Author Jim Ure was writing a novel when a true story side-tracked him, the story of a woman's disappearance that has remained unsolved for more than seventy years.
His new book, Seized by the Sun tells how Gertrude Tompkins (left), a shy, awkward girl who stuttered, growing up to be one of only a handful of U.S. women test pilots during WWII.
Her job was to take new or repaired planes to the sky and put them through tight turns, stalls, dives and spins making sure they were safe.
Below: P-51 Mustang fighters. Gertrude was one of only 126 WASP pilots good enough to fly these fighter planes. Her first flight in a powerful P-51 cured the debilitating stutter that had plagued her since childhood.
It was later in the war, on a routine flight, that Gertrude disappeared while ferrying a factory-new plane a short distance between two airfields in California
Author James Ure is on the blog today, telling us how he got hooked on the story.
In the summer of the 2000 I was doing some research for an idea I had about a novel. My writing success had come in non-fiction, but the illusive novel still beckoned.
In this fictional piece I imagined a character who learned his mother had been a woman pilot in World War II and her crashed plane and her remains had just been discovered in a melting glacier in Montana.
I put a note on what I was doing on a Women’s Air Force Pilot user group on Yahoo. The result was unexpected.
I was contacted by the grand niece of Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins. Laura Whittall-Scherfee, who lives near Sacramento, told me that of the 38 women killed in the WASP during World War II, her grand aunt was the only one still missing.
She was called, “The Other Amelia,” and a sort of cult had grown among the searchers who continue to look for her to this day. Laura and her husband Ken offered me access to the family records. Would I be interested?
Would I ever!
I’d always had a fascination for World War II aviation, and this was an enticement I couldn’t refuse.
It took seventeen years of interviews, combing military files and reading private correspondence to finally give Tommy the fully-dimensional place in aviation history she deserved.
I was lucky to have conversations with a number of WASPs early in my research. Today only about 85 WASPs of the 1,175 who were in service during the war are still alive.
Tommy took off from Mines Air Field (now LAX) on October 26, 1944, and was expected to stay at the Army Air Force Base in Palm Springs that evening.
She was never seen again. Aircraft historian Pat Macha has conducted numerous searches over the years and no trace has ever turned up.
Below: A group of WASPs pray for luck before climbing into a BT-13 unpredictable and sometimes dangerous training plane. Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, circa 1943.
The conclusion I have come to after all this time is that she probably crashed into Santa Monica Bay immediately after take-off.
The results of searches of the bay and of the mountains and deserts on her presumed flight path are documented in Seized by the Sun. It’s a mystery yet to be solved, and there are men and women still searching for Tommy.
Thank you, Jim!
Learn more about Jim and his books at www.jimurebooks.com.
Above, WASPs with PT-19, the first plane usually flown in primary training. Women on far left in dark glasses is Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins, according to Texas Women’s University Libraries WASP Archives.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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