We Will Come & Kick Your Ass!
Because of the shear length of this article I should really start by asking 'are you sitting comfortably? Or, even the proverbial 'Once upon a time...' But, I'm not going to because this time I'm going to be a little bit more serious than usual. This is completely different from the normal crap that I usually pour-out on this forum. It's a change because not only is this supposed to be educational it's also fecking dead interesting - well, it might be, if you're into this sort of thing. I started this little project when I was searching for synonyms for 'bad luck' and 'ill fate', particularly, phrases, adages, mottos or tales which I could use to illustrate any future subject matter. I was lulling it over and I recalled a conversation I had with Nick and Ruddy a year or so ago. We were discussing the subject of 'lucky escapes': particularly within a military context - where a spur of the moment judgement, or a complete change of plan, can suddenly work incredibly well for group, or individual's, favour. For example, we discussed how the British valued their 'Hobart's funnies' - tanks that had been primarily designed to negotiate the various deadly obstacles on the D-Day beaches. The Americans however looked upon these weapons with a scornful eye. They deeply distrusted these elaborate fighting vehicles and considered them as nothing more than an eccentric whim of their British allies. Consequently, no matter how times the British offered these strange contraptions to their American brothers they were always politely declined. It is a matter of historic military opinion of the true value that these weapons brought to the fighting on D-Day. They were a brilliant success for the British and they saved a great many lives. God only knows what their effect could have been if they had been present on Omaha Beach. It is on record, years after the war's conclusion, that a number of American commanders would, with the 'gift of hindsight', gladly review their original response and would have instead accepted these machines with open arms. But, what about the decisions that can cause everything to go completely tits-up. The weird quirks of fate where one bad action, plan, or idea can turn some poor sod's world up-side down. Usually, in these circumstances, one unlucky moment can turn into a catastrophic domino effect, where every single consequent action only helps to compound the serious issue of the situation. It's a slippery slope: A ride to doom where the poor bastard concerned has little or no control over their fate. Possibly the most publicised and well known case of this kind of 'poor luck' is the true story of 'Lady be good'. If you are not familiar with 'Lady be Good' (LBG), then I urge you please read on because I think it's not only poignant and sad, it's also extremely interesting - well, that's my opinion, which means absolutely nothing. So, in retrospect, if you don't like true stories then you are probably best clicking the big 'X' on the top right-hand corner and go off and watch Dr. Who, or something like that.... If , on the other hand, you are still here then thanks, and please read on.
|'Lady be Good' was a US Army Air Force bomber. Typically, at the time, she was named as a acknowledgement to someone, or something, that had an American connotation. It was a connection for the aircrew, and ground staff, with something familiar that was back home in the States. 'Lady be Good' was a 1924 Gershwin musical that was made into a film in 1941.|
She was an B-24D Liberator bomber. Serial number 41-24301. She was built in the latter half of 1942 and delivered to 514th Bomb Squadron, part of the 376th Bomber Group, at Soluch Airfield, in Libya, on March 25th 1943.
She had a crew of nine, who were:-
|Pilot - 1st Lt. William J. Hutton
Co-Pilot - 1st Lt. Robert F. Toner
Navigator - 2nd Lt. D.P Hays.
Bombardier - 2nd Lt. John S. Woravka.
Flight Engineer - Harold J. Ripslinger.
Radio Operator - Robert E. LaMotte.
Gunner - Guy E. Shelley.
Gunner - Vernon L. Moore.
Gunner - Samuel R. Adams.
The crew had arrived in Libya on March 18th 1943, and like their brand new aircraft, they had never seen enemy action, although that does not mean to say that they were complete greenhorns. In particular the co-pilot, Robert Toner, had been flying for the Canadian Air force as a fighter pilot prior to America's entry into the war. However, sadly for this rookie crew, luck was against all of them right from the start of their bomber career.
'Mission 109' began on 9th April 1943, the target was to bomb the harbour installations at Naples. Because two aircraft had been grounded, 'Lady be Good' and her crew were pulled from reserve into front-line action. The conditions for the operation were truly awful. A massive sandstorm blew up along the North Libyan coast causing mayhem with the pre-flight arrangements. Just after 3 pm, and with a newly painted 64 on her nose, 'Lady be Good' was one of the last aircraft struggled to get off the ground on that fateful day. Virtually, from the moment she was airborne, she lost contact with all the other aircraft in her flight. She was in the second wave of attack. It was a two wave bombing raid with a total of twenty five aircraft taking part. An illustration of how bad the weather was is the fact that of the flight of 13 planes in the second wave, nine aircraft abandoned the operation, mostly because sand had blocked their fuel pipes, and they returned almost immediately back to base. Only four Liberators carried on with second wave of the attack. It is a mark of their bravery, that considering their lack of operational experience, the crew of 'Lady Be Good' forged ahead with their task under those terrible conditions. Within hours not only had they lost contact with the other three aircraft, their plane was also blown wildly off course.
