By Judy Peet
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Frank Jacobs stands at the end of a pier jutting out into the Pacific, gazing at the spot where, 65 years ago this month, he saw a silver plane head for the lowering clouds, sputter and make a lazy, deadly spiral into the sea.
Then 12 years old, Jacobs screamed for help, but nobody believed him. Not the other fishermen on the pier. Not his parents.
The fate of that pilot has always haunted Jacobs. He still rankles at being called a liar, but that isn’t why he can’t let go of that stark wartime memory.
“It was wrong that nobody ever searched,” says Jacobs, now 77 and a retired aerospace engineer. “No one should have to go to their death all alone like that.”
What Jacobs saw was probably the final flight of a military pilot — a newly married woman from the New Jersey city of Summit — who had taxied a P-51D Mustang fighter plane out of Los Angeles Oct. 26, 1944, and disappeared.
She was Gertrude Tompkins, one of the 1,074 Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in World War II. And if a dedicated band of part-time adventurers has anything to do with it, Tompkins, the only WASP still unaccounted for, won’t be missing much longer.
Over the past week, the volunteer searchers have sortied every morning from a palm-ringed harbor about six miles south of Los Angeles International Airport, bringing with them hundreds of years of training and millions of dollars worth of equipment.
It is an extraordinary team that includes an underwater medic, a theoretical physicist, an FBI agent who learned to dive in the wreck-strewn waters off the Jersey Shore, and a husband-wife team of sonar experts from Boise, Idaho, who already have found more than 60 drowning victims.
Had the Tompkins family hired this group, the search would have cost in excess of $1 million, according to Lew Toulmin, one of the founders of the Missing Aircraft Search Team, or MAST, which organized the venture.
There have been other efforts to find Tompkins, but this one is different. Never before have such expertise, manpower and equipment come together like this. And never did a group of 35 like this leave their day jobs and travel to South California on their own dime.
Every day last week, they combed the waters close to shore, concentrating on sites targeted by side-scan sonar, plotted on geological survey maps and prioritized according to variables such as projected flight path, air speed and tidal drift.
It is a high-pressure search, dictated by the work commitments of the team, many of whom had tickets to return home today and Sunday.
At the beginning of the week, they had hoped to dive 55 sites in six days, in depths ranging from 80 to 300 feet. Bad weather will leave them short of that goal.
For Elizabeth Tompkins Whittall, still sharp at 100 and long come to terms with the death of her baby sister, the search is a “fascinating use of new technology.”
For Frank Jacobs, who spent his adult life engineering test planes in part because of what he saw that foggy day in 1944, the search for the surviving steel of Tompkins’ underwater grave is simply “the right thing to do.”
She was a shy girl, a stutterer except when she was in the clouds.
Born in 1912, Gertrude Tompkins was the third of three daughters of a self-made cement tycoon who moved his family from Jersey City to a rambling, wide-porched house in Summit.
Vreeland Tompkins, an inventor, had encouraged his daughters to use their minds.
The eldest, Margaret, followed the most traditional path, going to Vassar and marrying a banker. Elizabeth had more-exotic dreams. After graduating from Wellesley, she moved to Damascus, Syria, and taught in a Muslim school.
For Gertrude, childhood was more of a struggle. Her speech impediment made it difficult to make friends. She did poorly at Kent Place School and was sent to a farm in West Virginia for a year. There she developed a fascination for goats, which she later would raise in Summit.
She received her undergraduate degree from the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture and visited the great gardens of the world, traveling alone. After her return to the States, she went to work at her father’s company.
Then she met a young pilot who taught her to fly. She found twin loves, Elizabeth recalls, but one would be lost tragically soon: Her fiancé joined the Royal Air Force at the start of the war and was shot down over England.
So, in 1943, Gertrude became a WASP.
THE DIVE MASTER
It’s just after sunrise at King Harbor Yacht Club in Redondo Beach, which has donated dock space for the mission, and dive master Mike Pizzio is briefing his team.
It is Tuesday, the second day of the search, and already the team is behind. The normally glassy Pacific Rim stretching out from Los Angeles has been choppy for days.
The divers could barely get in the water Monday, their boats returning to shore when conditions deteriorated in the afternoon. Still, that first day was not a complete loss.
Of five sites they managed to explore, all were, in their words, “bang on.” They found two anchors, a sunken powerboat, a stove-in canoe and a washing machine.
Now Pizzio says: “We know the (sonar) scans are right on point, but we’ve got too many targets and not enough time. Get in, check out the target and move on. Don’t fool around out there.”
