The Tale of “Lady Be Good”.

70 years ago today, a Consolidated B24-D Liberator, known as “Lady Be Good“, took off

Side View of "Lady Be Good"

Side View of “Lady Be Good”

from her base in the Libyan desert, on a bombing run to Naples, Italy. She was one of the last planes to leave the field, and due to high winds and limited visibility, she flew on her own to the target and back toward her base. With no damage, she was approaching her field when her pilot noted that his Automatic Direction Finder wasn’t working. He called the field and got a bearing, but due to the limited radio technology available, the base couldn’t tell if the plane was on a true bearing to the north, or a reciprocal (180-degree opposite) heading to the south. Assuming they were still to the north of their base, her crew flew the Lady for two more hours. When the fuel supply began running out, the crew decided to bail out and parachuted safely to the Libyan desert below. Lady continued on for another 16 miles before crashing into the desert. The base personnel had no idea what had happened to the plane and her crew, and listed them as missing in action. And that was what the crew’s friends and family thought.

Until 1958. A British oil exploration team spotted the mostly-intact wreckage of Lady Be Good while doing an aerial survey for possible drilling sites. The wreck’s location was noted, and after another sighting and verification of location in 1959, a ground team was dispatched from a nearby airbase on May 26, 1959. The plane was found in remarkably

Lady Be Good as found in the Libyan desert.

Lady Be Good as found in the Libyan desert.

good condition (other than the fuselage being broken into two pieces and some other minor damage), having landed in a very shallow dive with at least one engine still running. A Thermos bottle of tea found in the wreck was still full of drinkable tea, and food, water, and working machine guns and radios were found onboard. The crew were nowhere to be found on board, having bailed out earlier, but no written record was left as to when or where they left the aircraft.

After several months discussion, the US Army launched a much larger combined air-and-ground search for the crew’s remains. Five bodies were found in the area near the plane, while evidence suggested three others had tried to walk out of the desert. Following the public announcement of finding the five crew, public support helped push forward a continuing search, and two more bodies were found by the US search team and another British oil exploration team. The eighth crewman’s body was not found by the expanded search, but was later found in August 1960, again by a British Petroleum team. The last crew member was never found – it was assumed he had died when his parachute failed to open properly.

And this would have been the end of the story, but the Lady would be heard from again. At the end of the second, large search, a number of parts were scavenged from the plane for use on other aircraft. Every one of those planes, carrying part from the Lady, had mysterious and unidentifiable problems of one sort or another. A C-54 transport, in which several “autosyn” transmitters were installed, had propeller trouble on a later flight, and barely made a safe landing only by throwing its’ cargo overboard. A C-47, in which a radio

DHC-3 Otter, Lost But For An Armrest

DHC-3 Otter, Lost But For An Armrest

receiver from Lady was installed, ditched in the Mediterranean, although the crew survived. And perhaps most ominous of all was a US Army DHC-3 Otter, on which was fitted an armrest from one of Lady’s seats. The plane and its’ crew disappeared over the Mediterranean, with only a handful of wreckage bits washed ashore to mark the plane’s loss. Among them – the perfectly intact armrest, taken from the Lady.

The story of Lady Be Good has maintained its’ hold on people across the years. There are numerous websites dedicated to her and her crew (www.ladybegood.com, and www.ladybegood.net – currently under construction). A number of books have been written, most notably “Lady’s Men” by Mario Martinez. An episode of the original Twilight Zone, “King Nine Will Not Return”, was inspired by Lady’s story, substituting a fictional B-25 for the crashed plane. A stained-glass window commemorating Lady Be Good and her crew resided in the chapel at Wheelus Air Base until its’ closing, when the window was moved to the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. And most poignant of all, also at the museum, is a painting of the Lady, lying broken and battered on the desert floor, as a ghostly image of her, in all her glory, flies silently overhead – she and her 9 men together again, Lady Be Good flies on into history. (Sorry, folks, the portrait is copyrighted, there are no copies online, and I can’t find my photo of it. 😦 )

EDIT: 1st Image, Side view of Lady Be Good, retrieved from website www.b24ladybegood.wordpress.com. Used with the kind permission of website owner Marcelo Ribeiro.

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29 Responses to The Tale of “Lady Be Good”.

  1. fasab says:

    Interesting story. Good job.

    • Thanks! I’ve always been intrigued – and a bit weirded out – by the “curse” of the gear taken from the Lady. No wonder the “Twilight Zone” took inspiration from it!

