Carole Lombard was not only one of the most beautiful women ever captured by film, but she was one of the greatest actresses. She could be fun in a ditsy comedy or gripping and emotional in a tense drama. The sad factor is Carole Lombard died too young, but she died helping her country. Lombard had tickets to return to California by train, but was so determined
to save her marriage, she decided to save time by embarking on a
cross-country trip, with several refueling stops, on a noisy and bumpy
commercial airplane with an unpressurized cabin.
Her terrified traveling companions — Lombard’s mother, Elizabeth Knight, and
MGM publicist Otto Winkler — tried to talk her out of the flight. But Lombard,
who had pulled strings to get last-minute seats on TWA Flight 3, challenged
Winkler (who told his wife he had a premonition of a crash) to a coin toss. He
lost, and all three, along with all 19 other passengers and crew, ended up
losing their lives.
It was just five weeks after Pearl Harbor had plunged America into war, and
military personnel on their way to assignments had priority on civilian
transportation. When Flight 3 landed in Albuquerque to pick up mail and
passengers, Lombard was told by an airline employee that she and her party were
being bumped to make room for Army Air Corps flyers.
Based on testimony from a Civil Aeronautics Board,
Lombard not only wouldn’t budge, but threw her weight around — and got her way
after citing that she had just sold $2 million worth of bonds in a single day
and threatening to make calls to the big shots who had gotten her on the plane
in the first place.
Because of the weight of Lombard’s copious luggage and equipment carried by
the flyers, the plane could only carry a limited amount of fuel leaving
Albuquerque — not enough to make it to the final destination, Burbank,
Ideally, there would have been a refueling stop in Boulder City, Nev. But
Boulder City didn’t have landing lights, and a series of delays (caused by
weather and the abortive attempt to remove Lombard) forced a fateful nighttime
stop at another, better-equipped airport just outside Las Vegas.
Exactly what caused Flight 3 to slam into a Nevada mountain peak, on a
perfectly clear night shortly after takeoff, has been debated for decades. Lombard’s death was a huge international story for days, particularly after
the grief-stricken Gable arrived and tried to scale the steep 7,800-foot peak to
help recover his wife’s body.
Carole Lombard's flight left Indianapolis at four A.M., Friday, January 6, 1942. Flying time to Los Angeles was seventeen hours; with time changes the expected arrival at the Burbank airport was six P.M. on Friday. Most of the passengers were members of the Army Ferrying Command. When they made a scheduled Stop in Albuquerque, they found nine officers waiting with military orders enabling them to bump any civilian or Ferrying Command pilots off the plane. But Lombard argued that having just sold two million dollars' worth of war bonds, she must have some "rank." She could be very charming and amusing in this kind of situation, as anyone knows who has seen her on the screen. The Army officials gave in, permitting Lombard, her mother, and Winkler to continue on the flight. Winkler wired MGM that they would be an hour late arriving at Burbank, and the studio made arrangements to have Larry Barbier, an MGM public relations man, meet the plane.
The plane made an unscheduled stop in Las Vegas and at 6:50 P.M. proceeded west. The pilot, Wayne Williams, seemed unconcerned when he reported at 7:07 P.M. that he was slightly off course, about thirty-five miles west of Las Vegas. Eyewitnesses later reported that it was just about that time that the plane burst into flames. Some thought it happened just before the plane hit Olcott Mountain (also called Table Rock and Double U Peak); there was speculation that the absence of beacons -- blacked out for fear of Japanese air raids--was responsible for Williams's losing course. (Later investigations revealed that the pilot, who had been reprimanded several times for not following flight instructions, was taking a shortcut through a restricted area to make up for lost time.)
Barbier, waiting at Burbank, was the first to hear that there had been a plane crash. He immediately called Howard Strickling, another MGM publicity man and close friend of Gable's. Strickling told Barbier to charter a plane; then he called Gable, who immediately left for the airport with MGM executive Ralph Wheelright. Jill Winkler, Lombard's brothers Stuart and Fred Peters, and Fred's wife left for Las Vegas by car. MGM executive Eddie Mannix took a scheduled flight.
On the chartered flight to Vegas, Strickling would recall, Gable was tense "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 Gable and his group finally reached the base of the mountain, he wanted to go with the second search group, which included stretcher-bearers and medical supplies, but was persuaded to stay behind. Mannix and Wheelright went, however; years later, Mannix said Lombard was burned and headless and that Gable had been told.
Gable rode on the train that carried 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: The Army offered to give Carole a military funeral, and the Hollywood Victory Committee wanted to build a monument honoring the first star to give her life for her country. But Gable refused both suggestions, explicitly carrying out his wife's funeral instruction.
The death of Carole Lombard was Hollywood's first wartime tragedy. Those who were close to her, like Spencer Tracy, went into deep depression; Lucille Ball said she never really lost touch with her friend, that Carole visited her in her dreams for years, often advising her on important decisions.
Gable returned to MGM and eventually completed his second film with Turner, the ironically titled Somewhere I'll Find You
. As Lombard had urged him to do, he enlisted and served in the Army Air Force.
His swagger gone, Gable resumed his Hollywood career after the war but, by all accounts, was haunted by the memory of the woman he lost. Though married twice more (to women who resembled Lombard), when he died following a heart attack in 1960, Gable was buried next to her in a mausoleum...