The Gertrude Tompkins Expedition

World War II Pilot, last missing WASP - ABC7.COM

Search Underway for
Missing Heroine of World War II
and her P-51 Mustang

Divers, explorers and aviation archaeologists from the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) and from around the country have launched an expedition off Los Angeles to search for Gertrude Tompkins, the last missing member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II.

According to expedition spokesman Lew Toulmin, a co-founder of MAST and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, “The WASP were absolutely vital to the war effort. They ferried all types of aircraft over 60 million miles from factories to shipping locations on the east and west coasts. Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins was one of these heroic WASP, and she disappeared in the Los Angeles, California area on 26 October 1944, in her powerful P-51D Mustang. She is the last missing member of this famous and dedicated group, and her disappearance is one of the great remaining mysteries of World War II.”

Stated G. Pat Macha of Los Angeles, who has written three books on airplane archaeology, and has been researching the Tompkins case for over 11 years, “We hope we can solve this case soon, so that we can bring closure to the family, including Gertrude’s 100-year-old sister, who is very much rooting for us. We interviewed a possible eyewitness to the crash, who was only a boy at the time, and that has helped our analysis quite a bit. ”

Robert E. Hyman, a member of MAST and one of the leaders of the expedition, noted that the WASP are still very much in the news. “On July 2, 2009, President Obama signed a bill awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the 300 surviving WASP for their service. The President said, ‘The WASP answered their country’s call in a time of need, while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since.’” Hyman is an expert in expedition management, and led an expedition which found evidence of an ancient civilization in the remote Darien Gap of Panama, previously thought to be uninhabited.

According to Chris Killian, the leader of the expedition and a co-founder of the Missing Aircraft Search Team, “Gertrude Tompkins had only been married a month to Sergeant Henry Silver when she took off at about 4 pm on 26 October 1944 from Mines Field -- now Los Angeles International Airport – and headed for the East Coast in her Mustang. She took off into the wind, into an offshore fog bank, and was expected that night at Palm Springs. But she never arrived. Due to a paperwork foul-up, the search did not get under way for several days, and while the eventual search of land and sea was massive, it failed to find a trace of Silver or her plane.”

Gene Ralston, a well-known search expert who has found the bodies of over 60 drowning victims in the US and Canada, and who worked on the famous Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway disappearances, is leading the sonar detection effort. He said, “Our role is to exactly locate each underwater site and do preliminary screening using side scan sonar and our remotely operated underwater vehicle, to see if we can rule out that particular target.”

FBI Special Agent and diver Mike Pizzio, taking a vacation from his normal job as a member of the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team in Miami, is leading the dive team. He stated, “Some of the underwater targets are over 270 feet down. So we utilize special gear and have recruited some of the top divers in the country to work on this important case.”

Gary Fabian is an expert maritime historian who found the elusive World War I German submarine UB-88 off Long Beach, California. He stated, “We have been searching on and off for Tompkins and her plane for years, but I think that our expanded team has a comprehensive approach that will sort through all the high probability targets. So we are very hopeful.”

According to Colleen Keller, a pilot, co-founder of MAST and expert in search theory, who just returned from working on the June 2009 disappearance of Air France flight 447 off Brazil, “There are several possible causes for the Silver crash. The most likely cause is pilot disorientation in the fog. But other possibilities include distraction due to a faulty canopy, problems with the center of gravity in the Mustang, and problems with the engine. If we find the plane and are very lucky indeed, an investigation might be able to shed some light on the cause of the crash.”

Lew Toulmin stated that the effort will bring together a wide range of skills. “This effort is led by members of the private group MAST, which recently contributed to finding the missing Cessna N2700Q in Arizona, and was founded by private searchers who worked on the disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett. The Tompkins team includes experts in search theory, expedition management, diving and historical research, and incorporates all the key investigators who have worked on the case over the years. We are very honored that relatives of Gertrude Tompkins are also participating in team logistics and field support.”

Toulmin continued, “Our all-volunteer team has undertaken hundreds of hours of research on the case, and we located three WASP who were apparently present at Mines Field the day Gertrude disappeared. These three P-51 WASP pilots had never before been interviewed about this case, while the initial 1944 accident report only interviewed one WASP. We have conducted numerous other interviews and analyzed various underwater databases to assist us. Our on-site team has a total of 35 members and we plan to deliver over 220 person-days of effort in the field. We are very excited about the Gertrude Tompkins Expedition, and have our fingers crossed that we can solve this great mystery.”

Video trailer of the search for
The Last Missing WASP

by Dan Crowell
Deep Explorers, Inc.
Seeker Digital Productions

Multibeam Sonar Map
P-51 Mustang Search Area
P-51 Mustang Search Area, Santa Monica Bay, CA
Multibeam sonar analysis by Gary Fabian
Data provided by the

A Special Thanks to all of the
Search Team Volunteers and Supporters

A project of this magnitude could not have been accomplished without the help of many dedicated people who graciously volunteered their time, equipment, and expertise to the search effort. Many traveled from out of state on their own dime to help find Gertrude’s missing P-51 Mustang. The schedule was intense. 55 targets in 7 days. Targets of interest were first identified from the 1996 USGS multibeam sonar survey of Santa Monica Bay. Before putting any dive teams in the water, all sites were confirmed with side scan sonar. Despite days of bad weather the mission was accomplished.

The team located many submerged objects. Powerboats, sailboats, a canoe, ship anchors, a radio tower, sewer pipes, washing machines and the remains of at least one and possible two aircraft. Unfortunately the aircraft that was found turned out to be a Cessna 210 and not Gertrude’s P-51. Despite our failure to find Gertrude’s final resting place, we still consider the mission to have been a big success. We came away with the knowledge that our search methodology was sound and we also made some new friends along the way. For that I’m grateful. Thanks everyone!

Allow me to apologize in advance if I failed to include someone. I simply don’t have everyone’s name yet. If you see an obvious omission or correction, please send me an email and let me know the particulars and I will take care of it immediately. I don’t want to leave anyone out.
Thanks. -Gary

Gertrude’s Family
Ken and Laura Whittall-Scherfee
Guy Whittall-Scherfee
Elizabeth Whittall
G. Pat Macha
Mary Jane Macha
Pat Macha

Missing Aircraft Search Team
Chris Killian
Lew Toulmin
Robert Hyman
Colleen Keller
Gary Fabian
Ray Arntz
Kyaa Heller

Side Scan Sonar Team
Gene Ralston
Sandy Ralston

Technical Dive Team
Mike Pizzio - Dive Master
Dan Crowell - Videographer
Heather Armstrong
Brian Armstrong
Joe Citelli
Kendall Raine
Robin Jacoway
Peter Sotis
John Walker
Mark “Sharky” Alexander

John Grossman
Mike Killian
Deb Atwood
Michael Behar

King Harbor Yacht Club
Barry Anderson - Vice Commodore
Dinah Lary - Office Manager
John Hott

Pacific Mariners Yacht Club
Sparky Mundo

Western Museum of Flight
Cindy Macha
Bruce Guberman - P-51 Pilot

Boat Owners and Operators
Bob Meistrell - Body Glove (Vessel ‘Disappearance’)
Mike Pellissier - Ocean Technology Systems (Vessel ‘Deep Sea’)
John Hott - (Vessel ‘Sea Squirell’)
Chet - (Vessel ‘Saltier Dog’)
Bob Wyler

Long Beach Tuna Club
Ron Cess
Dave Rasmussen - (Vessel ‘Godspeed’)
Skip Smith - (Vessel ‘Tool Pusher’)