I doubt you’ve heard of Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins.
She was a pilot in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots — the WASPs. And her courage during World War II deserves a long-overdue tribute during Women’s History Month.
Born in 1913 in New Jersey, Tommy was a shy society girl.
Tommy’s timidity grew from a life-long stutter (called dyslalia) and compelled her to lead an introverted life.
In 1940 she fell in love with an American pilot flying for England in the Battle of Britain. Research indicates he was probably Stanley Michael Kolendorski and we know that Kolendorski, flying a British Hurricane, was shot down and killed over the English Channel in April, 1941.
On Sept. 10, 1942 — nine months after Pearl Harbor was bombed and brought America into the war against the Axis nations — an article appeared in The New York Herald Tribune with the following headline: “Women Pilots to Fly for Army.”
More than 25,000 women responded to WASP recruitment. Some 1,800 were accepted, and about 1,100 graduated from training and began flying virtually every model of aircraft used by America in World War II — from the swift fighters to the giant B-29s that would drop the atomic bomb.
Tommy became a WASP partly to honor Kolendorski, and her flight training began in 1943.
Would her stutter wash her out of the training program? Radio procedures were of paramount importance to pilots.
Tommy overcame her handicap by singing her radio responses and instructions. She had learned as a child that she did not stutter when singing, or when speaking foreign languages (she was fluent in French and Italian).
She passed with flying colors and was one of 126 WASPs moved up to fly fighter planes. At the Advanced Pursuit School in Brownsville, Texas, Gertrude was assigned to fly a P-51D — one of the war’s more remarkable aircraft. It was fast, maneuverable and had great range.
The first time Gertrude flew a P-51 her stutter left her, never to return.
Specialists in speech therapy don’t fully understand why this sometimes happens, but her stutter ceased while Tommy was flying at 400 miles an hour. She now had a voice. She came out of her shell. She asserted herself.
On Oct. 26, 1944, the 32-year-old Gertrude lifted her P-51 off the runway at Mines Field in Los Angeles, heading for Newark, where the plane would be shipped to Europe to be flown in combat by male pilots.
Of the 38 WASP pilots killed in World War II, Tommy is the only one still missing. A cult of searchers continues to look for her.
Gertrude Tompkins is symbolic of the women who began breaking the mold. Unlike the male pilots, there was no life insurance, no hospitalization and lower pay for the women. When a woman pilot died, they passed the hat to make sure she had a coffin and transportation back home.
Congress disbanded the WASP because of pressure from male pilots who felt the women were taking their jobs.
Congress now has more women members than ever before. I’d like to think that our stuttering Tommy and her WASP sisters led the way in giving a courageous voice to women — a voice as sure and beautiful as the ringing of a bell.
James W. Ure is author of “Seized by the Sun: The Life and Disappearance of World War II Pilot Gertrude Tompkins” (Chicago Review Press, 2018). He lives and writes in Salt Lake City.