Pizzio is a 48-year-old on leave from the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team in Miami.
Born and raised in Randolph, Pizzio says his long road to this moment involved spending “every free moment as a teenager bumming rides” to the Jersey Shore. He dived wrecks off the coast and captained local boats before earning a degree in geology and joining the FBI.
He is what is called a technical diver, a professional trained in the complex equipment and decompression procedures required for deep ocean diving. At the depths Pizzio routinely reaches, mistakes kill.
To understand how Pizzio ended up at this dock 3,000 miles from home, it is necessary to go back to 1998. That was the year Sacramento attorney and pilot Ken Whittall-Scherfee found a book by G. Pat Macha, a noted aviation archeologist (aka plane wreck buff) who had searched more than 800 crash sites. Whittall-Scherfee contacted Macha, who said, “I wondered when you’d call.”
Whittall-Scherfee’s wife, Laura, a funny, smart woman distinguished by an almost eerie resemblance to her long-lost great-aunt, had inherited her family’s files on Gertrude. Macha was immediately drawn to the mystery. It was soon afterward that the search for Tompkins and the Mustang really took off.
“Pat found documents we never knew existed. He found a witness and people to scan the seabed and compare with the charts,” Laura Whittall-Scherfee says.
“More than that, he became a friend of the family. He really cares about Gertrude. It’s become personal for him.”
THE DOOMED FLIGHT
The mission that October day 65 years ago was fairly routine: Gertrude Tompkins was to fly a Mustang fighter fresh off the assembly line — and loaded with six 50-caliber machine guns — from the West Coast to Newark.
Mines Field (now part of Los Angeles International Airport) was foggy, and the flight was delayed because of problems with the canopy. Tompkins was one of three WASPs flying that day. She took off last, around 4 p.m., heading for a heavy cloud bank. She was probably the only plane in the sky at that moment.
She was to make stops on her way east, but because of mislaid flight plans, nobody realized she was missing until four days later, when she failed to arrive in Newark.
Tompkins had gotten married just a month earlier but never told her superiors or used his name. Now her new husband, Henry Silver, joined the military in a search, as did her father.
No scrap of the plane was found.
Had she crashed immediately after takeoff, or slammed into the San Bernardino Mountains 75 miles to the east? Had she pulled an Amelia Earhart and flown off on her own? Had she committed suicide?
Mildred Axton was Tompkins’ roommate in fighter training school. Although she had to leave the WASPs about four months before Tompkins’ last flight, she never believed the suicide or disappearance scenarios.
“Gertrude was a great gal and a great pilot,” said Axton, now 90 and living outside Minneapolis. “She had too much pride in her job and too much respect for the military to do anything intentionally that would damage the Mustang.
“It was the war, and all of us flew in conditions we shouldn’t have. My bet is on mechanical failure immediately after takeoff.”
Once Macha became intrigued in 1998, his first task, he says, was to rule out plane wrecks in the mountains. His next step was to call on friends and friends of friends to help him go back to the sea.
The initial search teams used sonar mapping and geological charts to focus on in-shore waters just west and south of LAX.
The first modern search mission — Laura Whittall-Scherfee still has a hat that was made for the occasion — was launched in 1999 out of inflatable dinghies.
A bigger expedition was planned for 2001. Unfortunately, it was set to begin Sept. 12. The World Trade Center towers were gone, and all watercraft were banned near major airports.
They tried again with wide side-scan sonar in 2006 and 2007.
In 2008, the searchers arranged for a memorial bronze plaque to be dedicated in Tompkins’ memory.
By that time, MAST was involved.
The Missing Aircraft Search Team is a private organization that grew out of a group of members of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Explorers Club. They include Colleen Keller, a mathematician and physicist and expert in search theory, working for Metron, a company in California with Department of Defense contracts.
There was Lew Toulmin, a semi-retired financier and self-proclaimed “most traveled man on earth,” and Robert Hyman, a semi-retired investor and expert on expedition management.
They decided to look for Steve Fossett, the billionaire pilot who disappeared while flying in the Southwest in 2007. They advertised for an experienced aircraft wreck chaser and Chris Killian joined the team.
They didn’t find Fossett — a hiker did — but were so exhilarated by the chase they decided to pool their experience and form MAST. Within a year they were inundated by private requests to find lost planes. But Killian, a longtime friend of Macha’s, had already hooked them on the Tompkins case.
