Sixty-five years after pilot Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins Silver went missing shortly after take-off from the airfield that is now Los Angeles International Airport, the search to find her final resting place remains as much a commitment as it has ever been.
Tompkins Silver, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, had flown out of Mines Field in a P-51D Mustang fighter plane on October 26th, 1944, when the aircraft disappeared. She was scheduled to pilot the factory-fresh plane on a ferry flight to New Jersey, but although the plane did not arrive at its first stop, Silver was not reported missing for three days due to a mix-up with paperwork.
Her plane was never located, leaving Silver as the last missing World War II-era WASP member and her fate among the remaining mysteries of the war, according to aircraft wreck searchers.
A dedicated search crew of volunteers, led by search facilitator and aviation archaeologist G. Pat Macha, is hoping to solve that mystery through a weeklong effort conducted October 5th through 10th over a search area of several square miles of ocean west of LAX. Macha has organized searches of Santa Monica Bay for Silver’s plane over the last 11 years but says this most recent effort is among the most coordinated.
During the six-day search, 12 to 16 divers and eight to 12 boats using sidescan sonar technology on more than 50 identified targets are involved.
“This time we’re going for it,” Macha said of the team’s commitment to finding the missing aircraft and pilot. “I feel this is the zenith as far as search efforts are concerned.”
The search crew includes highly qualified divers, boat captains, aircraft and marine archaeologists, sonar technicians, members of the Explorers Club, and the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST). Maritime historian Gary Fabian of UB88.org helped identify targets for the search and MAST co-founder Chris Killian has donated necessary supplies for the team, Macha said.
The searchers are also applying eyewitness accounts from a man who was a boy at the time and said he saw a plane go down while standing at the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier, Macha said.
Macha noted that WASP members had made vital contributions to the war effort, flying new planes from factories to various shipping locations. Silver was among 38 WASP pilots who lost their lives during World War II, but she is the last one who is unaccounted for, he said.
Lew Toulmin, a MAST member, said the organization was inspired by Silver’s story and wanted to take part in the cause to solve the mystery of her disappearance.
“Gertrude Tompkins was such a remarkable woman and the WASP was just a terrific outfit that did a tremendous amount of work in World War II; put that all together and it’s a great story,” Toulmin said.
The dedicated search expedition of Macha, Fabian of the UB88.org team and MAST for Silver’s plane led to another unsolved mystery involving a missing plane. While the crew was searching the waters off LAX in April, divers located parts of another plane that were identified by Lockheed-Martin through a stamped part number as having belonged to a T-33.
Subsequent investigation found that a U.S. Air Force T-33A was reported lost shortly after take-off from LAX on October 15th, 1955 with two crewmen aboard. Macha noted that the wreckage found was missing a nose wheel, which is consistent with the accident report that stated a nose wheel washed ashore days later.
All information on the T-33A was turned over to the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Command and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The crewmen aboard the Air Force plane were identified as Lt. Richard M. Theiler, pilot, and Lt. Paul D. Smith, who was in the back seat. The families of the two men expressed both gratitude and shock after having been notified of the discovery more than 50 years after their loved ones went missing, Macha said.
“He was grateful that there’s closure but in the first 24 hours it was very hard,” Macha said of the brother of pilot Theiler. “All of a sudden you’re propelled back to 1955.”
Family members of Silver, including her 100-year-old sister and her grand-niece Laura Whittall-Scherfee, are hopeful that the years-long search for the WASP pilot will also result in a conclusion to the story, Macha said.
MAST members would like to bring some closure to Silver’s family, resolving “one of the great remaining mysteries of World War II” and know they give themselves a chance simply by trying, Toulmin said.
“The chances are zero if we don’t try,” he said.
Macha said he and the team remain “cautiously optimistic” that all of the fallen World War II WASP will one day be accounted for and that Silver’s family will have an ending to her story.
“Hopefully we can close the door on Gertrude’s story, know where the plane is, and bring peace of mind to the family,” Macha said.