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Cover Story May 3rd, 2007

  Untitled Document
cover cover

by lyle e davis

It’s always the kids that die in wartime. It’s always been that way . . .

In 1941-42, America was desperate for aircrews and the Air Corps began recruiting from the tender ranks of teenagers. This meant that wings were being given to high-school graduates as young as 18. So severe was the need for aviators that pilot-training courses were cut to seven and a half months. Many of these trainees reported to flying school on Saturday and were up and flying on Monday.

Aviation cadet William Hatton was deemed an old man when he took pilot training in 1942; he was 25. Originally trained as a fighter pilot, the decision to convert him to a bomber pilot was not only a disappointment, but a mystery to him.

And the cadet destined to be his co-pilot, Robert F. Toner, who qualified as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force before America joined the war, was a year older than Hatton. Although Toner had more than 200 flying hours, he had to qualify all over again for Uncle Sam.

Another officer fated for Hatton's crew was Navigator Dp Hays. A former bank clerk, he was never given a first name—just the letters Dp. He was 23, balding, and what little hair he had was turning grey. One of three children, the diminutive Dp came by this name because his father's Christian names were David Peter—so he simply became Dp. The crew called him 'Deep'.
Yet another "old man"—at 26—was Bombardier John S. Woravka, from Cleveland, Ohio. The crew called him "Lefty."
This core group of officers, all with the rank of Lieutenant, were to be called "Pops" by their younger colleagues. Harold Ripslinger, 22, was to be Hatton's flight engineer. He had graduated from his training with Vernon Moore, 21, who was also to be in Hatton's crew.

Ripslinger, from Saginaw, Michigan, was a powerful youth and Moore, from New Boston, Ohio, was slight and somewhat shy. He has been described as looking like a young Roddy McDowell, the actor.

Three other enlisted men in training at the time were also to join Hatton. Robert LaMotte, 25, Guy Shelley, 26, and Samuel Ellis Adams, 24, were all gunners. LaMotte, from Lake Linden, Michigan, was of French-Canadian extraction.

Shelley, a strapping six footer from near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, overcame early-life ill health, flourished physically and continues to astonish survival experts with his stamina. Adams, from Eureka, Illinois was born in Speedwell, Kentucky, and had recently become a father—the only member of the crew with offspring.

Hatton and his men were assigned to the 367th Bomb Group and were posted to Soluch, Libya. A rust-colored B-24 Liberator, soon to be named "Lady Be Good," was flown into Soluch on March 25th, about a week after the arrival of Hatton and his men. On April 4th, Hatton and his crew received their first call to action.

They were to go on a 25-plane high-altitude raid on Naples, Italy, in daylight and without fighter escort, to arrive at the target just at sunset.

They would then turn for home under cover of darkness.

The trip to Naples and back would take 9 hours, and the Liberators had 12 hours of fuel.

The Lady Be Good's serial number was 1-24301 and her mission was number 109.

The last anyone on the ground saw of the Lady Be Good was at takeoff. This was a member of the ground crew at Soluch Airfield, a private named Richard R. Dahlstedt.

In a letter to Mario Martinez, author of Lady's Men, Dahlstedt said: "Of the takeoff from the terrible Soluch field I can describe only that she seemed reluctant to become airborne. She had to struggle to get off the ground." The Lady Be Good lumbered into the sky and, for the next 15 years, what happened to her remained a perplexing mystery.

Mission 109 began with takeoff from Soluch Airfield at 1:30 p.m. in the midst of a sandstorm blowing north from the Sahara. The sandstorm created many problems for the Liberators and the two sections that comprised it were scattered. Many of the ships in the Lady Be Good's section were forced to return to base with bad engines.

The Lady Be Good was one of the last bombers to take off at 3:10 p.m.—but her engines seemed to have none of the problems of the preceding planes.

Severe winds caused the Lady Be Good to be separated from the other ships, changing her route to Naples to an arching approach from the east. By the time she had reached Naples it was night; the other Liberators had come and gone.

