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  Friday October 24th, 2014    

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A bomber crew's long road home (04/23/2014)
From: James Puz

Winona

There was a recent news story about a World War II RAF fighter plane found in the Egyptian desert in 2012 by a Polish oil exploration crew. Virtually intact except for damage sustained during its crash landing, the plane and its pilot (still missing) had disappeared in June 1942. The find was described as an “aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun’s Tomb.” The story, however, reminded me of a discovery over 50 years earlier far more similar to the Boy King’s story.

The story begins with the building of B-24D-25 CO, Army Air Force Serial Number 41-24301, at Consolidated Aircraft Corporation’s San Diego plant. She was assigned to the 514th Bomb Squadron of the 376th Bomb Group (Heavy), The Liberandos, of the 9th Bomber Command, 9th Air Force. Her pilot would be 1st Lt. William J. Hatton.

With plane number 64 painted on her nose, the bomber and her crew left Soluch Field, just outside of Bengazi, Libya, with two dozen other B-24s on April 4, 1943. The target was Naples Harbor. Mission 109 was essentially the new crew’s first combat mission. It was also its last. By the end of the day, and with but one brief communication, the fate of the bomber and her crew was unknown. After routine searches and many days, it was presumed that all nine men had perished with their Liberator, probably in the Mediterranean Sea.

Following thorough but fruitless investigations, the case was officially closed on June 15, 1948, the fate and circumstances of #64, code name Red Wing 4, still unresolved. Graves Registration Service, for the record, listed the crew as “unrecoverable.” So ended the government’s interest and the military life of 41-24301 and her crew.

But the saga of the “Lady Be Good” resurfaced on February 27, 1959, when a British oil survey team reached the sight of a crash-landed bomber. (The aircraft was first spotted by air in 1958 by a British oil exploration team and marked on maps.) Noting the smashed up warbird, the U.S. Air Force was notified.

Beginning in March of that year, the fate and sorrow of the “Lady Be Good” unfolded. The Air Force had a plane but no crew.

Still wearing her livery of sand and neutral gray, careful examination of 41-24301, now a priceless time capsule, revealed that the radio still worked, coffee in a thermos and canteens of water were still drinkable, oxygen bottles and fire extinguishers still operable, chewing gum, cigarettes and food were just as the nine men had left them. There was no battle damage. Fabric and rubber components were intact due to the hot, dry climate. Instruments were undamaged. Ammunition and weapons were just as deadly as on April 4. When found the “Lady Be Good” was indeed a ghost ship on an ocean of sand.

Whether by chance, a miracle or Providence, the full emotional impact of the recovery efforts didn’t materialize until after many months of searching.

While following a trail of shoes, parachutes, Mae Wests and other items left 17 years earlier, searchers came upon the remains of five of the crewmen, lying in close proximity to one another. Months later, three more crewmen would be found. Given the 17 years of winds and shifting sand, it was truly remarkable to find the remains and rescue them from the Saharan wasteland. The eight men were solemnly returned to their families.

Using Army records and notes from a diary found with the remains of the co-pilot, it became obvious the “Lady” and her green crew had made a navigational error on returning to base in the dark on April 4. Because of that and a broken radio direction finder, they had no idea they’d overshot the airfield by 440 miles.

Thinking they were on course for Soluch but running out of fuel, the crew had bailed out. The bomber continued along in a gentle glide for about 26 more miles before reaching earth for the last time. The Calanshio Sand Sea, as timeless and unforgiving as the Sahara itself, had become the resting place for the “Lady Be Good” and her gallant crew.

What happened over the next eight days as the survivors headed northwest... and home... was noted in 2nd Lt. Robert F. Toner’s diary, the lone record of the tragic end of the “Lady Be Good.”

Written in a steady hand, the lieutenant’s sparse notes of the trek painfully foretold what the final outcome would be. His words are as heartbreaking today as when written in 1943. Time has not diminished the sadness or anguish they convey.

With only a half canteen of water and a few rations to start off with, five of the party could go no further after five day’s travel and eventually perished, Toner among them. The other three struggled on, in hopes of bringing back help. However, their remains too would eventually dot the bleak landscape along an unmarked path several miles long.

Presumably killed after bailing out, the bombardier was never part of the group. In time, though, his remains would be found but not those of gunner S/Sgt. Vernon L. Moore, one of the three who had pushed on.

The eight surviving members of the “Lady Be Good,” S/N 41-24301, with high hopes but little water, had traveled 75 miles before fate and the desert swallowed them up in their quest of reaching home and safety. It wasn’t until 17 years later that those eight men finally reached their destination. 

 

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