Some of the facts, and information, regarding 'Lady be good' from the moment after she 'took off' are, to say the least, 'a bit sketchy'. What is known is that some 30 miles or so away from Naples the crew were forced to abandon their attack. They ditched they bombs in the sea and headed back to base. A prevailing strong tail-wind caused havoc with navigation, and although the navigator J.P Hays had a rough idea where they were, with regards to Naples, there is evidence that he had stopped plotting a course on the return trip to Libya.
The official records at the time claimed that 'Lady be Good' crashed 'somewhere' in the Mediterranean Sea. This conclusion was based on the premise that the crew had sent two radio messages near the coast just before she went missing.
Note: - There are conflicting accounts with regards to the pilot's, 1st Lt William Hutton, attempts at radio contact. (a) There is a story that he made contact with another aircraft just as that aircraft was about to land. (b) He had also radioed Soluch air base informing them that his directional finding equipment was broken.
This meant that Soluch would have to give him directions back to the airfield. The problem with this was that this was also an old German pilot's trick, that had been perfected by their best desert flyers. By pretending to be a friendly aircraft the German pilots would often call for assistance. If they were successful they would get the exact location of the airfield from an unsuspecting officer in the Control Tower: the consequently attack at the base was then a polite means of saying 'thank you' for their help. Also, during the desert campaign, some German bomber pilots were crafty enough to tag on at the rear of a RAF, or US bomber flight, and fly along with them in perfect formation. All hell would break lose as soon as this extra phantom bomber-aircraft was discovered. Anyway, on this particular occasion either Soluch Tower staff refused to respond, or he was deliberately ignored by another radio station on the same coastline. (c) The other account to this is that he did receive a reply to his request. That he was given directions but by either: (d) shear bad luck 'someone' misinterpreted this information; or, (e) the navigator followed the wrong radio-pulse plot because instead of approaching the airbase the aircraft was actually heading away from it? In the end though it is all just mere speculation.
At the time the ground staff, and the air crew who had just landed at Soluch air base, all swear that they heard a Liberator fly over the airfield. The general consensus of opinion was that this aircraft was 'Lady be Good'. Flares were fired but to no avail, the mysterious plane just continued on its course inland.
As I mentioned before, the official record at the time was that the 'Lady be Good' crashed somewhere in the Mediterranean. For days afterwards aircraft from the airfield, and from a sister RAF base, undertook box searches of the sea in an attempt to find any wreckage. At the same time, bearing in mind that they were aware of the mysterious plane that flew over the airbase on the same night, several aircraft were detailed to look inland. In fact these searches travelled some 380 miles into the Libyan desert, but it was all to no avail. 'Lady be Good' had vanished off the face of the earth.
So, because of a catastrophic balance of bad luck: the sandstorm; the headwind, then tailwind; the crew's inexperience (after all it was their first mission); the fact that the plane's radio directional equipment was knackered, and that their own base may have believed that they were a sneaky German aircraft. All of these strings of ill fate acted as a sad 'domino drop' of doom and this caused the tragic, and untimely demise of all those brave young lives.
That would have been it. 'Lady be Good' was just another wartime statistic. Another bomber and its crew missing, never to return home - except that this is not the end of the story.
In 1958, almost 16 years to the day, a British Petroleum survey plane was exploring the desert some 400 odd miles from Soluch, in southern Libya, when it spotted a strange shape in the desert. Having confirmed that it was site of a air crash the pilot radioed through the unknown aircraft's location back to base. At the time the pilot's plot of this crash site was almost 4 miles out, so another aircraft was sent specifically to correctly log the aircraft's type and position. Again, there are conflicting accounts of what occurred after the initial sighting. Depending on which version of events you believe either: (a) the incident was almost immediately forgotten or ignored and no attempt was made to ground survey the wreck. Three months after the initial sighting another British petroleum air-survey plane spotted the same wreck, and again it was reported but this time to the RAF and yet again nothing was done. As I said that is just one version of account. Either way, the wreck was again reported on a further two occasions in the spring of 1959.
The other version: (b) Is that one of the D'Arcy Oil team (a BP subsidiary company) who was actually present on the first ground inspection of the wreck, either made a personal visit to Wheelus base, or wrote to his friend the base's commanding officer. (Wheelus was at the time an American airbase just on the North Western coast of Libya. During the war it had been a German fighter and reconnaissance base).The information that he supplied to the base commander was the aircraft's identification number; the plane's maintenance inspection records, and some of the crew's names which had been gained from their personal effects which had been left on the plane . This was in March 1959, It had been 14 months after it had been originally spotted and 16 years since she had vanished. But, finally, from the information that was given to base commander at Wheelus, the 'Lady be Good' had been found and identified.
Although she had crash landed, 'Lady be Good' was in great condition. She had belly-flopped on a shallow dive and had skidded for nearly 650 meters. The evidence was that the aircraft had run out of fuel and that only one engine was working at the time of the crash. Her tail had come off, but her instruments were all intact.
