A search for the last missing WASP of WWII

At 215 bone-crushing feet below the surface of Santa Monica Bay, CA, the visibility was surprisingly good — about 35 feet. As I drifted down the marker line, I could see below me the shadowy outline of jagged metal protruding from the muddy bottom. Was it the World War II P-51-D Mustang we were searching for? I reached down and grabbed a piece of wreckage. It was thin plastic with tiny writing on it — it looked like part of the dashboard of a plane, but perhaps not a Mustang.

History lesson

What was I doing there in 2009, risking life and limb in a search for history? It all started on 26 October 1944, long before I was born, when an attractive ferrying pilot named Gertrude Tompkins took off from what is now Los Angeles International Airport. She was a member of the elite Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). She flew into an offshore fogbank and was never seen again.

During WWII, thousands of new airplanes were coming off assembly lines and needed to be delivered to ports on the East and West coasts, for shipment overseas. But most of America’s male pilots were overseas fighting the war. To deal with the problem, the government launched an experimental program, the WASPs, to train women pilots to fly military aircraft.

It was a unique time in history. Most women still remained at home and to tended to their families. Few people imag-ined that women could fly powerful warplanes. But the wartime emergency took precedence over traditional male-female roles. Over 25,000 women volunteered for the WASPs, but only about 1,000 were chosen for this unique opportunity to serve. The WASPs ferried 78 types of planes over 60 million miles, a huge contribution to the war effort.

Gertrude had fallen in love with an American aviator who was killed flying for the Royal Air Force during the early days of the war. This tragedy apparently sparked a keen interest in flying, and she took private lessons. She volun-teered for the WASPs, was selected, and reported to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, for training. She was so good that she was selected for fighter pursuit school, and became one of a handful of top woman pilots trained to fly the P-51 Mustang, the most powerful American fighter. She went on to ferry Mustangs and numerous other warbirds, until that fateful day in October 1944, when she took off last in a group of 30, headed from Los Angeles for Palm Springs and eventually for Newark, New Jersey. After her disappearance, a massive water and ground search turned up no trace of Gertrude or the plane. She is the last missing WASP.

The search
I was approached by Mike Pizzio, a member of the Explorers Club, who was putting together an elite technical dive team to search for Gertrude. Mike asked me to serve as the expedition’s chief medical officer and as a deep technical diver. I eagerly accepted the challenge.

Research and planning for the expedition had been underway for months, led by the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) and MAST co-founder Chris Killian, an expert in aircraft archaeology. The technical dive team was tasked with clearing 55 dive sites that lay in Santa Monica Bay, off the end of the Los Angeles International Airport runway. The targets had been picked off of an underwater digital map compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, then side-scan-sonared by underwater search experts Gene and Sandy Ralston. We had six days to clear the targets, using an all-volunteer team of 50 people, 10 technical divers and five boats. The team was supported by Gertrude’s remaining family, who described the effort as “the largest and most technically advanced effort undertaken in the search for Gertrude.”

On the next-to-last day of diving, I found the plastic cockpit piece. I brought it to the surface, where our experts, team members, and the press studied it avidly. Research now suggests that it came from a Cessna that crashed in 1973. Incredibly, both occupants survived and were picked up in 15 minutes by a rescue boat.

Two of our other search sites yielded possible aircraft wreckage, and are still being researched. A fourth site turned out to be a missing T-33A jet trainer that crashed in 1955 with two USAF lieutenants on board. They were killed, but the plane was raised, and the families were located and notified.

Hopefully someday soon we will be able to bring some similar closure to the family of Gertrude Tompkins. The search continues.

Editor’s note: Sharky Alexander has served for the last 20 years as a senior NCO in the USAFR, specializing in aircraft weapons technology. He also holds a USCG 50-ton captain’s license, and is a full-time paramedic in St. Charles, MO. His company, Sharky’s Underwater Expeditions, LLC, specializes in underwater search operations.