This Article Appeared in the Star-Ledger,
May 31, 2004
this flygirl has not been forgotten
Late in the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1944, a small, extraordinary, 32-year-old newlywed from Jersey City climbed into the cockpit of a brand new P-51D Mustang at Mines Field in southern California, wrestled the hulking fighter plane into take-off in heavy fog and disappeared.
She was Gertrude Tompkins Silver, the other Amelia Earhart; one of 1,074 women Air Force pilots in World War II and the only one still missing.
For decades, what ever happened to Silver has been a tantalizing mystery.
Did she stall and spin right after take-off? Crash into the San Bernardino Mountains? Commit suicide or just head off into the horizon in search of a new life.
Sixty years later, the mystery finally may be solved, if enough money can be raised to investigate the wreckage.
Silvers remaining family, working with a small, dedicated band of aviation archeologists (plane wreck buffs) think they have found the remains of her aircraft buried under 15 feet of silt in Santa Monica Bay, not far from the back end of Los Angeles International Airport (the former Mines Field). The family has no intention of raising the lost plane. They just want closure, said her grand-niece, Laura Whittall-Scherfee of Sacramento, Calif.
They want a place to scatter some flowers and say a few words of good-bye to the stuttering girl with beautiful hair from Kent Place School who traveled the world visiting gardens and goats, before she found her real passion, flying,
Our goal is just to try to find out what happened to my great-aunt before my grandmother dies, said Whittall-Scherfee, referring to Silvers older sister, Elizabeth. It's not like we sit around all the time wondering what happened to Gertrude, but it's frustrating that it's been in limbo for so long.
Elizabeth Whittall, 95, another extraordinary woman, actually doesnít care that much if the identified wreck turns out to be her sister.
I made my peace with Gertrudeís disappearance long, long ago, and think any money spent trying to get to her plane would be better spent on poor people or feeding children, said Whittall, who after living in far-flung parts of the world for most of her life, settled in Vero Beach, Fla.
But my grandchildren have gotten so wrapped up in the excitement of finding Gertrude, I donít want to disappoint them, Whittall added. They have made it an adventure and I definitely approve of adventure.
Adventure, Whittall said, was held in high esteem by the Tompkins family.
They were among the early settlers of Jersey City, although upper middle-class comforts didnít arrive until Gertrude and Elizabethís father, Freeland Tompkins opened the Smooth-On iron cement factory in 1895.
Iron cement was used to repair water and steam leaks in cast iron products, such as boilers. Smooth-On was an instant success in those expansionist times and Silver was able to send his three daughters, Margaret, Elizabeth and Gertrude, to private schools.
Their mother had wanted to be a missionary in China, Elizabeth said, but was in too poor health, so she passed her dreams onto her children.
Margaret, the eldest, followed a more traditional path, going to Vassar and marrying a banker. Elizabeth took the leap, however, moving to Damascus after graduating Wellesley in the 1930s to teach at a Muslim school. She later lived in South Africa, Madagascar and Egypt.
Gertrude, the baby, had a rough start. She was shy, somewhat withdrawn, and plagued by a heavy stutter. She did poorly at Kent Place, and was sent to the country for a year, where she didnít loose her stutter but did gain a strong fascination for goats.
She graduated from college with a degree in horticulture and returned to Summit, where her family had moved, and raised goats. She visited the great gardens of the world, traveling alone. She tried to convince the Australian government to invest in goats, not cows, because they were ecologically and nutritionally superior.
Then she met a young pilot, who taught her to fly. That was it Whittall said. She loved it. She didnít stutter when she was in a plane, or the whole time she was in the WASP.
WASP, Womens Air force Service Pilots, was an experimental program that hired licensed women pilots to fly all military aircraft stateside, freeing up male pilots for combat. After Silvers flyer beau and fiancťe (whom her family will not identify) was killed in combat, Gertrude was among the 25,000 women who applied to the WASP, and among the 1,074 who were accepted and passed basic training.
Some of the women were too small to handle the big fighter planes. Although slender, Silver, at 5-foot-5, became certified on every type of military plane. She also got married -- to Henry M. Silver, an accountant -- in September 1944, although her superior officers didnít find out until she disappeared.
Some friends and family say she married on the rebound and regretted the decision. Others say she may have been despondent, possibly suicidal.
Whittall and her granddaughter say that is hogwash.
Gertrude wouldnít have killed herself, and even if she did, she was too proud of being a WASP to take the plane with her, Whittall said. And we joked that she might have taken off, but she was too close to her family to ever do that without telling us. I donít know what happened, but it wasnít that.
What they do know is that three planes fresh from the factory were to leave Mines Airfield on the morning of Oct. 26 and head east for delivery to the European front.
The flight was delayed because of mechanical difficulties with Silvers plane. Among the problems was a malfunctioning canopy, which would have made it impossible for her to eject.
By the time the three planes left in the late afternoon, conditions had deteriorated. Fog had moved in and a nasty wind had whipped up. The pilots took off anyway, circled around and headed for Palm Springs, the first leg of their journey, said Pat Macha, a widely recognized aviation buff who has helped find more than 1,000 downed planes.
Macha has been helping the family search for Silver remains since he met her grand-nieces husband at an air show more than a decade ago. Fascinated by the story, he agreed to pick up were Whittall-Scherfees father left off on in his search in the 1970s.
I looked at the clips and the reports and talked to a guy who flew with her. She was good and she was gung ho. There where no crybabies or ninnies in the WASP, said Macha, a retired high school history teacher who helps families locate missing planes.
At first we thought she had made it to the mountains, and checked there, but all the wrecks were accounted for, Macha said. But I knew that the day she took off, three planes took off, but only two were seen circling back over the field.
Macha's theory is that Silver crashed almost immediately after take-off. The fighter plane was heavy, he said, and had a nasty tendency to stall and spin, which means that if airspeed wasnít achieved, the plane would go into an immediate dive, giving Silver no chance to eject, or even react.
Using expensive equipment that detects metal and mass on the ocean floor, Macha has found lots of planes. But not the right one. Part of the problem is that the plane probably would have broken up on impact and doesnít look like a plane any more.
Another problem is that the area was used to deposit silt when the harbor was dredged several years ago, which means the wreckage is buried under a small mountain of sand.
Now, Macha thinks he has found the right mound of metal, but we can't be sure until we get in there and find out if itís a P-51D, he said.
If it is, it is almost undoubtedly Silvers plane, since hers was the only Mustang lost in that region during the war. To find out will cost between $15,000 and $25,000, that we really donít have right now, said Whittall-Scherfee.
So we wait, and try to raise more money and maybe get more tests that will better our odds, Whittall-Scherfee said. Were looking for a sponsor, but people arenít all that interested in a women pilot who disappeared 60 years ago.
But we wonít forget. Well never forget Gertrude.