(Well, they were until some members of the D'Arcy Oil team removed a few of them as souvenirs).
|The famous '64' nose number. Photo taken by the US Air force recovery team.|
|The broken tail section. The BP air survey's team plane can be seen in the background|
Once the old Lady had been identified, a team from the Quartermasters Mortuary based in German was sent in May 1959 to inspect the site. Their job was to identify and collect deceased military personnel.
On arrival the recovery team noted that all the spare water, and a canteen of tea that had been left on board the aircraft, were all perfectly fine to drink. They also tried the guns, which fired on the first squeeze of the trigger and they noted that the radio was in perfect working order. The desert conditions had preserved, and protected, the old girl. But what of the crew? There were no human remains either in, or directly outside, the aircraft. The conclusion of the initial inspection was that the crew had bailed out, the evidence being that all the parachutes and dinghies were missing. The question was then - where had they jumped?
It was at this time the recovery team discovered that the Navigator D.P Hays had failed to plot a course after the aircraft had turned back from Naples. They also recorded that some of his equipment had never been touched - it was still sealed-up in its original packaging. 'Navigational error' was hence blamed for the subsequent loss of the aircraft and its crew. The author Mario Martinez, who wrote the 'The lady's men', a book about the 'Lady be Good' and her crew, refuses to totally blame navigator D.P Hays. He is, quite rightly, sympathetic towards the young inexperienced airman. After all, as he points out, Hays had managed to guide the aircraft on a straight dead reckoning course, as it is now proved that the aircraft did in fact fly over the airbase on that fateful night. However, other publications, and documentaries, have not been as lenient as Mr. Martinez. The finger of blame on those occasions has always been firmly pointed in D.P Hays' direction.
Items that were left by the crew being investigated by the recovery team.
Back to top
Back to May 1959. During the recovery team's wider search they came across evidence of the crew after they had bailed out of the aircraft. Nineteen miles north of the crash site they discovered improvised arrow-markers made out of parachutes weighed down by stones: a pair of flying boots, which had also been fashioned as an arrow-marker: along with other discarded equipment: most of which had been found by the side of a set of old world war two tracks that had been made by a convoy of British lorries way-back in 1942.
Note :- As a matter of interest, if you were not already aware of this, under the right circumstances vehicle tracks that are made in the African Western desert can last for decades. There are countless tracks which still exist in Libya, and Egypt, that were made by the retreating Italian and German forces during world war 2. They are mostly in some of the remotest parts of the desert. Some of these tracks can go on for hundreds of miles. They are poignant historic trails that show the flight of a passing battle. Apparently, there is still remaining physical evidence, forever etched in the sand, of the British tanks that had massed for the battle near El-Alamein - but I digress.
Returning again to May 1959: The 'Lady be Good' had landed on a flat plateau of thick grainy sand. The tracks, and arrow-markers, that the crew had left for the air-search and rescue teams, were heading into a high-dune sand sea called the sea of Calanscio. Ultimately, from these markers that the crew had left, it was determined that they had been heading in exactly the right direction for Soluch airbase. At the time survival experts believed that because of the searing heat (130 degrees F - 54 C), and harsh desert conditions, the crew would have only been able to achieve a maximum 25 -30 miles per day.
Eventually the search for the crew's remains had to be abandoned as the recover team's equipment and vehicles began to break down with alarming regularity. Another factor in the team's decision was that it was believed that if the crew had made their way into the sea of Calanscio then their bodies would more than likely be buried deep below its shifting sands and hence chances of finding their remains were virtually nil.
In February 1960, another BP exploration team who were working on the very edge of the Calanscio sea, when they found five closely grouped bodies at a location approximately 85 miles north of the crash site. After these remains were discovered the US Army & US Air force launched 'Operation Climax'. The artefacts, equipment and documentation found on, and around, the dead crewmen enabled the recovery team to piece together a better picture of what had exactly occurred during that fateful mission on 4th April 1943. Essential to their investigation was the discovery of co-pilot 1st Lt. Robert F. Toner's diary, which had been found safely wrapped in his flight-overalls directly beside his skeletal remains.
The remains of the five crew found on the edge of the Calanscio Sea desert.
The diary noted that the crew bailed out of the aircraft at 2.00am on Sunday morning. (They had flown straight over Soluch Airfield at midnight). Because of the poor visibility, and the fact that the open desert looks remarkably like the Mediterranean at night, the crew were probably convinced they were still over the sea. On assessing their situation it looks as though they thought they were no more than 100 miles from their base. In fact when they started walking they were heading in the right direction for Soluch but they were 440 miles, 4 times the distance that they thought, away from their target.
