(I came across this post in the old Daily Brief archives, and thought it would make a fantastic post for Halloween … for reasons that should become clear.)
The searchers found it, the ghost ship, when they were looking for something else; it lay, broken but deceptively complete, draped across the crest of a dune, like a seabird on the flat swells of a calm sea. But this metal bird had landed in a desolate and frozen sand sea, an aeronautical Mary Celeste, all of itself, and remained eerily preserved. Baked in the desert sun, wheels-up, pancake-landed and broken in half aft of the wings and entirely empty of its’ crew … but still, their gear, and extra ammunition was perfectly stowed, the guns functional … the radio worked, so did the compass and at least one of the engines. There were still-edible emergency rations, drinkable water, even a thermos of still-potable coffee … everything as it had been left.
The ghost ship fell into the abyss in April, 1943 – not over water, as the crew had clearly expected, when they were at long last found and their epic of endurance reconstructed – how long did that agony last? At least a week, perhaps as long as a fortnight; there is no knowing for sure: we can only guess, starting from a scratch diary left by one who survived for a little while:
Sunday, Apr. 4, 1943
Naples–28 places–things pretty well mixed up–got lost returning, out of gas, jumped, landed in desert at 2:00 in morning. no one badly hurt, cant find John, all others present.
Start walking N.W., still no John. a few rations, 1/2 canteen of water, 1 cap full per day. Sun fairly warm. Good breeze from N.W. Nite very cold. no sleep. Rested & walked.
Rested at 11:30, sun very warm. no breeze, spent P.M. in hell, no planes, etc. rested until 5:00 P.M. Walked & rested all nite. 15 min on, 5 off.
Wednesday, Apr. 7, 1943
Same routine, everyone getting weak, cant get very far, prayers all the time, again P.M. very warm, hell. Can’t sleep. everyone sore from ground.
Hit Sand Dunes, very miserable, good wind but continuous blowing of sand, every[one] now very weak, thought Sam & Moore were all done. La Motte eyes are gone, everyone else’s eyes are bad. Still going N.W.
Shelly [sic], Rip, Moore separate & try to go for help, rest of us all very weak, eyes bad, not any travel, all want to die. still very little water. nites are about 35, good n wind, no shelter, 1 parachute left.
Saturday, Apr. 10, 1943
Still having prayer meetings for help. No sign of anything, a couple of birds; good wind from N. –Really weak now, cant walk. pains all over, still all want to die. Nites very cold. no sleep.
Still waiting for help, still praying. eyes bad, lost all our wgt. aching all over, could make it if we had water; just enough left to put our tongues to, have hope for help very soon, no rest, still same place.
No help yet, very cold nite.
The bodies of five of the crew were found, by a search party who came for them sixteen years later, 85 miles north of where they had assembled in the desert, after bailing out of their lady, their sweet and lovely lady. They were nearly 400 miles into the North Africal desert, about 400 miles farther south of where they appeared to think the were – not over the Med, or along the shoreline someplace, but deep into the desert, nearly trackless, absolutely waterless, hundreds of miles off from where anyone was expected to come.
Three of the strongest continued walking north: one was found 21 miles farther northwest, another an astounding 26 miles farther north of that. (The third was never found, although it was he who might have been found and buried in anonymity by a British unit on a long-range desert patrol exercise late in the 1940ies or early 1950ies) Airmen put such trust in their machines, such deep and abiding trust. An airman told me once, they were always told to jump when it seemed things had gone past a certain point, the point when it would seem the sensible thing to do – but so often, when it came to that point, so many of them just couldn’t do it. And there so many stories of wickedly skillful pilots, who stuck with their lady, their precious airship, and brought all home safely, against the odds, to the praise and honor of all. And yet – airplanes are things, they can and are replaced; pilots and aircrew are unique. People are unique, even the most prosaic of us might be yet, if called upon, to perform miracles of heroism, of strength and endurance … even though no one sees except our fellows, and no one knows of it, until brought to it by chance, a decade and a half later.
Oh sweet and lovely,
Lady be good,
Oh lady be good to me.
I am so awf’lly misunderstood,
So lady be good, to me.
Oh, please have some pity
I’m all alone in this big city.
I tell you i’m just a lonesome babe in the wood,
So lady be good….to me.
I don’t know what brought me to think of this, except that there are places that are supposed to be haunted, and I was thinking of these when I was on my daily walk. There are some relics of this incident in the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson AFB – and according to some accounts, that section of the museum is particularly… interesting at night. There was also a haunting ( and I use that phrase knowingly) movie called Sole Survivor, made in the late 1960ies, and based on this incident, which used to show around Halloween on one of the local LA TV channels; it visualized the crew, playing endless rounds of baseball in the desert, by their wrecked ship … waiting for someone to come for them.