  2. aFrankAngle says:

    Fascinating story … and (not surprisingly) I had no clue about this. Very well done … and I hope you do more posts like this.

    • Thanks, Frank. I need to haul ya through the museum at Wright-Pat sometime, there’s tons of stories there. And maybe I can come up with an intriguing naval tale for you, for my next post like this. πŸ˜‰

      • aFrankAngle says:

        I know these involve some research just so you get the facts straight … but this topic is perfect for you.

      • So what’re ya insinuatin’, huh? You tryin’ ta say I’m obsessed with WW2 stuff? (Walks off, muttering “Jeez, ya spend a few years runnin’ around in 60-year old wool, playin’ soldier durin’ the day and romancin’ bombers at night, and people start thinkin’ ya actually LOVE this stuff!” πŸ˜‰ )

  3. unfetteredbs says:

    Very interesting and worth the wait

  4. benzeknees says:

    I should have known it wouldn’t be a pirate ship, with your interest in aviation! Interesting story!

    • Well, the story does kinda have a “ghost ship” feel, with her wreckage being found almost intact 15 years later, and the tragic effects of her parts on other planes. Kinda makes you wonder how many other planes gone missing in WW2 (and there were a LOT, especially on the supply runs in the Himalayas, referred to as flying “over the Hump”) are lying somewhere, with tales untold. Glad you liked this!

  5. rarasaur says:

    Oooh, what a perfect tale for the Twilight Zone to be inspired by! Great post, John! πŸ˜€

    • And the beuty of this story i not just the “lost ship” side, but also the story of how the 8 survivors worked out who and how they would try to walk out of the desert. A great study in human behaviour – I highly recommend “Lady’s Men”, it’s a great read.

  6. Elyse says:

    What a great story — and I think I remember that Twilight Zone episode …

    • “King Nine” was one of my favourite military-related episodes, though the episode where the three tank crew manage to stumble upon Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn is the best one. Not only do you get a lot of footage of an M3 Stuart light tank (which I spent a lot of time with when I was re-enacting), but the wonderful line from the commanding officer at the end – “They should’ve taken the tank”. Imagine the impact that even a small WW2 tank could’ve had on history!

  7. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Aha! (I thought she was going to be a plane)..Of course, it was sad about the people who lost their lives, but was a very interesting story. Do you think she was haunted?

    • Unlike the Russian sub K-19 (in real life, not just the movie), the Lady never showed any signs of being unusual. I think her story is just that more fascinating in that she was just having a bad day, and it turned into a horror story, for her and her crew. If I had to assign a feeling to her, I’d say it was more a feeling of abandonment – first by her crew, then by the entire Army Air Corps – and a desire to not be forgotten. Remember, there are around 9-12 flying B-17s in the world, but only one B-24 (with another, a cargo variant, in the employ of the Commemorative air Force – the Confederate Air Force to us non-PC folk). B-24s played such a huge role in the war, having a much greater range than B-17s and flying not just bombing missions, but long-range recon patrols in the Pacific and anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic, as well as cargo and personnel transport. Yet you mention “big WW2 US bomber”, and you get “B-17” – or occasionally, “B-29” – as an answer. “Lady Be Good” has managed to put a hook, even if just a tiny one, into our cultural memory in the name of all B-24 Liberators.
      And I bet you never expected such a long and sappy answer, eh? πŸ˜‰

      • whiteladyinthehood says:

        I love your answer! You get to teach me about something I don’t anything about. A feeling of not wanting to be forgotten – spooky AND intriguing!

      • Well….. one of these days, maybe I’ll tell the story of my fog-shrouded night with “Aluminum Overcast”, the EAA’s B-17. And my (admittedly bizarre) concept of how, when it’s really quiet, and you listen really closely, you can hear warbirds sing.

  8. Fascinating story! I think I remember the Twilight Zone episode you refer to. With books and websites devoted to The Lady it’s clear she’s captured the imagination of many. πŸ™‚ I’d be very interested in learning more about the men who walked away!

    • I would highly recommend the book I mentioned above, “Lady’s Men”. While it covers the events prior to and of her disappearance, it gives special emphasis to the story of her crew, both before and after they bailed out, based in part on diary entries they found on (if I remember correctly) the navigator. You can also find bios on her crew at http://www.ladybegood.org. Happy hunting, and thanks for stopping by!

