Nearly 40 WASPs died in service during World War II, but only one went missing in action (MIA). What happened to Gertrude Tompkins Silver?
Gertrude Tompkins was a shy girl with a severe stutter and love for goat farming. She enjoyed the simple life, or at least she did until she fell for a Royal Air Force pilot who infected her with the aviation bug. Not only did she enjoy taking to the skies with him, but she also found the flight lessons he gave her completely intoxicating. He eventually died during a war mission, and while she grieved his loss, she refused to say goodbye to flying. Flying had completely transformed Gertrude, eliminating her stutter and replacing her shyness with bold confidence that surprised all who knew her. She quickly enlisted in a newly launched program with the U.S. Army Air Force, becoming one of 1,074 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
As a WASP, she was trained to fly multiple fighter aircraft, such as the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang. On a cloudy day in October of 1944, she and 39 others were tasked with ferrying a fleet of Mustangs from California to New Jersey. It took four days for the group to make their destination. That’s when they realized Gertrude was gone. Based on the information available, it was determined that she never made the first stop-over, so she likely went down shortly after departing Mines Field (now LAX). Search efforts lasted for 30 days and covered everywhere from the waters of the Santa Monica Bay to the peaks and valleys of the San Bernardino mountain range. She was never found.
“When he was 12 years old, Frank Jacobs saw a plane heading into some clouds, sputter and spiral into the sea below. It haunted him for nearly seven decades.”
Gertrude did not leave behind any children, but she did leave behind a secret new love—a man she had wed only a few months prior. WASP pilots were strongly discouraged from marrying while in service, so she did so quietly and kept her name on file with the military as Gertrude Tompkins. But her real name at the time of her disappearance was Gertrude Tompkins Silver.
Prior to take off, Gertrude and two other WASPs encountered cockpit hatch issues. While they were able to resolve Gertrude’s issue on the ground, some wondered if it returned for her after taking off—or that perhaps she encountered another mechanical problem. P-51Ds were notoriously unforgiving, so even the slightest moment of distraction could have turned fatal, and the clouds wouldn’t have done her any favors.
WASPs were frowned upon by many of their male counterparts; they were regularly mocked, disrespected, and shunned. Thick skin was an absolute must, but it couldn’t save them from the most disturbing actions taken against them—sabotage. Men were known to stuff items into the women’s engines and fuel tanks, pour acid into their parachute packs, and even slash their tires so they would blow out during or right after takeoff. One WASP made an emergency landing after an engine failure only to discover someone has stuffed rags into it. Another discovered that their flight controls had been intentionally loosened, resulting in some coming off mid-flight.
Perhaps the most famous act of sabotage was the one that killed Betty Davis. Fellow WASP and aviation superstar Jacqueline Cochran found that sugar had been poured into Davis’ gas tank, causing the crash. Is it possible that Gertrude’s disappearance was also an act of sabotage? Sadly, it wouldn’t be the most absurd conclusion.
NEW LIFE OR SUICIDE
At the time of her disappearance, Gertrude was allegedly happier than she had ever been in her life. She was finally stutter-free, confident and following a newfound passion for flight. She looked forward to a future with her husband and helping him raise his niece after his sister’s passing. By all accounts, it seemed she had everything going for her and much to look forward to.
Still, some theorized that Gertrude wasn’t satisfied enough, and her disappearance was either an attempt to start a new life or perhaps even end her current one. All who knew her scoffed at such a suggestion. Furthermore, they were adamant that she would never have done anything to compromise an aircraft. She valued them far too much.
One person claimed to have witnessed Gertrude’s crash, but he was not believed, given his little boy status at the time. According to retired aerospace engineer Frank Jacobs, when he was 12 years old, he saw a plane heading into some clouds sputter and spiral into the sea below. It haunted him for nearly seven decades. Finally, in 2010, a new search team took interest and lent him an ear. The Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) gave weight to his account and
used it to focus a new search effort. The team brought in dozens of volunteers, experts from various fields, and high-end equipment to scour the seas. Sadly, they were unsuccessful.
Most believe that Gertrude ran into problems, became disoriented in the clouds, and crashed into the Santa Monica Bay shortly after takeoff. Unfortunately, any real answers can’t be had until both she and the plane are recovered.
As for the WASPs, their fight did not end with the war. It took nearly 30 years before the military acknowledged them as having been active-duty armed service members. Another 35 passed before they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, which Gertrude’s grandniece accepted on her behalf. Seven decades went by before they were allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps that is where Gertrude Tompkins Silver can one day be laid to rest, with all the honor she so very much deserves. PP