Continuing with my sequence of posts on the story of the Lady Be Good, having baled out early in the morning of April 5, 1943, eight of the nine member crew were attempting to walk back to their base at Soluch, unaware they had baled out around 400 miles away.
WEDNESDAY, April 7, 1943
Same routine, every one getting weak, can’t get very far, prayers all the time, again P.M. very warm, hell. Can’t sleep. Every one sore from ground.
WEDNESDAY, April 7, 1943
Started early A. M. and walked til about near spent. Terrible hot afternoon. Started again at 6 P.M. and walked all night. One spoon full of water is all.
This was the crew’s third day of walking. In their accounts, McClendon and Martinez imagine dialogue among the crew to help their narrative. For reason’s I cannot discern, Martinez pegs Hatton as being the weakest, or perhaps more correctly, most exhausted. Walker’s book has a full page chart indicating where the search teams in 1959 and 1960 located the various markers the crew left in the hope of aiding rescuers in finding them. The markers were made up of bits of flight gear, bits of parachutes and bits of parachute harnesses. What’s obvious from the chart is that while the heading the crew maintained was very disciplined, the spacing of the markers was not. Toner’s diary entry from the day before referred to a cadence of 15 minutes walking followed by 5 minutes rest. Given the maintenance of their heading, I think it reasonable to assume they maintained such a cadence but, given virtually no food or water for over 3 full days, the distances traveled in each time span would have varied.
They appear to have been following the guidance of the survival manual in covering themselves with parachutes when resting to ward off the worst of the sun. But as they trekked they used more parachute material for more markers so the quantity available for shade would have dwindled with each marker. Perhaps that’s why, shortly after making their heading change from 340 degrees to 320 degrees, the series of parachute markers came to an end. Perhaps at this time they only had enough material left to shelter under and could no longer afford any material to leave as markers.
The website www.ladybegood.net has a good discussion on how far the crew would have walked each day. In the books by both McClendon and Martinez, the crew encountered the British LRDG tracks in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday April 7. But if these accounts are correct, then the crew walked faster after encountering the tracks than they did before, which is highly unlikely. So the folks at www.ladybegood.net have calculated allowing for fatigue, rest breaks, time building markers, etc. and they place the crew at the British LRDG tracks mid-morning the day before, on Tuesday.
I don’t see any of the accounts referring the moon phase at the time. MikesCosmos.com has a sun/moon rise/set calculator that, if accurate, puts moonrise around 8:00 am and moonset around 9:00 pm an April 7, 1943. If correct, then this means that when the crew were walking at night they only had starlight to see by. Now, even today in the Libyan desert with all the oil installations, there’s relatively little light spill and East of the Calanscio there are no installations. So they would have had OK light to walk by but their placement of the markers at the intersection of the tracks to me supports the idea that they encountered this intersection during the day and not at night.
Since they had already set off from their assembly point on a bearing of 325 degrees before encountering the Italian tracks that headed at 340 degrees, I think the intersection of the tracks heading off in yet another direction would have resulted in some discussion before an agreement to return to the 325 degree heading that closely reciprocated their flight path into their predicament.
When the crew hunkered down around noon under the remaining parachute material to conserve energy in the hot afternoon, they’d walked about 50 miles from their bailout point and were only a few miles East of their flightpath in. Had the search plane that had flown into the desert to look for them on April 5th, that had turned around about 40 miles short of the wrecked Lady Be Good, there might have been a remote possibility that the crew might have been seen. However, my experience of flying over the desert tells me that unless the search plane had been flying very low and unless the crew were very close together, it’s unlikely they would have been seen from the air in that vast empty space and there’s no evidence that they had any means of signalling had a flight come close.
The photo below is from my first visit to the wreck of the Lady Be Good. One of our surveyors is using a hand-held Magellan Sat-Nav device to check our location. Back in 1991, this was still in an era when the US military would randomly degrade the signals which could produce quite a wide variation in location – during Desert Storm there was a lot of degrading of the signal for non-allied military users. No map on this thing, just a reading of latitude and longitude that we then had to transpose to our map. If I recall correctly it would give us a bearing to our destination but we still needed a compass for that. A mechanic is scanning the horizon through binoculars so at this point we think we’re relatively close.
Note the terrain. This is typical of the gravel plain the crew walked across until they were to enter the dunes the following day. In the foreground and to the right of the surveyor you can see the remains of vehicle tracks – the vehicles have pushed the gravel on the surface into the sand below. This would also happen when you walked on the surface. I recall it actually being quite soft. Other areas of Libya where I worked had much rougher gravel plains and some with no give at all but walking here was not particularly hard on the feet as I recall.
But note also the absence of features. To maintain a heading without landmarks is pretty tricky so the crew must have had a compass with them, it must have had luminous markings since they did a lot of their walking overnight, and they must have had to check it frequently to remain on course. I’ve read no mention of a compass having been found so I guess either Shelley or Moore ended up with it and, like Moore, it remains in the Calanscio Sand Sea somewhere.
Below is an image of the rear of the fuselage, taken by the US Air Force in 1959. You can see the waist gun ports are still secured and open. Although by this stage the machine guns have been removed, on the right you can see one of the ammunition boxes and the belted ammunition at the top of the box and draping down the side of the gun port. The cylinder top left is an oxygen cylinder – oxygen was essential for the crew at the high altitudes and it must have been noisy and cold standing by those open ports for hours on end. There are two baffles of some sort immediately to the rear of the gun ports – I’d love to know their function. Lower left there appears to be some form of hatch cover. If you go to http://i-ota.net/B-24Witchcraft/ and look to the rear of the fuselage from the waist guns then you’ll see just to the rear of the baffles, a hatch in the floor with a small ladder for ingress and egress at least to the mid and rear sections of the aircraft. I believe the hatch on the left is from this opening. Martinez has all the crew jumping out of the bomb bay doors, but given this rear hatch is open I think it’s possible that tail gunner Adams, and waist gunners Shelley and Moore, actually jumped out of this hatch. Why else would it be open and set to the side in the rear of the fuselage?
Interior view of the Consolidated B-24D “Lady Be Good” at the waist gunner positions. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Below is a photo of one of our mechanics in the rear of the fuselage in 1990. Stripped of pretty much everything over the years there’s way more light now. Also, it appears in the 1959 photo above that the doors to the tail turret are closed whereas in the photo below they are open. In 1990 I could open and close them with ease. My colleague is kneeling just behind the oval fuselage member that’s visible in the photo above.
Ripslinger mentioned that on this day they only had one spoon full of water. When I worked here we used to get our drinking water daily from the installation at Sarir on the western edge of the dunes. Our drinking water tanker driver would set off every morning and return every evening, seven days a week. We had the luxury of about 25 gallons of water per day for drinking, cooking and bathing. However, we got our drill water from a well drilled into an aquifer below this gravel plain the crew were desperately trudging across. In the photo below, two of my crew relax in a mud-pit from one of our light drilling rigs – a Mayhew 1000, rated for drilling holes up to 1000 feet in depth. We only drilled to about 300 feet and didn’t strike water in any of our holes so the crew certainly could not have dug down to any water. I do think though, by the end of this third day the crew would have given anything to have relaxed in a bath, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and watching the sun set behind the dunes.
I have a photo book containing several of my images of the Lady Be Good available through Blurb, below: