Review by Nicholas A. Veronico.
For more than sixty years, the human drama of a B-24 bomber and its crew that played out in the Libyan desert in 1943 has captivated people the world over. The 1958 discovery of an abandoned World War II B-24 Liberator, sitting on a desert plain more than 400 miles from its home air base, made headlines when it was discovered. The headlines continued as officials sought the crew, read their diaries of the Herculean effort to walk out of vast Libyan desert, and learned of their fate.
The first men to view the abandoned bomber said it looked as if the crew had just walked away – there was drinkable coffee in a thermos, the navigator’s logs were there, and all the equipment worked, including the guns. However, there was no trace of the crew inside the bomber or in the surrounding area.
The Lady Be Good was part of the 514th Bomb Squadron, 376th Bomb Group, based at Soluch, near Benghazi, Libya. On 4 April 1943, Lieutenant Robert Hatton and crew were slated to fly their first combat mission. Three B-17 groups based in Algeria had attacked the harbor at Naples, Italy, around midday, and 25 Liberators from the 376th BG were set to attack around sunset. Wearing the number ‘64’ in white on its nose, the Lady Be Good departed Soluch at around 1:30 pm, in a wind-whipped sand flurry. The B-24 was the 21st bomber of the group to take to the sky that afternoon; the first twelve formed Section A with the following thirteen in Section B.
Flying north, Liberators began to drop out of the formation and return to base for various mechanical problems until Hatton and the Lady Be Good were leading the four remaining aircraft in their section. Arriving over the target after twilight, it appeared too dark to hit the target. Hatton and the remaining bombers aborted the bomb run and turned south for the trip back to Soluch. While the other three Liberators in Section B arrived at base safely, Hatton, his crew, and the Lady Be Good were never heard from again.
On 17 April 1958, more than fifteen years since the Lady Be Good’s mission to Naples, a crew from D’Arcy Exploration Co, and the British Petroleum Co, were flying over the desert some 385 miles south of Tobruk. The featureless plain was broken up by the sight of a crashed aircraft on the desert floor. This sighting set in motion a visit to the bomber and the subsequent search for its crew.
Like many around the world, Steven R. Whitby was captivated by the Lady Be Good’s story, which appeared in the 7 March 1960 issue of Life magazine. Later in life, Whitby has spent the past thirty years interviewing people who were involved in the Lady Be Good’s story. The culmination of this multi-decade effort was published in October 2020.
There have been a couple of previous Lady Be Good books. The first was Dennis E. McClenden’s The Lady Be Good: Mystery Bomber of World War II. Written in 1962, and updated in 1982, McClenden’s work was the standard that all other works on the subject would be judged by. In 1995, Mario Martinez published Lady’s Men: The Story of World War II’s Mystery Bomber and Crew. Like the finite number of photos taken during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the same holds true for the discovery and a few of the early return trips to the Lady Be Good. McClendon’s book had a few photos and Martinez’s effort had pretty much the same; however, the quality of the photo reproduction in this latter work was very poor.
It was not until 1993, when John M. Campbell’s Consolidated B-24 Liberator was put into print that additional images of the bomber and the crew’s bodies were seen. The thirteen photos in Campbell’s book were uncredited, but appear to have come from the US Army Quartermaster Corps’ archives and one of the British Petroleum engineers who discovered the abandoned bomber. The best part of Campbell’s Lady Be Good section was that the images were in colour and crisp and sharp. These images caught the attention of Lady Be Good ‘enthusiasts’ the world-over. However, since Campbell’s book, it has been quiet on the Lady Be Good front – until now.
In No Way Out, Whitby tells an exacting narrative about the Lady Be Good and her crew and, having interviewed many of the participants in the discovery and subsequent search efforts, takes the story further. Whitby’s depth of research also extends to how the mysteries surrounding the parts removed from the bomber contributed to the ‘Lady Be Good Curse’.
What is truly impressive about Whitby’s effort are the photos. There are dozens of never-before-seen images along with colour shots of the bomber, its interior, and its components sprayed across the desert from the crash. When interviewing the participants, Whitby rescanned/copied as many photos as he could, acquiring first-generation images for use in the book. Yes, some of these photos have been seen before, but they are usually washed-out and overexposed. Not the case in No Way Out. The level of detail in the images is amazing. There are some photos of substandard quality, but they are an artifact of the original photographer and were, most likely, included because of the rarity of the subject matter.
Whitby’s narrative and high-quality photos have been coupled with an interesting book design. Each chapter has the text up-front, not wrapped around the images as is standard in book design. What this does is give a few grey pages, followed by large, page-filling photos. This brings out so much detail in these photos and is a real benefit for those interested in the Lady Be Good.
No Way Out is an outstanding addition to the knowledge surrounding the tragedy of Lieutenant Hatton and his crew and the bomber that has captivated so many aviation enthusiasts the world over.