“It had everything,” Toulmin said. “Mystery, patriotism, a fascinating pilot and the WASPs, who deserved a lot better than they got. Previous search teams had done really good work. With our contacts and expedition experience, we thought we could help.”
Their motto was: “We live in the wind and the sand, and our eyes are on the stars.”
The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots consisted of the first women military pilots in American history. Formed during World War II, WASPs were licensed aviators who flew all military aircraft stateside, freeing up male pilots for combat.
The WASPs logged more than 60 million miles flying planes out of 192 bases and ended up training many of their male counterparts. When their service was done, they were ignored by their country and sent home without a dime or a ride.
They made their own uniforms, bought their own coffins, flew by the seat of their pants and were barred from benefits of the GI Bill for more than 30 years.
Started by racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran after Franklin D. Roosevelt asked her ideas on the war effort, WASPs included housewives, factory workers, debutantes, farmers and Damon Runyon’s wife.
Before they were abruptly disbanded at the end of 1944 in favor of male pilots returning from Europe, the WASPs also pulled targets for live ammunition training. Thirty-eight women died, the victims of mechanical failure or stray practice shells.
From the day Gertrude Tompkins became a WASP, her family said, she never stuttered again.
The search for her comes at a significant time. With the Greatest Generation rapidly dying out, the U.S. military is paying new attention to the estimated 74,000 World War II soldiers whose remains are still missing in Europe and the Pacific.
In July, President Obama signed legislation finally granting WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, in recognition of a war record that had been ignored for more than a half century.
“The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots courageously 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,” Obama said. “Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.”
Approximately 300 WASPs are alive today, all in their 80s and 90s.
Axton says: “Any recognition is better than none, even if most of us are gone now. But, you know, none of us became a WASP for the glory. We flew because we could and because we loved it and we were darn good at it. Heck, we were better than the men. We had to be.”
MAST knew a lot about land wrecks but precious little about underwater expeditions.
Enter Pizzio, a fellow Explorer Club member and diving expert with thousands of hours of underwater wreck experience and, with grown children, a hunger for adventure.
“At this level of diving, the pool of experience is relatively small,” says Pizzio, who has an FBI-like reluctance to give too many details about his cases, even private ones. “Most of the people here are my friends and people I’ve been diving with for years.”
They include Heather Armstrong, a Florida wreck diver he chose first, not just because of her experience, but because of her gender.
“I knew I wanted a woman on the team out of respect for Gertrude,” Pizzio says. “I also wanted an Allied team, out of respect for the war, but the Canadian and Brit had to pull out because of work commitments.”
The dive team also includes Heather’s husband, Brian, and Dan Crowell, an underwater documentary cameraman and former owner of a famous dive boat, the Seeker, out of Brielle.
The team members say they are there for different reasons.
Some are captivated by Gertrude’s story or want to honor those who gave their lives in World War II. Others are here to test out search theories or equipment.
Some come to solve a mystery or for the publicity or in hopes of selling film rights. They also come because it is fun or they want to help families find closure.
They know what they are doing. All have dived wrecks. Crowell has captained many dives, some fatal, to the Andrea Doria, the Italian ocean liner that sank in 325 feet of water off the coast of Nantucket in 1956.
Crowell also dived with the team that identified U-869, a German U-boat that was found off the Jersey coast, thousands of miles from its reported sinking in the Strait of Gibraltar. The boat identification began with an inscribed knife that belonged to the sub’s radio operator.
Crowell’s dive partner and part-time captain was Mike Pizzio.
“These are people I’d trust with my life,” Pizzio says. “I have to, because you never know what’s going to happen down there.”
Before you can dive for a wreck, you must know where to look and what to look for.
That’s where the Ralstons come in.
Semi-retired biologists who own their own hydrology company in Idaho, Gene and Sandy took a hobby and made it an avocation.
It’s called side-scan sonar, and it uses a device that emits a wide fan of underwater impulses down toward the seabed as the sensor is towed through the water. The acoustic reflections are recorded in a series of cross-track slices, allowing for a 3-D image of the bottom.
It’s like an MRI of the ocean floor, and as with brain scanning, the art is in reading the images.
Gene Ralston is recognized for his instinctive ability to see what others miss.
In January, he and his wife came to New Jersey at the request of the family of 23-year-old Chris Pettit of Gibbstown, whose duck-hunting boat had capsized two months earlier, near where the Manuta Creek empties into the Delaware River.
Authorities had already scanned the creek, found nothing and concluded Pettit had been swept into the Delaware across from Philadelphia and could be anywhere.
