The Lost Wasp
In the final months of World War II, pilot Gertrude Tompkins Silver departed Los Angeles in a fighter plane destined for the East Coast. She never arrived. We pick up the search …
- Written byStefan Slater
October 26, 1944. Gertrude Tompkins Silver takes off from Mines Field, now known as Los Angeles International Airport, in a P-51D Mustang.
It’s close to 4 p.m. when the plane lifts off into the hazy fog that clings tightly to the South Bay that day. Her canopy had malfunctioned earlier and needed to be repaired last-minute, so she was departing later than planned. Her mission: to fly the fighter in stages over several days to New Jersey, where the plane would then be shipped overseas.
As a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, Gertrude was one of roughly 1,000 female civilian volunteers who flew military aircraft during World War II in various noncombat roles, freeing men to take up the fight overseas. They flew nearly every WWII-era plane imaginable, ranging from bombers like the B-26 to lightening-fast fighters like the P-51.
Some women tested newly overhauled planes; others towed targets behind their planes for live-fire training exercises with ground and air gunners.
There were others, like Gertrude, who were tasked with the duty of flying freshly manufactured planes from factories to military bases and distribution points where the planes would then be sent to destinations throughout the world.
But it was dangerous work. Thirty-eight WASPs died during training or service. Gertrude is the only WASP who’s still listed as unaccounted for.
“She was doing something that few women were capable of doing at the time, and she was good at it,” says Laura Whittall-Scherfee, the granddaughter of Gertrude’s sister, Elizabeth Whittall.
Gertrude was an experienced pilot in her own right. She’d learned to fly before the war and was regarded by her fellow WASPs as a talented aviator. Yet Gertrude disappeared without a trace, and due to a number of recording errors, it was only after several days following her initial takeoff that her fellow pilots finally realized she was missing.
A search was carried out near Mines Field. Her new husband (whom she’d secretly married weeks earlier—it was against regulations for WASPs to marry) joined the efforts, but nothing was found.
“She didn’t want to just fly transports or training air-craft or tow aerial targets. She wanted to fly fighter planes,” says G. Pat Macha. The former Hawthorne High history teacher is now an author and amateur aircraft archaeologist. After retiring from teaching, he dedicated his time to hunt-ing down lost military aircraft and writing books about his discoveries.
Pat has worked closely with Laura to uncover as much information about Gertrude and her disappearance as possible. He firmly believes that her plane went down immediately after takeoff somewhere in the Santa Monica Bay, close to Dockweiler State Beach.
The remnants of her plane are most likely buried under dozens of feet of ever-shifting sediment. However, a search in 2009 in the vicinity didn’t turn up any traces of Gertrude’s plane, and Pat is still searching.
Gertrude’s story is part of South Bay history. This region, and Los Angeles as a whole, was once a vital part of our nation’s efforts to produce equipment and material for the war effort. Gertrude was one of many, both men and women alike, who came to the South Bay from throughout the country to support the U.S. during its darkest days.
On the Home Front
According to Los Angeles, A City Apart: An Illustrated History by David L. Clark, during the second World War Southern California supplied roughly one-third of all U.S. aircraft manufactured at the time. Land was relatively cheap, and Southern California (especially Los Angeles) was an optimal choice for aviation manufacturers.
The Douglas Aircraft Company had facilities in Santa Monica, the Northrop Corporation was located in Hawthorne and North American Aviation had production facilities near Mines Field. Airframes for planes ranging from training craft to fighter-bombers were produced in staggering numbers.
“This was the manufacturing hub of aircraft at the time—this is it,” says Stephen Nelson, the director of the Fort MacArthur Museum in San Pedro. LA’s manufacturing potential caused the city’s population to grow tremendously during the war years.
“That’s what brought a great deal of our population to Manhattan Beach. Prior to the war the population here was sparse,” says Jan Dennis, a historian and former mayor of Manhattan Beach.
According to Los Angeles Transformed: Fletcher Bowron’s Urban Reform Revival by Tom Sitton, the African-American population of Los Angeles grew substantially as factories throughout the city put out a call for workers. During 1943 more than 10,000 African-Americans per month arrived from throughout the nation.
During that same year, there were 113,000 women employed in aircraft production in Los Angeles as well, signifying a changing viewpoint toward women in the workplace and later the military.
However, the city was also gripped with a very real fear of Japanese attack. Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and a minor attack by a Japanese submarine on a lumber schooner in the Catalina Channel, LA pushed into defense overdrive.
Massive, eight-inch guns were deployed in Manhattan Beach. “They fired those guns twice and broke every window in the houses around them,” says Jan. Soldiers patrolled The Strand daily, and searchlights were placed every six miles in an intricate grid pattern throughout Los Angeles.
