Family members and loved ones gathered at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey Friday, March 5th to pay tribute to two U.S. Air Force pilots whose plane was discovered last year, nearly 54 years after it crashed into Santa Monica Bay.

The Air Force held a “full military honors” ceremony with a 21-gun salute for Lt. Richard M. Theiler and Lt. Paul D. Smith, who went missing in a T-33A plane shortly after take-off from Los Angeles International Airport on October 15th, 1955. Theiler, who was assigned to the Air Defense Command, was the pilot of the plane, and Smith, also assigned to the Air Defense Command, was in the back seat for a navigation training mission.

For more than half a century, their disappearance remained a mystery, until a search crew located the plane’s wreckage in May 2009 while searching for the missing P-51D Mustang fighter plane of Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins Silver.

More than 40 family members and friends from around the country, Air Force representatives and search crew members attended the beach ceremony to honor the memory of Theiler and Smith near where they lost their lives serving their country.

“After all these years we’re reminded that people don’t forget about the loss of loved ones,” said aviation archaeologist G. Pat Macha, facilitator of the Tompkins Silver search.

Macha called the memorial, which included a fly-over by U.S. Air Force jet fighters, “very emotional and very moving.” Following the beachside service, family members went by boat to the crash site where they laid a wreath for the fallen servicemen.

During a dinner at the Proud Bird restaurant in Westchester, Theiler’s brother, Tom, who also served as an Air Force pilot and was best friends with Smith, thanked those who were responsible for locating and recovering the aircraft, Macha said. The T-33A wreckage was discovered in Santa Monica Bay during a search expedition led by Macha, and the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST).

All information on the aircraft was turned over to the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Command and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which helped identify the pilots. A representative of Congresswoman Jane Harman’s office presented a certificate of commendation at the ceremony recognizing the search crew’s efforts.

Macha noted that the dedicated search team of volunteers will continue combing the waters off LAX in the hopes of finding the P-51D Mustang of Tompkins Silver, who disappeared October 26th, 1944 and is the last missing WASP member of the World War II era.