Opinion Editorial

Ghost plane of the desert

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Second Lieut. Robert Toner consulted the map, inspected his gauges and then turned off the reading lamp.

Inside the darkened cockpit, the co-pilot spoke into the mike instructing the bombardier, 2nd Lieut. John Woravka, to drop the payload. Seconds later, metallic ordnance rained on the empty sea. Now, the Massachusetts native and the aircraft's commander, 1st Lieut. William Hatton directed their attention to finding the way home. Hatton leaned back and chatted briefly with the navigator 2nd Lieut. D. P. Hays, who the crew affectionately nicknamed "Deep."

Toner saw a worried look come over Hatton's face. It told him their situation was growing dire by the minute. Both men were experienced aviators. Toner trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force before America entered the war, while the 25- year-old Hatton had originally qualified as a fighter pilot. A decent family man from Whitestone, New York, Hatton always wrote his mother, Rose, and once said his biggest thrill of the war was the time he and his wife, Millie, met Bing Crosby.

The four officers and their crew, Sgt. Harold Ripslinger, Sgt. Robert LaMotte, Sgt. Guy Shelley, Staff Sgt. Vernon Moore and Staff Sgt. Samuel Adams, had trained together since meeting in Topeka, Kansas the year before. Posted to the 367th Bomber Group as a replacment crew, they arrived at an allied airbase at Soluch, Libya less than a month before their inaugural mission. Hatton's boys were assigned a rust-coloured B-24 Liberator named the "Lady Be Good."No one knows who named her, or why.

On the afternoon of April 4, 1943, the Liberator was the last aircraft to take off on a high altitude bombing run on Naples, Italy. Mission 109 was to be a 25- plane strike package, however, a sand storm blew in, scattering the ships. Many planes experienced engine problems and were forced back to Soluch. The storm had delayed the

Lady Be Good's takeoff until 3:10 p. m. By the time the Liberator reached Naples it was dark and the mission had been completed. Just before 9 p. m., the Liberator turned for home. At around 10 p. m., she dropped her bombs into the Mediterranean and was still on course for North Africa.

At around midnight, an aircraft was heard flying over Benghazi near Soluch. All the planes from Mission 109 had returned safely, including three unaccounted Liberators which made emergency landings in Malta. Flares were fired from the airbase, but the Lady Be Good's crew didn't see them. At this point, the Liberator would have been running dangerously out of fuel. At 12:10 a. m., a radio direction finder station at Benina received a coded message asking for an inbound bearing. A correct bearing was sent but Hatton probably didn't receive it. There was no further contact with the plane. The Lady Be Good, along with William Hatton and his crew, were never seen alive again. But that's not the end of the story.

In May, 1958, a British oil exploration team spotted the fuselage of a Second World War bomber during an aerial survey. The wreckage sat on a gravel plain in the Libyan Desert on the edge of the Sand Sea of Calanscio, about 440 miles south of Soluch. The following March, a geological team visited the wreck and determined it was the fabled Lady Be Good, dubbed by many the "ghost plane of the desert."The aircraft had skidded 700 yards, with the stress of the crash breaking the fuselage behind the wings. The plane was relatively intact and well-preserved. Much of the equipment was still in excellent condition. The rear escape hatch and bomb bay doors were open and there were no parachutes or Mae West life preservers on board. There were no signs of the crew.

The U. S. air force sought to find out what happened to the crew and bring closure for their families. In May, 1959, a military investigation team conducted an extensive ground search around the Lady Be Good for the remains of the nine men. During the search, Capt. Myron Fuller and civilian anthropologist Wesley Neep discovered several improvised arrowhead markers made out of parachute lining on a trail leading northwest. Then they came upon a pair of rubber flight boots about 19 miles north of the crash site. Then on Feb. 11, 1960, a Canadian team surveying water well-drilling sites in the Calanscio Sand Sea made an incredible discovery.

On a plateau, they stumbled upon the bodies of five men. Scattered around the remains were canteens, flashlights, flight jackets and other personal affects. One of those items was the diary of Robert Toner. It confirmed the Canadians' suspicions that the remains were that of the Lady Be Good's crew. The diary told of the final moments of the flight and the men's last desperate days.

According to Toner's account, the crew bailed out of the plane at 2 a. m. on April 5, 1943 believing they were either over the Mediterranean or close to Soluch. The Liberator went down 16 miles from where they parachuted. Tragically, had the men ventured in the direction of the crash, they would have come upon an intact aircraft with radio and supplies -and an increased chance of survival.

When they regrouped on the ground, only John Woravka was missing. With only a half-canteen of water between them, the eight survivors set out across the Sahara.

A few days into their journey, the men had stopped at a plateau about 85 miles from the crash site. Exhausted and running out of water, it was decided Ripslinger, Moore and Shelley would leave the group and search for help.

Toner wrote on Sunday, April 11: "Still having prayer meetings for help. No sign of anything, a couple of birds. Really weak now, pain all over. Still all want to die." He scribbled his last entry on April 12: "No help yet, very cold nite." It's probable he was the last man alive in the group.

After the discovery, search efforts for the remaining crewmen of the Lady Be Good intensified. Then on May 12, 1960, a British Petroleum work party discovered the body of Guy Shelley 21 miles northwest of where the other five were found. Five days later, a helicopter spotted the remains of Harold Ripslinger lying on the eastern slope of a dune. It appeared he had walked another 26 miles after Shelley had dropped.

Like Toner, Ripslinger kept a diary of those traumatic eight days. On April 8, he wrote: "Tired all out. Hardly walk. Our fourth day out, a few drops of water. Can't hold out much longer without aid. Pray."

On April 9, he said: "Fifth day out and we all thought we're gone. All wanted to die during noon it was so hot. Two drops of water." His last entry came on April 11: "Still struggling to get out of dunes and find water."

In August, another British Petroleum team discovered the body of John Woravka, about 12 miles northeast of the wreck. He was still in his high altitude suit with the parachute attached. It appeared it failed to open properly. After a search of 6,300 square miles, there was no trace of the final crewmember, Vernon Moore. He is still listed as Missing-In-Action to this day.

In April, 1968, a Royal Air Force desert rescue team visited the Lady Be Good to recover several items, including the engine and other key components. Over the years, oil exploration teams and souvenir hunters stripped the aircraft of most of its belongings. In 1994, under the direction of Dr. Fadel Ali Mohamed, Libya's director of antiquities, the wreck of the Lady Be Good was removed to a military barracks in Tobruk.

With the diaries of Robert Toner and Harold Ripslinger, the remarkable story of the last crew of the Lady Be Good is preserved for generations. Lest we forget all pilots and airmen who never came home, even though some valiantly tried.

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