Search Begins for Last Lost Woman Pilot of WWII

WASP pilot Gertrude Tomkins Silver crashed off Calif. coast in 1944.

October 7, 2009, 7:08 PM

Oct. 8, 2009 — -- The fog rolled in from Santa Monica Bay just after noon on Oct. 26, 1944, just three hours before Gertrude Tomkins Silver opened the hatch of her fighter plane, a P-51 Mustang.

The plane left from a little strip called Mines Field, today known as the Los Angeles International Airport, bound for a three-day journey to New Jersey, where it would be placed on a cargo vessel and shipped to Great Britain to fight World War II's final battles in Europe.

The pilot, Silver, a 34-year-old New Jersey native nicknamed Tommy, had spent more than 500 hours in the air and had a reputation for being able to handle fighters like the P-51s, some of the Army's fastest aircraft.

It would be four days -- as the other two members of her squad landed in New Jersey -- before anyone realized Silver's plane went down somewhere off the coast of California just minutes after takeoff.

On Tuesday, a crew of archeologists, divers, sonar technicians and volunteers began a search 65 years overdue, to find the wreckage of the plane that carried Silver, the only missing and unaccounted for member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, an elite, all-female flight squadron formed at the height of World War II.

"Of the 38 WASPs who lost their lives, she's the only one unaccounted for," said Pat Macha, a retired teacher-turned-aviation archaeologist who is leading the search, from aboard a search vessel in Santa Monica Bay.

"That's a big motivator," he added. "These women played an important role in our history and their next of kin still want resolution."

Three boats are searching for the downed fighter. One carries sophisticated sonar equipment. The others have teams of 10 divers.

The sonar crew, helmed by Gene Ralston, who has conducted undersea searches for high-profile murder victims like Laci Peterson and Natalie Holloway, marks a spot on the surface with a buoy.

Search for Gertrude Tomkins Silver

Divers then swim down to search the sea floor at the spots where the sonar detected something.

Among those onboard one of the boats is Silver's grand-niece, Laura Whittall-Scherfee.

"For us, it's amazing that this many people are willing to donate their time and equipment, their expertise," Whittall-Scherfee told ABC News affiliate KABC-TV in Los Angeles.

In an initial search of the area, the team earlier this year discovered the wreck of another plane, a a T-33 Air Force jet that disappeared on Oct. 15, 1955, carrying two crewman.

Macha said searchers were not expecting to find Silver's intact aircraft.

"Aluminum doesn't hold up well. What we'll probably find is some stainless steel, Plexiglas, the 50 caliber machine guns and tires," said Macha.

He doubted, too, that any remains of Silver's body would be discovered.

If discovered, the remnants of the plane will not initially be brought to the surface.

"When we find a site, we document, photograph it, mark the GPS coordinates and then call L.A. County sheriff, who take control of the site," he said.

The P-51 had a reputation for stalling at low altitudes when the nose was pulled up too quickly, and Macha believes that may have been the cause of the crash.

The WASPs were founded in 1943 in an effort to relieve the burden of male pilots flying combat missions. Women were used to transport planes around the country, delivering them from factories to bases and ports for overseas shipping.

Of 1,834 women accepted to become WASP pilots and begin the six months of requisite training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas -- today the home of the National WASP World War II Museum -- just 1,074 graduated.

Silver became interested in flying when a boyfriend joined the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight with the Allies before the U.S. entered the war in late 1941.

"WASP pilots flew every kind of plane the military had in the sky, from little PT trainers to the B-29 super fortress," said Sharron Davis, executive director of the museum.

Women Pilots: World War II Call of Duty

"Thirty-eight women died in training or in service," Davis said. "The percentage of fatal crashes among WASPs in training or service was significantly less than men."

The WASP program was dismantled just two years after it began, when male pilots returning from combat needed jobs.

Female pilots were not recognized as full-fledged members of the military, Davis said.

"They received no military benefits," she added. "They paid their way in and paid their way home. Many left husbands and children at home. They answered the call of duty and there was a loyal patriotic streak that ran among all of them."

If Silver's plane is discovered, Macha said, the family plans to hold a ceremony on a boat above the wreck and sprinkle flowers in the sea.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events