  9. El Guapo says:

    Hard for even a pragmatic realist to not get a chill reading this.

    • Thanks for the reblog. My apologies for taking so long to get back to you, I’ve had a fair amount of personal “stuff” going on. Your name seems familiar, but I can’t place it – have we crossed paths previously, or am I just crazy? (Wait, strike that last statement – everyone KNOWS I’m crazy! πŸ˜€ )

  10. Tonet says:

    I love any kind of airplane story, and have read and written hundreds. Never knew the full story on this one, until now. Well done!

  11. Larry Warren says:

    Are you open for a few corrections concerning your story of the Lady b good? The book Lady’s Men got it wrong about the Lady flying the mission alone. She was in formation with 24 other bombers all the way to Naples. Bombers did not ever fly missions alone unless it was a single plane mission. This mission called for 28 bombers and 25 were able to fly it. Lady’s Men has quite a few errors in it. The best, and most accurate, story of the mission is in a book titled The Liberandos. It has a 63 page chapter devoted to the Lady be good.
    The reason that Hatton’s ADF was not working was that they were already past their base and they were reading off of the back of it. He thought that they were still over the Med and was confused by the reading.
    The Lady was first spotted from the the air twice in 1958, but was not visited by anyone until Feb 27, 1959. The american recovery team did not arrive until the end of May, 1959. The thermos bottle had coffee not tea in it. It seems that the coffee turned to tea in a story that appeared in England. As for the first five bodies being found, they were not near the bomber. They were approx 78 miles north of the bomber. It was the body of Vernon Moore that was never found. The body that was found in Aug 1960, was that of Woravka, the bombardier, and it was his parachute that did not open, and he died instantly.
    The two diaries were written by Toner the co-pilot and by Ripslinger the flight engineer, not the navigator.
    I had the Whitestone New York Post Office cancel me some envelopes on Apr 4th, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Lady’s first, last and only mission. Whitestone New York, as you know, was the home town of the pilot William Hatton. I plan to put some art wwork on the envelopes.

    • Any and all information is deeply appreciated. First and foremost, I know this isn’t the be-all-end-all article on Lady. I try to keep my writing non-technical, as I write for a crowd that’s not all that familiar with the detailed information and technologies. As to your points:
      I thought the tale of Lady flying alone was odd, and just assumed it meant that she was straggling, both too and from. I just skipped over that part because I’d seen conflicting information, and just wanted to move the story along. And, as I said above, I didn’t want to get into “box formations” and all that.
      I also didn’t want to get too complicated about the ADF, and obviously botched the explanation – I was attempting to talk about the reciprocal heading without using technical terms … like “reciprocal heading”! πŸ™‚ That one is totally mea culpa. I also glossed over the air/ground search stuff, wanting to get to the, shall we say, more romantic points. (That’s two mea culpas – dang, I’m losing points FAST!) I was aware that the bodies were some miles away, just not the exact distance, as I did know that Lady flew on for a while with no crew on board. The thermos story, though, is brand new info to me – and to several sources I used, including Wikipedia (who can REALLY get their stuff wrong at times!). Ditto on the diaries.
      There’s so much of the information around Lady Be Good that has literally passed into legend, and as is so common with legend, a lot of info gets mixed up or just plain forgotten. It also doesn’t help that I have a bunch of my good reference books in storage, and thus unavailable.
      Your plans for the envelopes sounds VERY cool! I’d love to see the work when it’s done.
      And once again, thanks for the information. Feel free to “keep me honest” whenever you want – just bear in mind, not everybody is the history-obsessed geek you and I are! πŸ˜‰

      • Larry Warren says:

        John,

        The thing about the thermos having tea instead of coffee, I do not know when it came about. If you look in the LIFE magazine that came out in March 7, 1960, on page 24 at the top of the page there is a photo of a military person holding the thermos and the caption below the photo states “Drinkable coffee in thermos”. Since we knew it was coffee back in 1960, when did it change over to tea? Having kept up with the Lady since she was found (54 years ago) I have found that the story seems to get changed ever few years. One story I read stated that the group of five were found in a circle sitting back to back. Since the five died over a 5 day period, why would they be sitting back to back? Again the LIFE magazine, mentioned above, shows the bodies in a line. I guess you could say that I am a CORRECT history-obsessed geek.
        I am still working on the art work for the covers. When I get them completed, is there a way that I can send you a copy of what they look like?

        Larry

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