Search Begins for Last Lost Woman Pilot of WWII

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

ByABC News
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.