Lt. Robert F. Toner's diary
Robert Toner wrote that they could not find their Bombardier, John S. Woravka, but otherwise they were generally okay and no one was badly hurt. He reported that they only had half a canteen (less than a can of coke in today's money) of water between them. When they landed, and rallied together, in the open desert they waited until Monday morning before they set off walking. The chances are that they were hoping that Bombardier Woravka would find them, or at least a passing aircraft would spot them as it flew by. Neither of these things occurred. Sadly, the first plane to fly over-head was that of the BP crew that discovered their crashed aircraft 16 years later. They had probably been trained to leave 'signs' on the ground as an aid to 'search and rescue teams' who they knew would be looking for them. But when considering the pair of flight-boots they had left, with the toes pointing in a North Westerly direction, this would have been impossible to see from the sky. My guess is that this was a gesture of hope - that Woravka would be able to follow the trail of equipment they had left behind, and at some point in time, be able to catch up with the rest of the party. Bombardier Woravka never found their trail - and he never caught up with his crew-mates.
For the following 8 days entries, Robert Toner, described a journey that was based on a theme of pure, living hell. The crew survived on one cap full of water a day and they only had meagre emergency rations. Toner briefly recorded a set routine that crew followed every day. During the daylight hours it was too hot to move, they must have sheltered under one of the parachutes that they continued to carry with them. They would begin walking in the late afternoon and take breaks every fifteen minutes or so. By the following Friday their plight was so desperate they had probably lost a third of their total body weight. They were all in great pain, through dehydration and exhaustion; and every crew member was also suffering from eye damage caused by the continuous blowing of sand into their faces.
|On Thursday Toner had written that he thought that both Vernon Moore and Sam Adams had 'had it'. Yet, on Friday, when it was decided that the five most exhausted crew members remain where they were, (and where they were found 17 years later), Vernon Moore seemed to have recovered enough to accompany Guy Shelly and Harold Ripslinger on their journey further north into the Calanscio Sea desert. Toner's diary ended on Monday 12th April 1943. His last entry was 'No help yet, very cold night'.
On Thursday Toner had written that he thought that both Vernon Moore and Sam Adams had 'had it'. Yet, on Friday, when it was decided that the five most exhausted crew members remain where they were, (and where they were found 17 years later), Vernon Moore seemed to have recovered enough to accompany Guy Shelly and Harold Ripslinger on their journey further north into the Calanscio Sea desert. Toner's diary ended on Monday 12th April 1943. His last entry was 'No help yet, very cold night'.
The common misconception is that the desert is always hot – which is true enough during the day – but at night it is bitterly cold. Most of the crew were in bare feet, and they had ditched most of their warm flying gear along the route of their long trek. All things considered the crew of 'Lady be Good' did not stand a chance.
With the repatriation of the five airmen and their personal effects, the media attention back in America grew so much so that political pressure was used to lever the military into one last 'big' search. Helicopters and high altitude reconnaissance fighters were used to photograph great tracks of the desert floor. When the mission eventually wound down it was estimated that over 6,300 square miles of desert had been searched.
Again, there is conflicting information with regards to Shelly and Ripslinger. Often details of both of these airmen have been mixed around, and even today there are still confused reports regarding these two men. On May 17th a US helicopter which was conducting a low-level search found the remains of Staff Sergeant Ripslinger. He was found approximately 28 miles from his five crew-mates in a North westerly direction. He was lying in the foetal position in a dip between two dunes. Because of the way his body was found the experts believed that Ripslinger had died during the night whilst he was trying to keep warm. Ripslinger's diary was found in what was left of his clothing. His journal corroborated Toner's statements, but he failed to mention what had happened to his two companions, Vernon Moore and Guy Shelly, after they had left their five friends on the edge of the sand sea.
Incidentally:- Ripslinger's diary caused a little bit of a stir many years later. For some strange reason no one had seen fit to study it with any great detail when it was originally found – possibly due to its poor state, after all it had been on the clothing of a decomposed body. Hence, when several authors were researching for their forthcoming books about the fated flight, and its crew, they were surprised to discover that it contained an account of a running written conversation between Ripslinger and the Navigator D.P Hays that had occurred during the bombing-mission. Not wishing to use the aircraft's on-board telecom system, Ripslinger and his fellow crew-mate had tried to keep their discussion private. D.P Hays' replies to Ripslinger's questions remain unknown, but it appears that just prior to their aborted bombing run there seems to be some sort of dispute within the crew.
Ripslinger had asked Hays: 'What's he bitching about?' - 'What's going to happen now?' and – 'Are we going home?' No-one knows for sure if it was the pilot, or co-pilot, having a dig at Hays - possibly because the plane could not find its intended target. But, and this is pure speculation, was Hays so upset, or incensed, by the undeserved criticism he received that he either lost his nerve, or temper, and that is why he failed to keep correct navigational record on his official chart?
