Tom Theiler, whose brother died in the 1955 crash, is hugged by Michelle… (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles…)
For more than half a century, the disappearance of two Air Force pilots headed from Los Angeles to Yuma, Ariz., remained a mystery.
Then last May, a volunteer search team hunting for a long-lost World War II-era female pilot found the shattered remains of the Lockheed T-33 jet missing since Oct. 15, 1955, in about 100 feet of water 1 1/2 miles off Playa del Rey's Dockweiler State Beach.
On Friday, descendants of Lts. Richard M. Theiler and Paul D. Smith gathered at the shoreline beneath the LAX flight path to memorialize the two men who vanished 55 years ago.
About 40 members of the two families -- some from as far as Spain and Great Britain -- were among 90 or so who heard the pilots eulogized by relatives and by an Air Force chaplain who was accompanied by a pair of uniformed honor guards.
"America was in her prime, leading the world" when Theiler, 28, and Smith, 23, disappeared, said Lt. David Sarmiento, the chaplain. "These were the early days filled with promise and Richard and Paul chose to be on the cutting edge."
Among family members present was Tom Theiler, who was an Air Force pilot in 1955 and helped search for his brother's missing plane. He accepted the U.S. flag from one of the honor guards on behalf of the family.
Theresa Theiler Morton, niece of the missing flier, said the pilot's son was 8 months old when the T-33 vanished and was haunted by his father's disappearance all his life. Mark Theiler died at the age of 50 about five years ago, said Morton, of Chicago.
Charles Baker, a cousin of Smith, accepted the second honor guard flag for his family.
"The final answer is here," Smith, of Austin, Texas, said as he gazed out over the ocean. "Paul's parents have passed away. But they never gave up hope that he'd walk up the driveway and come home."
After the beach service, family members climbed aboard dive boats used in last year's search and were escorted by three Los Angeles County Fire Department lifeguard boats to the crash site. There, Theiler's sisters, Pat Miller and Marly Reider, placed a wreath in the ocean and Baker followed suit for Smith.
Abbey Lynne Theiler, the pilot's 21-year-old granddaughter who is studying in Toledo, Spain, spread Mark Theiler's ashes over the wreck site.
"My father and grandfather are together again," she said.
Family members thanked search organizers Gary Fabian and G. Pat Macha of UB88.org and divers Kyaa Heller and Ray Arntz -- who were the first to reach the wrecked T-33 -- as they disembarked from the boats back at Marina del Rey. They also praised Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives who helped track down family members.
Macha said the hunt for long-lost Women Airforce Service Pilots flier Gertrude Tompkins -- which led to the T-33's discovery -- will resume this year by UB88.org, Aircraftwrecks.com and the Missing Aircraft Search Team.
Tompkins' World War II P-51 Mustang is also thought to be somewhere in Santa Monica Bay, Macha said.