In front of the Lake Linden town hall stands a huge three bladed B-24 Liberator bomber prop with twisted blades, mounted as a tribute to one of Lake Linden’s finest.
Around noon on April 5, 1943, at an American air base near Benghazi, Libya; a crew of nine prepared to fly their first combat mission. The radio operator and gunner, Tech Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, 25 yrs old, born and raised in Lake Linden, Michigan, had worked for the Civilian Conservation Corp after high school. A friendly young man with a quick smile, he had earned his third sergeants stripe quickly.
A devout Catholic with five brothers and a sister, LaMotte and crew of the Lady Be Good, a B-24 Liberator, were a part of a 25 plane bombing run on Naples, Italy. The German occupied region was heavily fortified. The 700 mile mission was to put them over the target at about dusk, but strong winds and other problems diverted their course eventually causing them to turn back. Crossing the Mediterranean at night and missing their coastal base the plane flew south into Libya’s great desert. LaMotte signaled to Malta’s Luqua station at 8:55, CYDX-V-KT and got a response, proceeding with his message X697 X279, which ask for conformation of his position. Malta tapped back a reply confirming their 140 degree course for Benghazi. An hour later, pushed by a strong tail wind they crossed the coast and continued past their field out into the dark desert.
At about 1:55 am pilot William Hatton, made his last call to Soluch, “My direction finder is not working, Please give me a position report. I think I’m over the Mediterranean close to Benghazi. Fuel almost gone. Will have to jump soon. Please give me a QDM.” (Position bearing). At approximately 2 am he set the auto pilot and the crew jumped thru the bomb bay landing to their surprise in the sand rather than the ocean. The plane continued on flying with only one engine running. It gradually lost altitude and skidded along through the sand
Miles from the plane, the crew, minus one who had landed farther away, gathered their gear, and struck out. Parachutes were carried for shelter from the sun. Heavy sheep skin suits and flight boots were discarded. Spreading out to search for John Woravka, the crew headed north on a bearing of 330 degrees. By rationing their water to a cap full per day they figured they could last four days and reach civilization. Walking at night and resting under their chutes during the day to escape the heat the crew traveled 20 miles the first day. With eyes swollen shut from the searing sun, blisters forming on any exposed skin and drastic weight loss, the men started to hallucinate. LaMotte prayed constantly but wandered in and out of reality. He was back in Lake Linden with his family, joining the Air Corp. His whole family was there to bid farewell, to hug and kiss him, His father told him how proud he was of him as he joined Uncle Sam, that soon his brothers would join him.
The lost flyer’s condition was getting desperate. The blowing sand and heat were taking their toll. Ripslinger’s diary reads: “Tired all out. We can hardly walk our fourth day out. A few drops of water each. Can’t hold out much longer without aid. Pray.” On the fifth day, Ripslinger, Shelley and Moore left the rest too weak to travel, and stumbled off towards the Calanscio Sand Sea. The three traveled another ten miles, each step a painful slog through the deep sand. The five left behind including LaMotte were barely alive. Toner wrote: Sunday 11 April, ”Still waiting for help, still praying, eyes bad, lost all our weight” 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.”
On April 13 all the Lady’s men were dead. They had traveled a remarkable 70 miles. It took 16 years for three BP oil explorers to finally find the downed plane and another year before a Canadian water-well drilling team found human remains of five men, 78 miles NW of where they had bailed out.
Bob LaMotte’s younger brother George, who lives in Houghton today says, “I was only 13 so I don’t remember a lot. I remember the telegram my Dad and Mom received which declared him missing and presumed dead. Bob is buried with my Mom and Dad in the Lake Linden cemetery.” George and his sister Jean are the last two of the eight LaMotte children.
The campaign against Hitler in the Naples area broke the German’s back and signaled the beginning of the end. Today we are losing those vets to old age, but, we must not forget the men like Robert E. LaMotte who paid the ultimate price for our freedom 66 years ago.
Visit the village of Lake Linden and read the plaque under the prop of the Lady Be Good. A book Lady’s Men by Mario Martinez is a great read and was a great source of facts for this article.