On may 12th 1960, another BP ground exploration team, working in the Calanscio desert, found what they thought was an 'fossilised Ostrich egg' on top of a high dune. On closer inspection the white shell turned out to be the sun-bleached skull of Guy Shelly. He was a further 21 miles Northwest from his crew-mate Ripslinger. The chap who discovered Shelly's remains remarked that he could possibly guess what had happened to Shelly, or at least understood how he would have felt in his last few moments of life. The dune on which Shelly was discovered was huge - typically the Calanscio Sea is made up of a labyrinth of 600 foot sand dunes. If Shelly believed, as the rest of the crew had done, that they were only 100 miles from Soluch then possibly he thought that once he had climbed this great dune, the airbase, or civilisation at least, would be on the other side of this immense barrier. Sadly, this was not the case, for as far as the eye could see there were just miles upon miles of rolling sand dunes.
'Operation Climax' was shut down in late May 1960, after the last two crew members had failed to be found. That would be the end of the story, but it's not.
In late August 1960 yet another BP ground exploration team came across the remains of an airman dressed in high-altitude gear and still strapped to his parachute. This body was 16 miles North of 'Lady be Good'. On closer inspection of the body it was found that the airman had died on impact with the ground when his parachute had failed to deploy correctly. The US Air force were informed and they sent a small team to recover the body. Items on the body identified the airman as the missing Bombardier Woravka. When the recovery team made a cursory search of the local area they were surprised to find a pile of parachute straps, ropes and covers less than quarter of a mile to the North of the body. This area had obviously been the original rally point for the rest of the crew from 'Lady be Good' when they bailed-out from their stricken craft. In many ways, considering how much the rest of the crew had suffered, Woravka was possibly the luckiest member of the crew.
As of 1960, the Americans have made no further attempt to find the remains of the last member of the crew, gunner Vernon Moore.
Over the years the wreck of the 'Lady' had been visited by many foreign oil workers, and the British military, who had maintained a presence in Libya until 28th March 1970. In 1968 an RAF team removed an engine from the wreck, amongst other instruments, and donated all these parts to the Americans. In turn the Americans made a thorough inspection of all the equipment, and the crew's personal possessions, to study the effects of long term re-action to desert conditions. During their experiments they discovered a projectile (bullet?) in the plane's engine. This was a bit of a surprise as there had been no written account at that point about the plane being attacked while it was on its one, and only, mission.
The Americans were also really chuffed to bits to discover that their WW2 standard issue Elgin-A11 wrist-watch was brilliant at withstanding the elements. Under Laboratory conditions Shelly's watch was wound and found to keep almost perfect time.
The Americans forfeited their claim to the wreck, which had become nothing more than a frame, after the souvenir hunters had had their evil way with her, so that ownership of the aircraft reverted to the Libyan government.
Photos of the old girl before and after....
Such was her legend in the area that she had became a landmark on all the oil workers maps and a busy un-official, tourist spot. She remained in the same place for over 50 years, by which time Libya had became somewhat of a international pariah. Relations with America completely broke down in the 1980's after the 'Lockerbie Incident' and the American bombing of Libya in 1988. In 1994 the Libyans decided to move the wreck. At the time they stated:-
'This journey was under taken because Libya respects international history, and Lady Be Good is part of that history, as well as being part of the history of Libya'.
It is then extremely hard to understand, if they considered 'Lady be Good' to be such an important part of their history, why she was cut into three further pieces and then 'dumped' in the open air behind the Tripoli police barracks for 15 years.
The rotting wreck after it had been moved to the barracks.
Identification number (41) 124301
In 2009, without announcing the fact, 'Lady be Good' was moved yet again to an airport in Southern Tripoli. However, there may be hope for her yet as there is speculation that she might become a open attraction at an aircraft museum.
This would be the end of this story. A sad tale of bravery and comradeship that was cut short by the fickle finger of fate. However, when the US Air Force team discovered the original rally point, a quarter of a mile from Bombardier Woravka's remains, the story becomes even more heartbreakingly tragic.
The Air Force experts quickly calculated that if the crew had elected to head South, instead of going North, they may have had a greater chance of survival. They would not have known this at the time, bearing in mind that they believed they were only 100 miles South East of Soluch Airbase, so the choice of heading South may never have even been considered. After all, they appreciated that 'luck' had already bounced them into their current predicament so why should they have 'pushed it' any further? The fact is though if they had headed South within a matter of a few miles they would almost certainly have spotted their downed aircraft. Once they had spotted her they would have automatically realised there were still supplies of water, tea and food on board. Further to that, If they had reached her it is fair to presume that they would have tried using the radio - which was still in working order 16 years later. They could have called for help, bearing in mind that the search and rescue teams had flown 380 miles into the desert looking from them, so it is perfectly acceptable that they could have established radio contact. This being the case if they could not have been physically removed from the desert, at that present moment, they could have at least received information that would have saved their lives. Considering the distance they travelled while heading North, if they had continued South for the same distance, with their fresh supplies from their wrecked craft, they would have come to Kufra Oasis, here they would have then reached civilisation and safety.