Despite ice floes that blocked the creek, the Ralstons rescanned it, particularly “around an area that the search dogs kept returning to,” Gene says.
They found a submerged log with debris the authorities had dismissed as tree branches. But Ralston realized “tree branches aren’t symmetrical. Legs are.”
“We found his body and were able to bring closure to the family,” Ralston says. “In our line of work, that’s the best you can hope for.”
INTO THE WATER
The rectangular area that interests Tompkins’ searchers is about eight miles offshore. About a half-mile farther lies a trench dropping to about 1,500 feet. The searchers say it is improbable Tompkins would have circled that far west.
Driving a motor home and towing a boat that has about $300,000 in modifications, the Ralstons hit Redondo Beach two weeks ago and rescanned 75 sites identified with earlier technology.
Dragging their 6-foot, torpedo-like sonar unit just above the seabed, they eliminated about 25 sites using anomaly detection. (Side-scan sonar detects only mass, not metal.)
The rest of the team arrived last weekend. They received an orientation prepared by Lew Toulmin that included histories of Tompkins and the WASPs, and interviews with other pilots at Mines Field that day, who had never before talked to authorities.
There were maps, charts, GPS coordinates and projected flight paths. The underwater terrain was discussed. Toulmin had even tracked down the announcement that appeared in the New York Times when Tompkins and Silver became engaged in 1943.
For all the preparation, however, the effort comes down to getting in the water.
Every day, from eight to a dozen divers meet at the docks, lugging 150 pounds of equipment.
They wear bulky dry suits — thermal-lined gear that looks like a pilot flight suit and keeps divers warmer — for water temperatures that hover about 68 degrees.
There are commercial-quality masks and sophisticated rebreathers. There also are traditional oxygen tanks — because, as one diver explains, “at 200 feet you want to have backup.”
In teams of two, they are given dive coordinates by Pizzio, then head to volunteer boats like the high-powered sports fishing boat captained by former Staten Island fisherman Barry Anderson and the luxurious 72-foot cruiser owned by Southern California legend Bob Meistrell, a member of the Surfing Hall of Fame and inventor of the modern neoprene wetsuit.
REASON TO HOPE
Laura Whittall-Scherfee, who is Elizabeth Tompkins Whittall’s granddaughter, is there every morning. Some days she crews on a dive boat, others she patrols the docks. Regardless of her location, she says, “my primary role is to cheer them on.”
Killian, who runs the operation from a command trailer in the yacht club parking lot, has been there to greet the team in the morning and late in the day, when they come back dispirited.
So has Macha, who runs errands and keeps vigil.
Macha is, admittedly, an emotional guy. Tears have come to his eyes watching the boats head out, past honking harbor seals and swooping giant pelicans.
“This search has always meant a lot to me, but even more since my uncle, the last member of my family to serve in World War II, died two weeks ago,” Macha says.
“Of course it’s exciting to see all these people come out and mount a major search we never could have afforded, but even if they find nothing, I’ll never stop looking.
“This is Gertrude’s gravesite and it deserves to be found.”
Despite some tantalizing early finds — sandy mounds that could be engine parts but turn out to be rocks — the discoveries during the week are limited to the skeleton of a crashed light airplane already accounted for, plus several anchors, smashed boats and sunken household appliances.
But things changed yesterday.
Divers went back to a site they had searched earlier in the week where they had found a small piece of aluminum they thought could be from the World War II era. At mid-day, divers retrieved three parts, one of them with a number on it. As of late yesterday, they were trying to see if that part number was a possible match to either Tompkins’ plane that crashed in 1949.
Macha, Killian and local divers declare they will continue the search, “maybe not with the intensity of last week, but with the same focus,” Macha says.
“I think the amazing coverage is because this is a good-news story about people taking their own time and money to do something nice for other people,” says Laura Whittall-Scherfee. “Yeah, it would have been nice to find Gertrude, and I did get a flutter of hope a few times. But more than that, I’ve had a fabulous week with fascinating, caring, fun people. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Captain Anderson, the fisherman from Staten Island, is philosophical at the end of another day with no hint of the last missing WASP.
“It’s a big ocean out there, a really big ocean,” he says. “What I’m seeing is the camaraderie of everyone that’s putting forth the effort.”
Anderson then stops and points to the sky, imagining for a moment that Gertrude Tompkins is talking to him.
“She’s up there saying, ‘Thank you, thank you. I appreciate it.’”