery for many years. On the 4th of April 1943, the Lady Be Good took off, along with 24 other American bombers from Soluch Air Field in North Eastern Libya. Incidentally the runways of the same airport were bombed in February this year by Col Gadaffi's Air force in order to prevent Libyan rebels from using it. The target of the 25 bombers that day was Naples in Southern Italy. The Lady Be Good was the last of the 25 planes to take off and because of bad conditions it never managed to catch up and assume formation with the other planes. On the return journey from Naples she continued to lag behind the rest. It is not exactly clear what happened but it appears a catastrophic navigational error was made somewhere over the Mediterranean by the inexperience crew. It was night time and in the darkness the crew were unaware that they were approaching the North African coast. The captain contacted Soluch air base by radio and stated that his "automatic direction finder" was not working and asked for a location of the base. He was apparently given a bearing but it is unknown if Lady Be Good received the transmission or not. In any event they did not see the flares at Soluch airbase and the bomber continued over the coast and into the Sahara desert. The plane eventually ran out of fuel and the crew were forced to bail out. The men were expecting to land in the Mediterranean sea, instead they landed 400 miles inland. Initially the men were most likely pleased that they were not stranded in the water and they probably assumed they were not far from the coast. Eight of the crew survived the bail out, the other mans' shoot did not open properly. The eight men began walking northward. None of them would survive.

The crew of the Lady Be Good were:

1st Lt. William J. Hatton - pilot - Whitestone, New York
2nd Lt. Robert F. Toner - co-pilot - North Attleborough, Massachusetts
2d Lt. D.P. (initials only, also seen as "Dp") Hays - navigator - Lee's Summit, Missouri
2d Lt. John S. Woravka - bombardier - Cleveland, Ohio
T/Sgt. Harold J. Ripslinger - flight engineer - Saginaw, Michigan
T/Sgt. Robert E. LaMotte - radio operator - Lake Linden, Michigan
S/Sgt. Guy E. Shelley - gunner - New Cumberland, Pennsylvania
S/Sgt. Vernon L. Moore - gunner - New Boston, Ohio
S/Sgt. Samuel E. Adams - gunner - Eureka, Illinois

At Soulch Air Base it was assumed the Lady Be Good crashed into the Mediterranean, The war continued and as far as all were concerned it was just another in a long long list of lost bomber crews. The next chapter in the story begins in 1958. In November of that year a British Oil exploration team spotted the wreckage of an aircraft. In May of 1959 a US military team was sent out on land from Wheelus Air Base in western Libya to investigate the wreckage. It was the Lady Be Good. It was 440 miles from the coast. Quite unbelievably, the abandoned aircraft managed to land the right way up, although it did break in two just before it came to a stop. Despite the crash, the plane was in remarkably good condition. In February 1960, the US Army conducted a formal search for the bodies of the Airmen. Eight of the nine bodies were found. From all the diaries recovered with the bodies the following conclusions can be drawn. This from wikipedia.

After parachuting to the desert floor, eight of the nine airmen had managed to meet up by firing their revolvers and signal flares into the air. They had not been able to find the ninth crewman, bombardier Lt. John Woravka, because unknown to them his parachute had only partially opened and he likely died on impact. Thinking they were fairly close to the Mediterranean coast, the eight surviving crew members walked north, leaving behind footwear, parachute scraps, Mae West vests and other items as markers to show searchers what their path had been. They survived for eight days, sharing only a single canteen of water while walking over 100 miles (160 km) in searing heat before perishing. Remains of five airmen were found in a group nearly 80 miles (130 km) from the crash site. The other three (Guy Shelley, "Rip" Ripslinger and Vernon Moore) had set off to try to find help while the other five waited behind. The bodies of Shelley and Ripslinger were found twenty and twenty-seven miles further north, respectively. Moore's remains were never found, although it is possible that in 1953 his body had been spotted and buried by a British desert patrol, unaware that any air crews from the war had ever gone missing in the area.[5]

A diary recovered from the pocket of co-pilot Robert Toner told of much suffering on the walk northward and indicated the crew were unaware they were over land when they bailed out. There has been speculation that whatever airborne glimpses they may have caught of the empty desert floor in the darkness looked like open sea. It seems the crew never understood they were more than 400 miles (640 km) inland.

Some believe that the crew could have survived had they known how far inland they were and had their maps shown the area where they bailed out. Going north, the distance they walked was slightly less than the distance needed to reach the oasis of Wadi Zighen that was south of them, but they were wholly unaware of this. Additionally, if they had headed south they would have very probably found the wreckage of the Lady Be Good with its water and food supplies, however meager, along with its working radio, which they might have used to call for help.

There is no avoiding the fact that the men of the Lady Be Good died horrible deaths. I can't help think of all those survival movies we have seen where you know there is going to be a happy ending, for some of the characters anyway. But this is not the way it happens in real life. When Guy Shelley, "Rip" Ripslinger and Vernon Moore decided to leave their comrades and try to walk further on, the script should have raid that they would be rescued just as they could go no further. But it wasn't to be. In fact, they never had a chance. Harold J. Ripslinger, the man who walked furthest, over 100 miles, was still 300 miles short of the coast when he finally collapsed and died on the eight day. It is an exceptionally poignant story. To me it emphasises all the stories that can never be told, because there were no survivors. The unknown heroes of World War Two who will never have books written or movies made about them. But you can be sure, their stories are the most real and harrowing of all.


Anonymous said...

great story!
Where do you get this stuff?

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Jenny

I just love history, that's all !

Anonymous said...

I remember this story from Life Magazine in 1959