Bright Lights, Bright People
Near Las Vegas, Nevada
had been traveling cross-country, promoting defense bonds to finance America's
entry into the Second World War just six weeks earlier. The trip, an idea of her
equally-celebrity husband Clark Gable, who was chairman of an actors' committee
handling personal appearances to boost bond sales, was to Lombard's home state
of Indiana. The end of her tour came in Indianapolis, where
she had lent a hand at flag-raisings, led a rally
at the city's Cadle Tabernacle, and raised nearly $2.5 million in a single day –
deeming her “Defense Bond Saleslady No. 1.”
The Flip of a Coin...
At 4 in the morning, Lombard and her
entourage, consisting of her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Peters, and her press agent,
Otto Winkler, arrived at the airport in Indianapolis. Tired, and with no
sleeping berths on the Douglas DC-3, registered as NC1946 and flying as
Transcontinental and Western Air Flight #3, that was traveling from New York
City to Los Angeles overnight, Winkler wanted to go to a hotel, sleep, take a
train, as they had on the trip to Indiana.
But Lombard nixed the idea, saying "I'll curl
up and take a pill and - pff - I'll be asleep..." The fate of the journey was
determined by a coin flip – which Winkler lost.
The trio boarded the plane, and it continued
onwards to the southwest. The plane made several stops throughout the Midwest,
including Saint Louis, Missouri, where the flight's takeoff was delayed due to
weather. It continued on to and stopped at Albuquerque, New Mexico, where
several Army officers and enlisted were to board the crowded civilian plane, and
had orders justifying their ability to “bump” any civilians off.
Several passengers, including violinist Joseph
Szigeti, patriotically gave up their seats for the soldiers, but Lombard argued
that having just sold over two million dollars' worth of war bonds, she must
have some "rank."
The Army officials gave in, permitting Lombard
and her party continue on the flight, which left Albuquerque at 4:40 PM, local
time, with a new flight crew. The flight was regularly scheduled to operate
between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Burbank, California, without any
intermediate stops. But, due to reduced fuel load because of the Army personnel
aboard, and the reported head winds over the airways, it was planned, however,
that this flight should make intermediate stops at Winslow, Arizona, and Las
Before continuing on to Winslow, Arizona,
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.
However, the headwind conditions were favorable
that day, at 5:38, the flight crew elected to forego landing at Winslow. And
since night landings were not available in Boulder City, Nevada, the DC-3,
powered with two 1200-horsepower Wright Cyclone G202A engines, diverted to land
in Las Vegas as its final stop at 6:36 in the evening before heading to its
final destination of Burbank, near Los Angeles.
At 7:07 PM, Flight
3 took off again - at the controls was 12,000-hour veteran pilot Captain Wayne
C. Williams and co-pilot First Officer Morgan A. Gillette, a commercial pilot
with over 1,300 flight hours – in the clear night skies. Some twenty minutes
later, miners in the mountains west of Las Vegas heard a terrific explosion, and
saw a vivid flash near the top of Table Rock Mountain. A ball of fire rose from
the near the summit of Mount Potosi, and then disappeared.
including those from the United States Army and Deputy Sheriffs of Clark County,
Nevada, commenced a search for the airplane, and were bogged down due to the
snowy mountainside. Because of the inaccessibility of the crash site, the
wreckage was not reached until about 9:00 o'clock on the morning following the
accident. Those on the scene envisioned that the transport had smacked straight
into the mountain's steep wall, only 200 feet below the peak, then had slid,
broken, into a ravine. For yards around, the scattered pine trees were scarred,
the snow melted clean away. The wreckage was quickly placed under guard by
deputy sheriffs until the following morning when a military guard, led by Major
Herbert Anderson – the commander of the Army's nearby gunnery school - was
The Reaction in Tinseltown
Barbier, waiting at Burbank, was one of the first to hear that TWA Flight 3 had
crashed. He immediately called another MGM publicist, Howard Strickling, who was
also a friend of Clark Gable. 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, all left for Las Vegas by car, while MGM executive Eddie Mannix took a
the chartered flight to Vegas, Strickling would later recall that 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, however, did
go in Gable's stead.
distraught actor paced a hotel room for hours awaiting word from searchers and
finally set off soon after noon with Sheriff Ward for the crash site. However,
word of finding the fate of the plane's crew and passengers came to Gable as he
arrived at the base of the mountain, and he returned heartbroken to his hotel.
Mannix later stated that he had seen Lombard's burned and headless body.
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:
I request that no person other than my immediate family and
the persons who shall prepare my remains for interment be permitted to view my
remains after death has been pronounced. I further request a private funeral and
that I be clothed in white and placed in a modestly priced crypt in Forest Lawn
Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
studio are shut down for a day in a gesture of mourning. President Franklin D.
Roosevelt saluted the blond, 33-year-old specialist in "screwball" comedy as a
national heroine, and named her the first woman homefront fatality of the war.
Shortly after her death, Gable,
who was inconsolable and devastated by her loss, joined the United States Army
Air Forces. After officers training, Gable headed a six-man motion picture unit
attached to a B-17 bomb group in England to film aerial gunners in combat,
flying five missions himself. Gable attended the launch of the Liberty ship, SS
Lombard, named in her honor, on January 15, 1944.
The Civil Aeronautics Board
determined, in its report issued in July of 1942, that the probable cause of the
accident was the failure of the captain after departure from Las Vegas to follow
the proper course by making use of the navigational facilities available to him,
and that contributing to the accident were the use of an erroneous compass
course, the blackout of most of the beacons in the neighborhood of the accident
made necessary by the war emergency, and the failure of the pilot to comply with
requests that pilots to confine their flight movements to the actual on-course