This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In October 1944, pilot Gertrude "Tommy" Tompkins took off from L.A. in a fighter plane bound for Newark. Neither she nor the plane was ever seen again, and her disappearance is still one of aviation's great unsolved mysteries.
James Ure, a former staff writer and editor for The Salt Lake Tribune, tells her story in "Seized by the Sun: The Life and Disappearance of World War II Pilot Gertrude Tomkins." Written for a young adult audience, this thoroughly absorbing biography introduces readers to the life and times of the woman whom some call the other Amelia Earhart.
Born to an affluent family in New Jersey, Tompkins never wanted for material comforts. But she was tortured by a debilitating stutter. In an effort to help her overcome it, her well-meaning father arranged for a series of "cures" that were almost as bad as the problem itself. And her mother suffered from chronic depression, which further complicated Tompkins' childhood. In many ways, she was the very picture of the poor little rich girl.
Things changed when Tompkins discovered flying as an adult. Eventually her passion led her to train with the Women's Air Force Services, and in the process of discovering her strengths, she lost her stutter.
So what happened to Tommy on that fateful final flight? Ure discusses his theories and more about the book with The Tribune.
How did you come to write this particular story?
In 2000 I was thinking of writing a novel about a lady pilot who crashed in one of the glaciers in Glacier National Park during World War II. Her remains would turn up as the glacier melted. I put a query on a Women's Air Force Services internet group and within a week Gertrude Tompkins' grandniece contacted me. She asked if I was interested in a real-life lost WASP, the only one still missing of the 38 killed during the war. The story eventually consumed me, and I understood why an aviation cult had grown up around this woman.
Describe Tommy. What do you admire most about her?
Her indomitable spirit. Here is a woman with a terrible stutter, painfully introverted and so shy for a while her best friends were goats! She had to learn to sing her radio procedures, because to stutter would have washed her out of training. She was one of only 126 women selected to fly the P-51D Mustang, one of the hottest fighter planes of World War II. She persevered and became the woman she wanted to be.
Tell us about your research process.
Oh boy. Talk about a slog. When I began my research in 2000, Gertrude's sister WASPs were aging and many died during the course of preparing this book, including her best friend, Mickey Aston. Fortunately I talked to Mickey and a dozen other WASPs who flew with Gertrude before they passed away. Her sister, Elizabeth Whittall, also provided me with much material. She died in Florida in 2011 at age 105. Gertrude's grandniece and -nephew, Ken and Laura Whittall-Scherfee, fed me every document the family could find.
During the course of researching, I corresponded with the Royal Air Force, where Gertrude's true love flew for Eagle Squadron 72 before he was shot down over Holland. I traced another pilot (kind of a boyfriend, I gathered), and he confirmed that her stutter went away the first time she flew a P-51. He was in the same P-51 training group as Gertrude in Brownville, Texas. Then there were the military and search records that had to be sorted. I had "research rapture" as one interview led to another. Researching the culture of the war years was also fascinating, from music to movies to wartime makeup that included brown gravy.
What did you discover that surprised you the most?
That one of her flightmates on the day she disappeared is alive and alert and lives in San Diego. Jean Landis is 99 and remembers the day Gertrude was lost. I'm going to meet her in August.
Can you briefly explain what the WASPs' relationship was to the armed forces?
The WASPs were never officially part of the armed forces, unlike the U.S. Army's WACs, the Navy's WAVEs or the Coast Guard's SPARS. The WASPs were created with the understanding that they would eventually be militarized. In spite of promises, it never happened. Many men pilots opposed it, and Congress never did the right thing. I think the WASPs could be called a paramilitary organization.
What challenges did these women pilots face?
Every kind of sexism, bullying and gender discrimination you can think of. They were paid less than men doing the same jobs. The women paid for their own health care. The men got it for free. The men had $10,000 insurance policies in case of death while in the service. The WASPs who died got a pine box for burial and $200. There was such open hostility at times that the women believed some man had actually sabotaged their planes, causing at least one fatality.
Sexual harassment was rampant. If a WASP and a male officer were caught in sexual relations, the WASP was sent home, the male stayed. The women were ordered never to fly while menstruating. As a result, no WASP ever had a period. In the end, a comparison of WASP pilots and male pilots doing the same jobs showed the woman had fewer accidents and fatalities per mile flown. They were American women flying for their country and yet to this day there is controversy about them being buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery. In the end, Congress treated them shamefully after WASPs voluntarily served their country with skill and integrity.
Do you have a theory about what happened to Tommy?
Researching her timeline after takeoff, I believe her remains have to be in one of two places: Santa Monica Bay or somewhere between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. I'd opt for Santa Monica Bay. There is a witness who may have seen her go into the bay back on Oct. 26, 1944. However, the oldest sewage plant in Los Angeles has been dumping effluvium into the bay these past 73 years. Sand has also washed seaward from beaches built up at Dockweiler State Park near Marina Del Rey. I think she's still in Santa Monica Bay, probably buried by sand, silt and runoff from nearby Ballona Creek.
Is there a question you wish I'd asked?
Why did she finally marry a man she didn't love?
Family pressure and the looming disbanding of the WASPs were the twin pressures. Her sister, Elizabeth Whittall, told me in 2003 the family speculated that Gertrude might have been so unhappy in her month-old marriage that it was hinted that she committed suicide by P-51. Another family member suggested she flew to Mexico and disappeared. The director of the WASP Museum in Texas said she hoped Gertrude flew to Mexico and pounded the aluminum of her P-51 into pots and pans and lived happily ever after!
What message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Nothing feels as good as overcoming something that scares you.
Ann Cannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/anncannontrib.
Seized by the Sun
The Life and Disap-pearance of World War II Pilot Gertrude Tompkins
James W. Ure
Chicago Review Press
Pages • 208
Price • $19.99