During her 16 lost years the desert had been remarkably kind to the plane's frame and contents. Souvenir hunters may have 'raped' the old girl, but she had also 'donated' a few items of her equipment to other US military aircraft. The Air Force had removed her radios, engine parts and various internal fittings and fixtures. Some of these parts, along with the equipment, and personal possessions found on the crew's remains, went on to be displayed at museums all over the world. Other parts, as previously mentioned, were fitted to other aircraft. There are some strange tales regarding these 'donated' parts:- A radio that was allegedly fitted to C-47 cargo plane, that was involved in the second recovery mission, broke-down while the plane was on route to the crash site. Another plane, a U3 Otter seaplane, was lost at sea with all her crew. One of the few parts to be washed ashore was an arm-rest that had been taken from the 'Lady be Good'. A C-37 cargo plane, which had also been equipped with some of the Lady's donated parts, met a similar fate, but on that occasion there were no fatalities. Whether these accounts are true, or nothing more than urban-legend, is a matter for discussion.
All that remains at the crash site today is the odd piece of scrap metal. All of the equipment the crew deposited along their trek, which they used as markers for air sea rescue aircraft, was removed during 'Operation Climax' - and the consequent trips the US forces made after the crew's remains were discovered.
There is virtually nothing left in the desert that marks this famous aircraft's plight - absolutely nothing to commemorate her crew's amazing story – nothing that is except, the last missing airman, Vernon Moore.
If you were not already aware of 'Lady be Good' story, then some of the details may seem oddly familiar to you, this in its self would not be strange. The 'Lady's' story was the basis of a 'made for television movie' in the early 1970's called 'Sole Survivor'. It starred the legendary William (James T. Kirk) Shatner, Vince Edwards, Richard Basehart (from the 1960's TV programme Voyage to the bottom of the sea), and John Wayne's son, Patrick. The film mirrored some of the events that occurred to 'Lady be Good'.
In 'Sole Survivor', the aircraft was a B-25 Mitchell bomber. The film tells the story of what occurred to the B- 25, after its aborted bombing mission on an Italian port in 1943. Richard Basehart's character is based on Navigator D.P Hays – and following the popular theory that Hay's was to blame for the aircraft's plight – Basehart was cast as a type of pseudo villain - who, to be honest - wasn't really bad or nasty.
In the film Basehart abandoned the aircraft during an enemy fighter attack. He left his crew-mates well and truly in the lurch. The aircraft was lost and the crew were unaware that the plane was being pushed along by a terrific tail-wind – consequently the B-25 disappears. Basehart's character spent 30 hours floating in the Mediterranean sea, and he was the only member of the crew to be rescued.
Thereafter, throughout his career, Basehart claims that the Captain of the B-25 gave orders to abandon ship, and that the plane and crew must be at the bottom of the sea – this is his guilty lie that he tries to hide. Thirty odd years after the war a British Oil company plane surveying the Libyan desert comes across the B-25's remains. (Which incidentally, were purposely arranged by the film crew to mirror the exact position that 'Lady be Good' was found in).
Basehart's character is now an Air Force General. While he is hosting a high-ranking dinner party he is visited by two Air Force Officers, Shatner (a Colonel) and Edwards (a Major). They had been sent to tell him that his old plane had been discovered in the Libyan desert. Straight away the Major is suspicious of Basehart's version of events. If all of the crew bailed-out over the Mediterranean why is the plane 700 miles away in the middle of the Libyan desert? Shatner's character is more complacent. He doesn't want to upset the apple-cart, a trait that he displays all the way through the film. Basehart is ordered to accompany Shatner's and Edward's recovery team to Libya and help identity the newly discovered plane. He reluctantly agrees but he sets an unreasonable date as a dead-line for the mission's end.
The twist in the film is that the crew, although dead, haunt the plane's crash-site. They are bound by some weird, unexplained rule, to forever remain by their aircraft. For the last thirty years they have done nothing but bicker and play baseball. When they see the approaching recovery team's column heading their way they start to arrange everything in the aircraft with the hope that their remains will be found. The problem is that there is only one body at the crash site, and he is under the tail-plane, buried under tons of sand. The other crew's remains are some way off to the north by the plane's emergency sea-dingy. As soon as the recovery team arrive the aircrew recognise Basehart as their missing Navigator, whom they had incorrectly assumed was also dead.
The whole movie plays like an episode of the ever brilliant 'Twilight Zone'. Which, incidentally, also made a similar episode based on the 'Lady be Good' story.
Anyway, in 'Sole Survivor' Basehart manages to hold-up to Edward's probing questions. However, on the last night he gets himself well and truly 'Stella-R-Twatted', it was his way of combating his obvious guilt. While he is 'completely leathered' he realises he can suddenly see and hear his former crew-mates and they begin to taunt and deride him. Basehart cracks under the pressure, he jumps into a jeep and drives off into the desert. The ghosts jockey him along leading him further and further into the desert's vast realm. In the meantime Shatner slaps on his wig and jumps into another jeep with Edwards. They pursue Basehart, who by this time is doing a great impression of the Stig, weaving this way and that, along the desert floor. Eventually he stops. He has come to a halt right by the B-25's dingy under which are the crew's hidden remains.
