WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — It was cloudy in California on Oct. 26, 1944, the day New Jersey resident and Women Airforce Service Pilot Gertrude Tompkins went missing while delivering a P-51D Mustang fighter plane to Newark in the midst of World War II.
Tompkins was one of 1,074 women who completed brutal training to join the WASPs, who were attached to the U.S. Army Air Forces. She and 37 other women died in service to their country, but Tompkins is the only one who remains missing, said Pat Macha, an airplane archaeologist helping with search efforts.
For 75 years, the whereabouts of Tompkins and the P-51D she had been flying that day in October have remained a mystery — one that her grand-niece, Laura Whittall, hopes to solve someday soon.
Tompkins was born in Jersey City in 1912, the youngest of three girls, to Vreeland and Laura Tompkins before the family settled in Summit in Union County. Tompkins’ sister Elizabeth Whittall wrote a book, “From There to Here,” chronicling their childhood.
From what her grandmother told her, Laura Whittall’s great-aunt was a shy girl with a severe stutter that her parents were unable to help her overcome. Tompkins lived in Virginia for a year before attending the Ambler School of Horticulture (now part of the University of Pennsylvania). She raised goats for a time and toured gardens in Italy and England before moving from Summit to New York City.
Tompkins later fell in love with a pilot, who would take her flying, and she began learning herself, Whittall said. Female pilots were rare then, Macha said.
Tompkins’ beau was later killed while flying for the Royal Air Force during World War II. After his death, she was determined to contribute to the war effort, applying to be a WASP.
Flying transformed Tompkins in ways her family couldn’t have imagined.
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“She absolutely loved it,” Whittall said. “It gave her freedom.”
Flying allowed Tompkins to overcome her stutter. When Whittallspoke to other WASPs about her great-aunt, they couldn’t believe her description of an introverted, stuttering young woman.
“I had righteous indignation,” Whittall said. “We think there was confidence when she was flying, and she overcame her stuttering.”
Tompkins was qualified to fly the P-51 Mustang, the P-38 Lightning and the P-54 Thunderbolt, all fighter craft.
“It took a highly qualified pilot to manage those aircraft,” Macha said.
Many people Whittall met remember her great-aunt as a studious, serious woman. Tompkins, a bit older than the other WASPs, did not often venture into town with the younger women to go dancing. She remained focused on being a WASP. Many WASPs were in their 20s, while Tompkins was 33 when she went missing.
On the day she disappeared, Tompkins was supposed to be one of 40 pilots taking the P-51Ds from Mines Field, which is now part of Los Angeles International Airport, to Newark Airport. The planes were supposed to then be shipped overseas to American pilots.
The group was expected to hopscotch across the country to get to Newark, but as the planes took off, Tompkins and two other women had problems with their canopies. Because of the delay, the three planes were delayed and had to cut their flight short, landing in Palm Springs, California, Macha said. Tompkins flew into a fog bank, and that was the last time anyone saw her and her plane.
When Tompkins never showed, the two other pilots thought she had encountered further canopy problems and turned back to Mines Field. It was five days before anyone realized Tompkins was missing.
In September 1944, just months before she disappeared, she secretly married Henry Silver. It was preferred that WASPs were unmarried, Macha said. Two days after they wed, Tompkins returned to California. They never saw each other again.
What exactly happened to Tompkins and where her remains are still a mystery. Macha believes Tompkins went down in Santa Monica Bay after becoming distracted or disoriented in the relatively new P-51D.
“Maybe she was struggling to get the canopy to close,” Macha said. “It doesn’t take much to become disoriented, stall, and down she goes.”
The P-51D is “unforgiving,” and a pilot must stay five steps ahead, Whittall said. She believes that when Tompkins’ plane crashed, it took on water quickly and she drowned.
Macha said any wreckage would have been carried southwest from Santa Monica Bay, but nothing was identified or reported along the beach.
“She was far enough offshore,” Macha said. “If the plane went it, it would break up, and any floating oil was likely dispersed.”
Afternoon winds tend to hit 10 to 15 mph, causing choppy water.
The military planes of Tompkins’ era did not have black boxes. Macha said technology like that is a “quantum leap from the world of the mid-1940s.” There was no radar to monitor Tompkins’ journey, and there was no flight plan for her.
After she disappeared, flight plans for each pilot were required, rather than a group plan. The military searched close to 30 days for her, looking fruitlessly in the nearby mountains and bay.
It had been suggested at one point that she took the plane and went off to start a new life, something Whittall doesn’t see as plausible.
“She had plans for when she got out,” Whittall said. “Her husband was taking care of his niece because his sister had died. She was planning on becoming a wife and raising this little girl.”
There have been countless searches for Tompkins since she disappeared 75 years ago. Whittall and her late husband spearheaded search efforts to find Tompkins, encouraged by her father. She met Macha over 20 years ago after reading a book of his.
“I called him,” Whittall said. “I didn’t use my aunt’s name, I just said I had a relative who was a WASP that went missing.”
Macha immediately knew whom Whittall was talking about and told her he had been waiting for someone to call him. The call to Macha kick-started their several search efforts for Tompkins and her P-51D.
There was a search in 1997, a second in 2004 and a third in 2010.
During the 2010 search, a huge group of people volunteered and donated their time and high-tech equipment. For almost a week, divers searched a number of sites in hopes of finding some sort of wreckage but not much was found.
“We’ve eliminated sites where she could be, and the good news is we have found a couple of planes that were missing,” Whittall said. “The problem we’re facing is that her plane or remains could be under feet of debris.”
“Expedition Unknown,” a show on the Discovery Channel, aired an episode in May about Tompkins’ disappearance and host Josh Gates’ fourth search.
Gates, Macha and David Lane, another aviation archaeologist, searched the San Jacinto Mountains after pieces of a plane were spotted from a fire tower. But the wreckage was from a civilian plane.
Later, while diving in Santa Monica Bay with another team, Gates found the wreckage of an old ship and a World War II-era oxygen cylinder from a B-25 bomber that crashed in 1946.
Whittall has no plans on giving up the search. She hopes as technology improves, her great-aunt will be found.
Tompkins may not be remembered by the general public, but she inspires Whittall.
“For someone I believe was an introvert and not very confident, she overcame a lot to become a WASP, and then she wasn’t afraid to show intelligence and excellence,” Whitall said. “She was just really proving what she could do. She challenged herself.”
WASPs were not valued for their sacrifice during World War II, with the creator, famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran, lobbying for it to be made a women’s service within the U.S. Army Air Forces, according to the Army’s website. The WASPs were disbanded not long after Tompkins went missing.
It took another 30 years for WASPs to be recognized as active-duty armed service members, which allowed them to receive veterans’ benefits. In March 2010, Tompkins and the other WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
“There have been parts of my life that have been impacted in ways I never expected,” Whittall said. “It’s been a living history for my family and my son. He’s learned a lot about women he otherwise wouldn’t have known.”