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Utah author explores the ‘other Amelia Earhart’ in new YA biography

First Published      Last Updated Jul 10 2017 09:18 am

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.

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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