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The first, last and only flight of Lady Be Good

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- On April 4, 1943 at Benina Airfield, Libya, bomb-laden B-24s of 9th Air Forces' 376th Bomb Group clawed their way skyward in the midst of a desert sandstorm. The bombers destination was Naples, Italy, a regular target for 9th Air Force's offensive against Italy.

Sandstorms were a regular part of operations at Benina and although some of the B-24s turned back with sand clogged engines, most pushed on with their mission.

Among the wave of bombers, a B-24 named Lady Be Good was on its very first mission with a crew fresh from training in the United States. It would also be the last mission for Lady Be Good and her crew who would disappear that day and whose whereabouts would remain unknown for over 15 years.

In 1958, a British oil exploration plane spotted the wreck of a B-24 deep in the heart of the Libyan Desert. When they returned, the plane's crew reported seeing the wreck and a ground team went to investigate. The B-24 was identified as the Lady Be Good, which had vanished more than 15 years before.

The plane's radio and navigation equipment was still in working order as well as some of the engines and guns, but there was no sign of her crew. The location of the Lady Be Good over 400 miles southeast of Benina only deepened the mystery of the planes disappearance.

How had she missed the airfield, why did she continue to fly away from the base, and what had happened to her crew?

The fate of the crew would be discovered accidentally by oil exploration teams during the next few years just as the wreck itself had been discovered. The finding of all but one of the crew's bodies along with the diaries they had kept enabled investigators to piece together their final days.

When Lady Be Good began to run low on fuel, her crew had parachuted from the aircraft. The bombardier died when his parachute had failed to open, and the remaining eight crewmembers had started walking north in an effort to reach the coast.

Unknowingly they were heading into some of the most desolate terrain in the Sahara Desert. Lacking maps of the region they pressed on until they succumbed to exhaustion, hunger, and thirst. Unaware of how far inland they were, they thought the Libyan coast was only a short distance away.

They were also unaware that Lady Be Good had crashed only 18 miles away from them to the south. Had they found the crash site, they would have had access to additional food and water as well as a radio. Instead, they walked north to their deaths thinking help was just over the next sand dune.

The discovery of the crew's bodies failed to answer why Lady Be Good had been so far off course in the first place.

In the intervening 60 years, this question has been the subject of much controversy and speculation. Based on the navigator's log, Lady Be Good became separated from the rest of the bombers after lift off and was pushed to the northeast by strong winds.

Radioing for directions would alert enemy fighters to their position, so the crew had to find their own way to the target. When Lady Be Good reached the vicinity of Naples, it was after dark and the other B-24s had already carried out the raid and headed back for Libya.

The pilot realized that to carry on alone would only make them a sitting duck for enemy anti-aircraft guns and fighters that would be on the alert after the previous attack so he dropped his bombs in the Mediterranean and headed for home.

The entries in the navigator's logbook ended abruptly when Lady Be Good headed back so the details of her return flight from Naples are unknown. During the night Benina airfield received a radio message from an aircraft claiming to be Lady Be Good requesting a heading for the base and personnel at the base reported hearing B-24 engines passing overhead around midnight.

When dawn came of April 5, however, there was still no trace of Lady Be Good or her crew.

Searches failed to find any wreckage and the U.S. Army Air Forces concluded that Lady Be Good must have crashed into the Mediterranean during the night. Since the failure of bombers to return from missions was not unique, that was the end of the investigation.

It would be 15 years before her true fate would be know.

Theories as to what happened to the Lady Be Good on her return flight abound. The truth as to why she flew over her base and continued for 400 miles without realizing it will probably never be known. The most probable explanation for the plane's disappearance was simply a combination of an inexperienced crew, communications errors and bad luck.