Just before 9 p.m. she turned for home, and at 10 p.m. she dropped her bombs in the Mediterranean. At this point she was right on course for Soluch.

At around midnight, April 4-5, 1943, the Lady Be Good flew over or very near Soluch and continued southeast over the Libyan desert. She had called her base for help but somewhere at this juncture a critical mixup occurred. Flares, however, did go up from Soluch.

By 2 a.m. the Lady Be Good had flown 400 miles since overflying her base and she was now running out of fuel, so her crew bailed out into the darkness thinking they were still over the Mediterranean.

Having hit the desert floor with a thump—and not the Mediterranean with a splash—the surprised crew gathered in the desert gloom to discover that while they were all unhurt, John Woravka, the bombardier, was missing. They called out in the darkness but he was nowhere to be found. It was clear to everyone what had happened; they had overflown their base. It had to be near, they thought. They would walk northwest. Along the way they were sure to find Woravka.

But they had to get a move on; they had little water and no food to speak of. Better start now before the sun comes up—then it would be hell. Despite the hardship, daily struggles are recorded in their diaries by two members of the crew.

The crew, now down to 8, discarded what they didn't need and moved on. They didn't realize that their ship, with food, water and a radio on board was only 16 miles to the south of them.

With little to sustain them and with the sun draining their lives away, the flyers struggled northwest for five days. They were down to skin and bone, and they paused often to hold group prayers.

They had not found Woravka, nor would they. He had been killed when his parachute failed to open, and his broken body was only four-tenths of a mile from the point where his comrades had gathered in the darkness after bailout.

By Friday, April 9th, five of the crew could go no further and collapsed. They had walked 78 miles and were close to the Calanscio Sand Sea and its tall, menacing dunes.

Only Moore, Ripslinger and Shelley had the strength to go on. They thought their base lay just beyond the sand dunes, so into the dunes they went. They didn't realize that their base was still hundreds of miles away, and that for them the dunes were the jaws of death—and that they and their comrades should have walked south after bailout and not northwest.

Within three days they and the rest of the ship's crew would all be dead.

The war raged on for a few more years, then ended. But for the diaries of the crew's daily struggles dutifully kept by Lt. Robert Toner and Sgt. Harold Ripslinger, the crew's deeper story might well have been lost to the pages of aviation history.

On February 27, 1959, British oilmen found the Lady Be Good in the Libyan Desert some 400 miles from Soluch. The American search that followed answered many mysteries, but others still persist. All the remains of the Lady's crew were subsequently found except those of Vernon Moore.

The Evidence Shows What Appears To Have Happened

The Lady Be Good was the 21st of 25 bombers that took off in a sandstorm on 4 April,1943, to strike Naples from Soluch Airfield, a crude, hastily-built strip some 30 miles South of Benghazi, Libya. Her 700-mile mission began at 3:10 p.m.

Just past midnight her engines were heard over Benghazi and Soluch. By then all but the Lady Be Good and three other Liberators had returned to Soluch. The other three had already landed in Malta.

Flares flew up from Soluch to orient the Lady Be Good but no one on the ship saw them. At 12:12 a.m., 5 April, the Benina Radio Direction Finder Station—a nearby station North of Soluch and East of Benghazi—received a coded message from an aircraft requesting an inbound bearing to Benina.

Benina is said to have responded, but the Lady Be Good either did not receive the bearing, or misread it and continued flying. (The latter has been claimed for years.)

The Lady Be Good overflew the Soluch area and continued southeast over the desert on the bearing of 140°. (It is likely that Lady Be Good never received the bearing or she would not have flown two more hours for 400 miles.)

T/Sgt. Ripslinger's diary entry of April 4, 1943, reads "Lost coming back." And on the same date, Lt. Toner's diary reads "lost returning."

There is no mention in either diary about a signal from Benina. At about 2 a.m. the Lady Be Good ran out of fuel and her crew bailed out, thinking they were still over the Mediterranean. The bomber then flew a further 16 miles before crashing in the desert. For the next 16 years, what happened to the ship with the hopeful name and her crew remained a mystery. These facts are beyond dispute.

When she failed to return to base, the USAAF conducted a search, ultimately presuming that the Lady and her crew perished in the Mediterranean Sea after becoming disoriented.

When discovered, the British oil surveyors found that the desert environment had preserved the aircraft's hardware astonishingly well; the plane's 50 caliber machine guns still operated at the pull of the trigger, the radio was in working condition, one of the engines was still functional, and there were still containers filled with water on board. But the remains of the crew were nowhere to be seen.

It took the US military over a year before they took the sighting seriously, but eventually they dispatched a search operation which scoured the desert for the remains of the crew. The search teams found several improvised arrow markers at varying distances to the northwest– one made of boots, others made from parachutes weighed down with rocks– but the markers stopped at the edge of the vast, shifting sea of sand known as Calanscio. The group was unsuccessful in finding any further trace of the crew.

The official search was eventually called off on account of equipment problems from the harsh environment. But quite by accident, all but one of the crew were located during the year of 1960, over sixteen years after the Lady had disappeared into the desolation. Combined with the findings from the crash site, the clues found with the remains of the crew told the story of the men's final days.

The last contact from the crew of Lady Be Good was a radio transmission from her pilot, William Hatton: "My ADF has malfunctioned. Please give me a QDM." This indicated that his position-finding equipment had failed, and due to the thick cloud cover he had become disoriented. For reasons unknown, Lt. Hatton never received a response to this request for a position report, but it has been suggested that the radio tower suspected a German trick. Later, in the darkness, the distinct droning sound of a B-24 emanated from the clouds over Benina airport. Flares were launched to signal the bomber, but the engine sound passed overhead, and faded into the distance.

Realizing that they were hopelessly disoriented, several members of the Lady's crew made notations in their logs indicating that they had become lost. A notepad belonging to bombardier Lt. John Woravka revealed one side of a written conversation, probably penciled so their pilot wouldn't hear them over the intercom. It suggests that there may have been some disagreement in the cockpit:

"What's he beeching (bitching) about?"
"What's going to happen?"
"Are we going home?"

Running dangerously low on fuel and probably believing they were over the Mediterranean Sea, the nine men donned parachutes and ditched the aircraft to take their chances. It's likely that the men were surprised when their boots hit sand rather than water. Using revolvers and flare guns, the seven scattered survivors managed to find one another in the desert. They decided to get underway immediately, knowing that the unforgiving Libyan desert reached daytime temperatures of up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lady Be Good flew on through the dark night, slowly descending to crash-land sixteen miles from the men's gathering place. Not realizing that their plane and its supply of food and water were a scant sixteen miles away, the men estimated that traveling northwest would bring them back to the airbase in Soluch. They set out on foot with what supplies they carried. By their calculations, they were no more than 100 miles from the base. In reality, the distance was over 400 miles.

When the plane's wreckage was located in 1958, desert survival experts predicted that the airmen could only have moved up to thirty miles on foot, particularly considering the fact that they were unprepared for the unforgiving desert environment. Much to the amazement of investigators, the remains of the first group of men were found about eighty miles north of the wreck. A British oil survey team discovered the five bodies, closely grouped together in an area strewn with personal effects such as wallets, flashlights, pieces of parachutes, flight jackets, first-aid kits, and most importantly, the diary of Lieutenant Robert Toner which described his final eight days with a sober brevity:

Sunday, Apr. 4, 1943
Naples–28 places–things pretty well mixed up–got lost returning, out of gas, jumped, landed in desert at 2:00 in morning. no one badly hurt, cant find John, all others present.

Monday 5
Start walking N.W., still no John. a few rations, 1/2 canteen of water, 1 cap full per day. Sun fairly warm. Good breeze from N.W. Nite very cold. no sleep. Rested & walked.

Tuesday 6
Rested at 11:30, sun very warm. no breeze, spent P.M. in hell, no planes, etc. rested until 5:00 P.M. Walked & rested all nite. 15 min on, 5 off.

Wednesday, Apr. 7, 1943
Same routine, everyone getting weak, cant get very far, prayers all the time, again P.M. very warm, hell. Can't sleep. everyone sore from ground.

