Carole Lombard was a Hollywood legend that would be forever remembered even if she hadn’t died tragically in a plane crash scant weeks after the United States entered the Second World War. The ex-wife of William Powell and the current wife of Clark Gable, Lombard was one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the time of her tragic death.
In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lombard patriotically committed to helping the war effort by attending a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana. She was recruited by Howard Dietz, then the publicity director of the MGM film studio in early January 1942.
Clark Gable stayed in Los Angeles, as he had been asked to serve as the head of the actors’ branch of the wartime Hollywood Victory Committee. He was also about to begin filming Somewhere I’ll Find You with Lana Turner.
Prior to leaving town, on January 11, 1942, Gable and Lombard went out to eat at the Hollywood Brown Derby. It would be the final meal Lombard would ever eat in Los Angeles.
Dietz advised Lombard to avoid airplane travel because he feared air travel’s reliability and safety. Instead, she traveled by train, accompanied by her mother, and Gable’s press agent, Otto Winkler.
Lombard raised more than $2 million in defense bonds in a single evening in Indianapolis.
Her party had initially been scheduled to return to Los Angeles the same way they came, via train. Lombard however, had other plans. She was eager to reach home as quickly as possible and wanted to fly back to Los Angeles.
Her mother and Winkler tried to talk her out of the flight as they were afraid of flying and insisted that the group follow their original travel plans. Lombard had already pulled some strings to get 3 last-minute seats on TWA Flight 3 and challenged Winkler to a coin toss to decide if they would fly or travel by train. He agreed, and Lombard won the toss.
Around 4 AM January 16, 1942, the trio boarded the Douglas DC3 and headed west. The plane made a stopover to refuel in Las Vegas and took off for the last time at 7:07 PM. After traveling 32 statute miles Southwest, the plane crashed into Double Up Peak near the 8,300-foot level of Potosi Mountain. All 22 passengers lost their lives.
The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) investigated the accident and determined it was caused by a navigation error by the captain. Eyewitness evidence suggested TWA Flight 3 proceeded from its departure in Las Vegas along a straight line, 10° right of the designated airway, into the high terrain that rose above their flight altitude of 8,000 ft. This led investigators to deduce that the crew was not using radio navigation to follow the airway which would have provided them safe obstacle clearance, but was instead using a compass heading.
Some people, including Orson Welles, believed this story was false and that the plane was shot down by Nazi saboteurs to kill some scientist that were on board. There is no evidence to support this claim.
“It (the plane) was full of big-time American physicists, shot down by the Nazis. She (Lombard) was one of the only civilians on the plane. The plane was filled with bullet holes. In those days, the planes couldn’t get up that high. They’d just clear the mountains. The bad guys knew the exact route that the plane had to take. They were standing on a ridge, which was the toughest thing for the plane to get over. One person can shoot a plane down, and if they had five or six people there, they couldn’t miss. Now, I cannot swear it’s true. I’ve been told this by people who swear it’s true, who I happen to believe. But that’s the closest you can get, without having some kind of security clearance.”
“No one wanted to admit that we had people in the middle of America who could shoot down a plane for the Nazis. Because then everybody would start denouncing anybody with a German grandmother. Which Roosevelt was very worried about. The First World War had only happened some twenty-odd years before. He’d seen the riots against Germans. And he was very anxious for nothing like that to be repeated.” – Orson Welles
MGM had arranged to have Larry Barbier, an MGM PR man, meet the plane when it landed in Burbank. He was the first to learn that there had been a plane crash. He immediately called Howard Strickling, another MGM PR man and close friend of Gable.
Strickling instructed Barbier to charter a plane. He then called Gable, who immediately left for the airport with MGM executive Ralph Wheelright. Another MGM executive, Eddie Mannix, took a later scheduled flight. Winkler’s wife, Jill, as well as Lombard’s brothers Stuart and Fred Peters, left for Las Vegas by car.
On the chartered flight to Vegas, Strickling recalled that Gable was understandably distressed “because he sensed what had happened… You knew you shouldn’t talk to him. You knew not to say, “It’s going to be all right,” or “I’m sorry.”
When they finally reached the base of the mountain, Gable wanted to go with the second search party, which included stretcher-bearers and medical supplies. He was persuaded to stay behind by Strickland. Mannix and Wheelright went instead and were part of the group that located Lombard’s body.
Gable rode on the train that brought the bodies back to Los Angeles and then purchased three crypts at Forest Lawn cemetery, one for Carole, one for her mother, and one for himself. Lombard was buried under the name Carole Lombard Gable. When Clark Gable passed away in 1960 he was interred beside Lombard, despite being married to Kay Williams at the time of his death.
The death of Lombard was Hollywood’s first wartime tragedy. The Army offered to give Carole a military funeral, and the Hollywood Victory Committee wanted to build a monument honoring the first Hollywood star to give her life for the United States in World War 2. But Gable refused both requests, carrying out his wife’s funeral instructions instead.
Lombard’s final film, To Be or Not to Be, co-starring Jack Benny, a satire was in post-production at the time of her death. The film’s producers decided to cut a line in which Lombard’s character asks, “What can happen on a plane?” out of respect for her death.
At the time of her death, Lombard had been scheduled to star in the film They All Kissed the Bride. She was replaced by Joan Crawford who donated all of her salary for the movie to the Red Cross, who had helped extensively in the recovery of bodies from the air crash.
In December 1943, the United States Maritime Commission announced that a Liberty ship named after Carole Lombard would be launched. Gable attended the launch of the SS Carole Lombard on January 15, 1944, the two-year anniversary of Lombard’s record-breaking war bond drive. The ship was involved in rescuing hundreds of Naval soldiers from sunken ships in the Pacific and returning them to safety.