The following morning the recovery team remove the crew's bodies. As they are placed into body-bags one by one the ghosts begin to disappear leaving only one airman, the chap who is stuck under the tail-plane. It's a great title for a film, because originally it's Basehart's character who is the Sole survivor. But, in the end it appears that the last chap left all alone by his plane is the one who best fits this description. The movie is a little open-ended because by this time the recovery team have abandoned the crash site to concentrate on removing the dead crew's remains. The implication is that the B-25 will be forever abandoned. Basehart in the meantime has left in a US Helicopter under a very dark-cloud, it is obvious that his high-flying career is well and truly over. Right at the end of the film Edwards discovers a diary that belonged to the pilot. In it is an entry that explains that the last dead crewman, whose body is under the tail-plane, left his comrades to go back to the ship to look for supplies. Edwards suddenly leaps into a jeep tells Shatner his going back to the plane to test a theory and waves good bye to Shatner and his gorgeous hair-piece. This is where the film ends: with long, lingering shots of the lost crew member wandering, all alone in the desert, outside his plane. Does Vince Edwards find him? Does Shatner's wig get any more ridiculous? We will never know.
|It's not a bad film, but not particularly brilliant one either. However, I do remember being glued to the television avidly watching it one summer's day in the late 1970's. As far I'm aware it has never been shown on British television since then. Also, There has never been a 'legal' DVD / Video recording available in this country. However, I do know that 'Google Video' does have it available to view online – but the picture quality is almost certainly guaranteed to be shite.|
So this would be the end of this story, only it's not - there is a footnote to this article. A very interesting piece of information that only came to light within the last 15 years or so.
In the 1990's, the golden era of television, there was a documentary made about the 'old 'Lady in the desert'. Mention of Vernon Moore's disappearance in the Calanscio Sea desert struck an immediate cord with one viewer on the Isle of Man. This chap ( who I cannot name because I have not asked his permission – but we will call him P.C) had served in Libya with the British Army in the 1950's. He had an interesting view on the 'Lady be Good' story. This old soldier managed to make contact with an author of one of the books about 'Lady be Good' and he related a very interesting theory. Basically, this is his tale:-
In 1953 P.C was serving as a 'Signals Radio Mechanic' with the 25th Armoured Brigade in Libya. During the course of an exercise in the southern part of Libya, the brigade were tasked with plotting, and manoeuvring, through the Calanscio Sea. They were ordered to start from west to east before making way to their ultimate destination, which was further south, at Kufra Oasis. The vehicle that P.C was travelling in was constantly suffering from mechanical problems so it was always lagging, about 15 to 20 minutes or so, behind the leading vehicle. While travelling through the Calanscio Sea his truck pulled up alongside the parked leading vehicle. P.C had a friend in this vehicle and this friend claimed that they had just had to stop and bury a 'dead Arab teenager' that had been lying on the desert floor. Previously, P.C had lent this friend a camera so his mate had taken the opportunity to take a few snaps of the dead Arab for prosperity.
Years later, while P.C was watching the documentary on TV it brought back memories and provoked a few questions about the rushed burial in 1953. For a start, P.C reasoned, no sane Arab – no matter what tribe – ever wonders alone into the Calanscio Sea . Secondly, if an Arab youth was ever to lead, or accompany, any other Arabs into the desert and consequently, die or be deliberately killed, it is religious law that the body be buried within 24 hours. They are no' ifs' or 'buts' with this issue, all Arabs always adhere to their religious rules concerning funeral matters. One of the most posing questions is:- considering P.C's vehicle was only ever 15 or 20 minutes behind the lorry that found, and buried the body, how did they have to time to correctly identity who this poor corpse was? In other words, there is an exceptionally good chance that those skeletal remains were that of Vernon Moore.
A few years later, when P.C and his author friend were researching the issue, they managed to obtain some of the map documentation for the desert exercise. Unfortunately, the plotted route of the British column had been done by tracking from one dune, or landmark, to another – there was a distinct lack of longitude and latitude markings on the map - the exact information that the two men required to prove, with any great certainty, that the remains had been those of Vernon Moore. Although, there was little doubt the brigade would have been extremely close to where Shelly, Ripslinger and Moore had been last seen heading.
My opinion is that the British officer / Sergeant / Corporal who ordered the body's burial had actually dropped a bit of a bollock. Again, bearing in mind the time frame, 15 to 20 minutes, this was no way long enough to: (a) drive up to the body; (b) establish the fact it is a human corpse – which means standing around gawping at the body and having a general chat about it. (Human nature in other words); (c ) search the body for identification, money or goods; (e) accurately establish that it was the body of an Arab youth: (f) and, finally burying the body.
I think that whoever decided that the body was that of an Arab had the rest of the party well and truly convinced for them to forgo any further checks for identification. Following this pattern of logic means it can also be deduced that it was an officer who 'called the shot'. The people who buried the remains were young lads who were doing their National Service. They had probably never even seen a dead body before, let alone touch one. They would have been carrying very little water, so they would not want to waste a drop by washing and scrubbing their hands, and arms, after touching the dead body and checking through its clothes (if indeed there were any) with any great intimacy.
If, whoever checked the body, (if at all) believed that the it was that an Arab, and they were probably ignorant, or unwilling, to disagree with the 'Arab youth' synopsis. It is also fair to believe that because these young soldiers were familiar with their Arab hosts they would have appreciated that the majority of the Libyan nationals who dwelt in the desert, were to coin a phrase, poor as church mice. Therefore there would be no money, no treasure, no identification and hence no point in getting too 'up close and personal' with the corpse. Do you see how this logic works?
Again, in defence of the British, they had absolutely no reason to believe that there might have been any old remains in that area that could have belonged to either allied or enemy forces from the war. This was 1953, 'Lady be Good' was not discovered until 5 years later in 1958 – And, at the point in time, the old plane was still believed to be somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
Another point of logic is this - If the body was naked, then there would have been little point in a detailed investigation. Consider then if the corpse was that of a serviceman who had died of hypothermia. One of the traits of this state is that although the body is freezing ( like the coldness that can be felt on a desert night) the brain fools the body into thinking that is actually burning. Hence, an individual could strip themselves naked – possible dog-tags and all – in an attempt to cool down. Sadly, this action would then only make the ailment worse and eventually lead to an almost certain, rapid death. And, there would no means of identification on the body.
Pictures of the so called 'Arab youth' show the body to be face-up. No great details can be seen to distinguish whether the corpse was wearing any clothing, and sadly, there is no written records which can give any further details concerning the body.
|The 'Arab youth' with a photo of Vernon Moore. Compare the chin and cheek bones - I believe there is a strong argument for the skeletal remains being those of the missing crew member.|
When the US Air Force investigated the five crew-mates bodies that were huddled together on the edge of the Calanscio Sea, they produced great reams of information. They described how the bodies lay and how they were dressed. Similar to the bodies that are still found today on the First World War battlefields, it was exactly the same scenario with some of the bodies recovered by the US Air Force, in that it was only their boots that remained intact. Some of that party had already disposed of their footwear, but according to how they lay - If for example, they had body parts covered by sand, then consequently, that limb would be partially mummified. Similarly, any clothing that was covering that part of the body was also found to be preserved.
Sadly, because of the lack of 'exact positioning' for the Brigade's route in the Calanscio Sea, (and the burial spot), there is never going to be the opportunity of re-discovering this hastily buried corpse. And tantalisingly, when the researchers studied the photographic evidence, taken at the time by P.C's camera, it was established that the brigade were almost certainly on the same desert plateau as the 'Lady be Good' and her crew.
If then the popular opinion is that Bombardier Woravka was the luckiest crew member because he died instantly, then by this weird measure of fortune we can only assume that Vernon Moore was the unluckiest. This poor man, on his very first mission, was sent out to bomb a foreign country in the middle of a sandstorm. His plane was lost, and at some point had been presumably fired upon. On the return trip he, and his companions, had no idea where they were. Their own base thought they were possibly an enemy aircraft in disguise, so they were ignored. He didn't even see the flares that his fellow airmen fired from the base to give them directions. With his crew, he was flown hundreds of miles in completely the wrong direction, without realising that with every minute they were in the air they were travelling further and further into the clutches of death. He would have suffered the nervousness, and worry, of listening to the loud cough of the plane's engines as it drank the last few drops of fuel. He would have to jump out of this craft into the inky darkness of what they thought was water, only to discover that it was the cold, hard desert floor. He would have virtually no food and a negligible water supply. He would have been sad and frightened at losing a crewmate. He would have suffered extreme temperatures both during the day and night. And, even though he was with friends he would have still felt completely alone, isolated and lost. He would have been exhausted through matching great distances. His eyes would have been scratched to hell by the sand. He would have open sores on his feet and every muscle in his body would have been burning. He would have been extremely uncomfortable - solidly, for eight days. He would not have been able to sleep. He would have been permanently hungry and thirsty. He would have panicked when he thought he could go on no further - but still draw on his reserves so that when volunteers were needed to carry on and find help he put himself forward for the task. He would have regretted leaving his five crewmates on the edge of the desert. He would have been shocked when he saw how quickly his final two companions began to descend into their own personal living hell. And, finally, there would have been that awful moment when he either looked up and realised he was all alone - when his two friends had either fallen behind, or fell away from view. I've no idea what went through his mind, but it must have been just about the scariest and worst moment that any decent living creature has ever endured. Then at the end of this, when there was no more air in his lungs, when he could no longer feel any pain, there was no one there to lay his bones under the ground - he did not even have the luck in death to have his grave digger know what his name was. Rest in peace Vernon Moore, where ever you are.
Lady Be Good.
Now, that is the end of the story – or is it?