Due to the city’s strategic importance as a manufac-turing hub and a staging ground for a military drive across the Pacific, the city’s defense was considered a top priority. That led to a number of unique technological developments, including an early radar system. LA units were some of the first to receive training with these new inventions, and soldiers trained on radar tactics here were put to effective use overseas, especially in Great Britain to defend against Nazi air attacks.
“To think of LA as a backwater in WWII is not true,” says Stephen. “Granted we weren’t in frontline combat, but the things that were practiced here were used to great effect all around the world.”
But not all wartime developments were beneficial. It was also feared that citizens of Japanese descent might act as spies or combatants, and more than 120,000 men, women and children from throughout the nation (including LA) were forcibly relocated to remote internment camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other states.
WWII Women in the South Bay
The war changed every aspect of life in the U.S., especially for women. While the majority of men served overseas, women in regions like the South Bay were tasked with upholding the “home effort”: helping produce war material and taking over jobs left behind by men. They also supported the effort in smaller ways, such as raising funds, planting Victory Gardens to help supplement rations and supporting organizations like the USO and the Red Cross.
Many women volunteered for service within the military as well—though it’s important to note that many, like the WASPs, were treated as civilian volunteers. In fact, despite their sacrifices over the course of two years during World War II, the WASPs weren’t granted military status until the 1970s.
But local women like Edna Modisette Davis wanted to support the war effort actively. Like Gertrude, she volunteered as a WASP and was one of the few women to fly the B-26. She was often tasked with towing aerial targets for training, and once she even came under friendly fire during a botched exercise, which caused her plane to be peppered with .50-caliber bullets.
However, it was that drive to do more, to take on roles that traditionally excluded women, that drove Gertrude to join the WASPs. And it was that drive, that sense of determination, that spurred Gertrude’s grandniece to begin a long forgotten search decades after all hope had been given up.
It was during the early ‘80s when then-21-year-old Laura first started to develop an interest in Gertrude. Laura’s grandmother had written a book about her life, family and accomplishments and had mailed it to her loved ones. The book contained a number of stories about Gertrude, and Laura became fascinated with her life story.
“She must’ve had a passion for flying,” says Laura. “She found the thing she was really good at. I was at the start of my career, and you want to end up doing what you’re passionate about it, and I remember thinking I hoped that I would find that kind of passionate career.”
But any thoughts of trying to locate Gertrude were put on the backburner for years until Laura’s husband, Ken, came across one of Pat’s books about locating lost military aircraft. It didn’t take long for Laura to enlist Pat’s help with the search.
The two share a deep fascination with Gertrude’s story. The lost WASP was a slender but adventurous woman who carried a deep passion for flying. She took flying lessons before the war, and unlike many WASPs, her family supported her volunteering.
Flying may have also helped Gertrude overcome her history of stuttering. “She had spent years trying to overcome it,” says Laura. “It was years later when I met WASPs that had met Gertrude—they were adamant about her not stuttering.”
Pat pored over records related to Gertrude’s planned flight path and the original search efforts, and it’s his belief that Gertrude’s
plane crashed almost immediately after takeoff.
“ probably the finest single-engine, propeller-driven fighter ever produced in the United States,” says Pat about her plane.
But he notes that the P-51 could be difficult to handle during takeoffs and landings. “Any airplane can bite you. It takes time and experience to become familiar with all those handling characteristics.”
With the fog and low visibility, the inherent complications that come with flying a P-51 and including the possibility of some critical malfunction, Pat is confident that Gertrude’s plane is lying somewhere right off LAX. However, during a lengthy search in 2009 that involved sonar and volunteer divers, Pat and his team were not able to locate Gertrude’s P-51.
Aside from the tumultuous nature of the South Bay’s ocean floor, the aluminum airframe of the plane most likely hasn’t stood the test of time underwater. The team has to search for minute items, like portions of the plane’s machine guns or the distinct canopy, in order to locate the wreck.
Over the years, other unverified theories, such as Gertrude crashing somewhere near Palm Springs (which was on the way to her final destination) or that she may have crashed on purpose or fled the country to escape her marriage, have gone unfounded.
“ high-spirited. Everybody who knew her loved her,” says Pat. “She had everything to live for. It was just a fluke or a possible mechanical issue.”
However, Pat and his crew did locate another wreck during their search. According to The Daily Breeze, Pat was able to locate a Lockheed T-33 Air Force jet trainer that had crashed in 1955 with two crewmen aboard.
“Our searches, even if they don’t yield something for us, sometimes they help other people,” says Laura. She and Pat are still searching. They are hopeful that new sonar scans might reveal the plane’s location.
The WASPs left a legacy that impacted generations of female flyers, and in July 2009 the program was finally recognized for its achievements. President Obama signed a bill that awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal.
For Laura, who looks forward to the day that Gertrude is finally found, keeps one thought close to her when she thinks about the lost WASP: that she accomplished what most women during World War II could never even dream of doing. “Girls weren’t supposed to become pilots of massive fighter planes,” she says.