Mysteries solved, secrets revealed, and questions finally answered.
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
U.S. Air Force photo
The Lady That Didn’t Come Home
Had it not been for some sharp-eyed British oil exploration engineers in Libya in May 1958, a B-24D Liberator named Lady Be Good might have joined the ranks of other military aircraft that went permanently MIA during World War II. Instead, the aerial survey team from D’Arcy Oil Company (later British Petroleum) inadvertently found the Lady after a 15-year disappearance, making it one of the most famous aircraft to ever lose its way home in that war.
In the early hours of April 5, 1943, the airplane was returning from a night bombing run over Italy when it overshot its base at Soluch, on the Libyan coast, and ran out of fuel. The crew parachuted into impossible odds: Eight men (a ninth was killed when his parachute failed to open) and half a canteen of water in the Libyan desert, where temperatures reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit. But the wreckage, first examined in 1959, showed the men could have survived had they not made a fatal mistake.
When ground teams first inspected the Lady, they discovered its radio still worked, as did one of its .50 caliber machine guns. The airplane lay just 16 miles south of where the crew had landed. Had they trekked south, instead of northwest, they would have found life-saving water, food, and communications equipment aboard the Lady. (They had no way of knowing their base was actually 440 miles away; the last man made it an astounding 111 miles before collapsing.)
The discovery of the bomber and crew triggered worldwide media coverage. At least two books were written, along with numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and a 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone” (“King Nine Will Not Return”) was loosely based on the incident. Over the years, the B-24 was stripped of most of its parts and the crew’s belongings; some items went to various U.S. Air Force and Army museums. What remained of the airplane, the Libyan government removed from the desert in 1994 and stored at the El Adem military airfield in Tobruk.
Why did the Lady get lost? The official investigation report blames the rookie navigator, saying he misinterpreted a directional reading sent from Benina airfield in Libya. But Mario Martinez, author of Lady’s Men: The Story of World War II’s Mystery Bomber and Her Crew, points to a different reason: failure by another radio operator at nearby Benghazi to respond to the bomber pilot’s plea for a position report, believing the airplane to be German. “Failure to acknowledge this call was probably the reason the Lady Be Good flew on and disappeared,” Martinez writes on his Web site, ladybegood.com.
Bombers from World War II still turn up today, mostly in the Pacific. “There are hundreds of crash sites in places like Papua New Guinea, with full skeletal aircraft remains plus crew remains, because culturally they [Papuans] do not touch sites like that, [mindful of] the aura of death,” says Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Arlington, Virginia.