Report Of 1955 Jet Being Found, Stirs Memories
A historian’s report that the wreckage of an Air Force jet lost at sea 54 years ago has been found off the Southern California coast brought a surge of emotions for Thomas Theiler, 77, a retired executive and former Air Force pilot.
Theiler’s older brother, Richard Martin Theiler, was in the front seat of a Lockheed-Martin T-33A that went missing just after take-off from the Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 15, 1955.
Aviation archeologist G. Pat Macha said Tuesday that he and a group of volunteers found Theiler’s plane underneath 100 feet of water earlier this month.
When Theiler, of Savannah, Ga., was informed, he was shocked to find himself grieving for his brother all over again, 54 years later.
“He was five years older than me, a good athlete and everyone loved him, so there was a lot of hero worship involved,” said Thomas Theiler, who followed his older brother into the Air Force. “He probably got his wings two years before I did. We were buddies.”
Macha, 63, is an amateur historian who collects documents about military plane crashes. He is heading up a search for another historic wreck in Santa Monica Bay, a plane flown by a female World War II pilot who disappeared in 1944.
In April, a sonar survey turned up another missing aircraft, and Macha said he identified it by matching Air Force records to the serial number on a piece of the wreckage that the salt water had spared.
The Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Command says it appears likely Macha’s finding on the Air Force jet lost at sea 54 years ago are correct, but Lt. Col. Wayne Perry says the command plans to investigate further and determine whether the water is shallow enough to recover the wreckage.
Thomas Theiler said his brother had a wife and a 6-month-old son. Both died years ago.
The younger Theiler also lost a close friend from flight school that day, Lt. Paul Dale Smith, who was in the cockpit. Smith and the elder Theiler were training to fly with the Aerospace Defense Command and practicing navigation and night flying.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Jack Ewell said his department notified Theiler.
“It’s particularly shocking because it’s so long ago. It’s not like people are just sitting and waiting for news,” Ewell said.
Divers are examining the site, but there’s only a remote chance that they’ll find personal effects, remains or any clue about why the plane went down, he said.
The plane had just departed in bad weather bound for its base in Yuma, Ariz., but the pilots didn’t make contact after they cleared the clouds.
At his base in Minneapolis, Theiler got word that his brother and friend were missing and a commander gave him a plane to fly to Yuma and wait for news.
“A pickup drove up with a wheel that a lifeguard found. It was from a military aircraft and they don’t just float up onto the beach. So we knew what happened,” Theiler said.
Macha said Theiler and his daughter got emotional when he spoke with them on the phone.
Theresa Morton, of Lake Forest, Ill., the dead pilot’s niece, grew up imagining her uncle living on a desert island with his friend Smith.
She said she was grateful to Macha for helping write a closing chapter to her family history.
“This news has rocked our world, but on the other hand, it’s really neat,” she said. “I’ve been pulling out all the family photos, my dad’s fighter wings, to show to my kids. It makes for wonderful family time.”