Ghost Ship

(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.
Monday 5
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.
Tuesday 6
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.
Thursday 8
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.
Friday 9
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.
Sunday 11
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.
Monday 12
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.

7 thoughts on “Ghost Ship”

  1. As I was reading this I was wondering if it was that ill-fated B24! Years ago while taking flying lessons my instructor instilled in me the necessity for trusting your instruments – citing this accident.

    If memory serves me correctly they flew right over the destination and…..kept going. You have to wonder how many WW2 relics that desert is still hiding.

    Good story – I have to pass this along to my aviation list friends Sgt!

  2. BTW an excellent story of skillful piloting against all odds in a B24 – bringing the crew back alive – is in the Steven Ambrose book The Wild Blue – about the less-publicized but equally bloodied 15th AAF – and one pilot named George McGovern (yes that one) who against all odds brought his wounded plane back.

  3. This remains me of a telepic in which a body recovery crew goes to a plane, long ago crashed into the Sahara Desert, to recover, identify, and bring back the bodies of the crew. Which they find, except for one man. It’s a ghost story.

  4. Digging around the Net I found this as:

    It was after noon on 4 April 1943 the B-24D bomber Lady Be Good departed Soluch airstrip on the coast of Libya, with her crew of nine on their first combat mission. This was a high altitude bombing run on the port at Naples, Italy. Lady Be Good turned back 30 minutes before the target either due to poor visibility or engine problems caused by sand at the takeoff site.

    The aircraft was flying above cloud cover and at night. There are several theories as to how the aircraft became lost. Strong tail winds, navigational errors and a lack of visibility of the ground being the most probable. The official Graves Registration Report of Investigation states:

    “The aircraft flew on a 150 degree course toward Benina Airfield (Libya). The craft radioed for a directional reading from the HF/DF (high frequency/direction finding) station at Benina and received a reading of 330 degrees from Benina. The actions of the pilot in flying 440 miles into the desert, however, indicate the navigator probably took a reciprocal reading off the back of the radio directional loop antenna from a position beyond and south of Benina but ‘on course’. The pilot few into the desert, thinking he was still over the Mediterranean and on his way to Benina.”

    The Lady Be Good was the only aircraft that did not return from that mission. Air-Sea Rescue conducted an extensive search, concentrating on the sea. No evidence of the crew or aircraft were found.

    The Lady Be Good incident was indirectly referenced in a couple of television shows and movies. Sole Survivor , a 1970 made-for-TV movie, was about the ghosts of a B-25 bomber crew that crashed in the Libyan desert.[8]
    “King Nine Will Not Return” is an episode of The Twilight Zone that told the story of a B-25 crew member finding himself alone with the wreckage of his plane in the desert.[9] In the episode, the marker of a grave of a member of the fictional plane’s crew is dated “5 Apr, 1943,” the day on which Lady Be Good was lost.

    Sole survivor was what you probably saw Alan – don’t know if the above was a misprint but the Lady Be Good was a B24 – 4 engines – B25s had 2.

    Sgt – they probably were taught to bail out because the B24 – with the wings up on the fuselage – was terrible to ditch – they’d flip, come apart in the water….

  5. Well Sgt, your post went around the world and here is what one of my aviation friends – who works for Boeing – replied:

    From one of my best friends from my Air Force days and we crewed together frequently in the 60’s out of Charleston.
    Thought you might enjoy this after receiving your “Lady Be Good” piece.

    Subject: The Lady Be Good

    In the early 1960’s I used to fly a lot to Karachi, Pakistan. It usually
    took us 12 days, round trip, in the C-124. Our usual route was Charleston,
    SC to Bermuda to Lajes, Azores, to Wheelus AB, Tripoli, Libya, to Dhaharan,
    Saudi Arabia, to Karachi, Pakistan and return. We crew rested at each stop.
    We had heard about the “Lady Be Good”, a B-24 that had gone down in the
    desert of southern Libya during War Two. We always had to fly around Egypt
    at that time for political reasons so our route took us south and around the
    SW corner of Egypt and close to where the B-24 went down. We were also
    advised that it was very hard to find visualy due to the coloration and the
    briteness of the sun and the best time was near sunrise or sunset. Then, we
    would be find the location by the shadow it cast on the featureless desert.
    It seemed that I would never have the luck of finding it because we usually
    flew over that area late at night or high noon. Then, one day in 1962-3?
    the timing was right. Normally the C-124 flew at 8000 feet westbound; the
    desert in the area is fairly high so I descended down to 1000 feet above the
    ground about one hour before sundown. Sure enough, we were able to find the
    Lady Be Good! We circled it twice and left it where it probably still is
    (mostly). At the time I reflected with other crewmembers about how the crew
    of “The Lady” really screwed up.

  6. Thanks, Bill! It is an unexpectedly haunting story … and now and again, I wonder how many other lost AC there are out there. Not just in the desert, but in the South Pacific, or on the “Hump” between China and India – all the stories we won’t ever know.

  7. …Or Alaska Sgt. When I was up there 5-7 years ago they just found a DC6 on some mountain that had been lost for 50 years. In fact, a stranger case near Yosemite a few years ago they found the remains of a small trainer aircraft – like a Beech 18 – that had been used for navigation training from Mather AFB in Sacramento. It had hit a mountainside in 1942 that almost always had snow and after over 60 years the crewmen were still “preserved”.

    I keep thinking about the navigation on that B24 – the pilot had a basic compass and a watch – for them to crash 400 miles into the desert they had to have been flying a good 2 hours past the coastline. As the C124 pilot said they had to screw up big time….

    What a way to die…

    Those B24s had the nickname of “widowmaker” I think – I remember reading one account of taking off in one – overloaded – on some South Pacific coral atoll – the writer mentioned seeing the palm trees brush against the bottom of the fuselage when it took off – seen through the cracks in the bomb bay doors. They were horrible ditching in water – known to break apart and sink – hence the crew’s decision to bail out (thinking they were over the Med still)

    If the Collins Foundation comes by your town they have a B17 and a B24 – for $5 you can go on one – that B24 had a narrow catwalk – 9″ wide? right over the bomb bay – fall off that thing and you would fall though the bomb bay – my hat’s off to those guys…

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