Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Lady Be Good"

It is the nature of war that the cessation of hostilities seldom means resolution for many of the participants or their survivors. What we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder" dogs many veterans of every war long after the shooting stops, and those MIA - "Missing In Action" - haunt their families as long as a memory remains to remember those lost.

"Closure" is a peculiar trait in the human species. Burial rituals exist to provide closure to survivors, reassuring them that their loved ones are really dead and have gone on to a better place. In the absence of tangible remains, uncertainty and hope battle in its place; gnawing uncertainty that the missing will ever be found alive and undying hope that they will indeed be found alive.

Occasionally that hope, against all odds and rational sense, prevails. Thirty, forty and even fifty years after the end of World War II, a ragged Japanese soldier would emerge out of the jungle like a living wraith to remind the world that fervently wished for miracles do occur.

But that result is so very rare. Typically any resolution is a confirmation of the worst fears a family can have.

The "Lady Be Good" was one such example. An American B-24D Liberator heavy bomber flying with the 514th Bomb Squadron, 576th Bomb Group - known as the "Liberandos" - the Lady flew from her base in Libya on 4 April 1943 to bomb targets in Naples, Italy. She never returned. Assumed lost in the Mediterranean Sea, the crew was classified as MIA and the families left to wonder and hope against all hope.

In 1958 the Lady was spotted from an airborne petroleum company survey aircraft nearly intact and 440 miles inland in the Libyan desert. When a recovery crew from Wheelus Air Force Base, then an American installation on the coast of Libya, reached the wreckage they found that the radio still worked, food and water were on board and drinkable tea was found in a thermos. But there was no sign of the crew.

A search was later initiated and eventually the remains of five of the crew were found in 1960 eighty miles north of the wreck site. Additional searches recovered two more crew remains, also in 1960, one 20 miles and another 27 miles further north. An eighth crew member was never formally found or identified, although it's possible his remains could have discovered in 1953 by a British patrol and buried in the desert. The ninth and last crewman was never accounted for.

The resulting investigation concluded the plane's Automatic Direction Finder broke during the mission. The crew asked for a heading back to base, missed the flares and other attempts to guide planes back home and overshot the coast by over 400 miles. The crew, seeing the sand dunes at night, thought they were still over the Med and bailed out. The Lady flew on for another 16 miles by herself and landed in the desert.

Eight of the nine crew members were able to regroup and, thinking they were near the coast, decided to walk out. They shared a single canteen of water for eight days, making a trek of eighty miles in 100 degree-plus heat, before five could not continue. Three pressed on, the last dying alone 27 miles beyond his comrades.

The last days of the crew of Lady Be Good were recounted in the journal of the co-pilot. The tragic end suffered by the men could not have brought comfort to the families, but it did bring closure.

For those of us of a certain age - or those who study the history of World War II aviation, the saga of Lady Be Good is well known and of near-mythological status. It is no surprise that someone would take up the challenge of capturing that incident in a diorama.

This presentation was extremely well done. I have seen several photos of the crash site and this is a remarkable accurate representation of the remains.

This is not the first diorama of the Lady Be Good, nor will it likely be the last. And rightly so. As long as someone remembers their sacrifice, the crew of the Lady will live on in the memories of a new generation. War has severe consequences and should not be undertaken lightly. It is the lesson we must continually learn, it seems, but it is the least we can do for those who serve and die, and the families who are left behind with uncertainty and impossible hope.

1 comment:

  1. Tony,
    There are a few errors in your story: It was the 376th Bomb Group, not the 576th. The thermos contained COFFEE not tea. The two additional remains were found 26 and 36 miles beyond the five, not 20 and 27 miles. The 8th crew member that was never found was S/Sgt. Vernon Moore. The 9th crew member was Lt. John Woravka and he was found in August of 1960, the same year as the other seven bodies. The last crew member died 36 miles beyond his comrades, not 27. As for the diorama, It was several major mistakes and several minor ones. The major ones are that the Lady was painted a desert PINK color, not tan. The black serial number on the starboard vertical stabilizer was not on the bomber when she was found. It had disappeared probably due to the blowing sand. and finally, The star insignias did not have black circles around them. To keep this comment short, I will let the minor mistakes go for now.