Thursday 8
Hit sand dunes, very miserable, good wind but continuous blowing of sand, every[one] now very weak, thought Sam & Moore were all done. La Motte eyes are gone, everyone else's eyes are bad. Still going N.W.

On 9 April, Lieutenants Hatton, Toner, Hays and Sergeants Adams and LaMotte ended their trek, too exhausted to continue. Sergeants Shelley, Moore and Ripslinger continued northward in search of help. There was no further written record for the three men who departed, but with negligible water, no food, and temperatures as high as 130 degrees, the misery of their last few days is difficult to imagine. Lieutenant Toner continued to keep his diary as they waited.

Friday 9
Shelly [sic], Rip, Moore separate & try to go for help, rest of us all very weak, eyes bad, not any travel, all want to die. still very little water. nites are about 35, good n wind, no shelter, 1 parachute left.

Saturday, Apr. 10, 1943
Still having prayer meetings for help. No sign of anything, a couple of birds; good wind from N. –Really weak now, cant walk. pains all over, still all want to die. Nites very cold. no sleep.

Sunday 11
Still waiting for help, still praying. eyes bad, lost all our wgt. aching all over, could make it if we had water; just enough left to put our tongues to, have hope for help very soon, no rest, still same place.

Monday 12
No help yet, very cold nite

The entry from Monday, April 12 was the last, written in thick pencil lines.

Of the three men who continued on, the remains of two were eventually found; Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley was discovered twenty-one miles north of his five crewmates, and Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger may have been the last to fall, having crossed an incredible 109 miles of open desert. Radio operator Moore has never been located. (There is, however, possible new evidence regarding Sergeant Moore. Note the skeleton on the front cover of this story. It was found near the location where the other bodies were found. The location was: Therefore, the position of the remains was approximately where they had to be —28° N, 23° E—if they were those of Vernon Moore. The plane crash site was located at coordinates … 27.1° N 23.7° E. Dr. Norman MacLeod, of the Department of Paleontology at the Natural History Museum in London said that while it was not possible to identify the skeletal remains, primarily the skull, with certainty as that of Sgt. Moore, . . . he went on, "Unfortunately it is not possible to determine with certainty whether the human remains shown in the photograph are those of Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore. Typically it is not possible to determine the sex and age at death with accuracy from a photograph of an ossified body, and this picture is not very clear. The shape and robustness of the mandible are suggestive of a male. The overall shape of the cranium and mandible suggest an individual with a fairly lightly-built upper face, and this is compatible with the photograph of Staff Sergeant Moore.The family of Sgt Moore have been notified of the findings but, to date, they have chosen to make no comment one way or the other.)

Later that year, the remains of the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Woravka, were found a few miles from the crash site. His parachute was still attached but appeared to have malfunctioned during evacuation, causing him to fall to his death. Under the circumstances, he was probably the most fortunate of his crew.

When they set out after evacuation, had the survivors trekked southeast towards the wreckage of Lady Be Good, they would have greatly increased their chances of survival by retrieving the food and water stored there, and using the radio to call for help. But they had no way to know how far Lady had glided before landfall. And had their emergency maps included the area where they bailed out, they might have realized the severity of their predicament, and instead headed for an oasis to the south. Good fortune certainly did not favor the crew of Lady Be Good on her first– and last– battle mission. But the toughness of the crew is unquestionable, surviving days of marching across unforgiving desert with only a half-canteen of water to share among them.

The remains of the eight crewmembers which were found were all returned to the United States. Today the wreckage of the plane is stored in a compound in Libya, but many of the crew's personal effects and a few parts from the plane are on display at the Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia.


Website: www.ladybegood.com
US Air Force Museum page on Lady Be Good
The Remains of Lady Be Good,
04 April 2006, Alan Bellows.

Left-to-Right: Staff Sgt. Vernon L. Moore, 2nd Lt. Lieutenant Hays, 2nd Lt. John S. Woravka, Staff Sgt. Guy E. Shelley, and Technical Sgt. Harold J. Ripslinger.







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