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