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The Mysterious WWII Death of Carole Lombard by Robb Hill

The Mysterious WWII Death of Carole Lombard by Robb Hill

A portrait of the beautiful and talented and highest salaried actress of the 1940's, MGM 's Carole Lombard. She was also Mrs. Clark Gable. Her tragic death along with combat ready pilots and the remainder of the passengers and crew shocked the nation and the world on January 17, 1942.

Who was Carole Lombard and how did she die? Well, she was HollyWood's leading actress when WWII erupted and the wife of famed actor Clark Gable. On the evening of January 16,1942, the TWA airliner she was sharing with 15 U.S. Army Air Corps pilots exploded and burned midway up the slope of Mt.Potosi, some 20 miles southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. There were no survivors. WWII was barely a month and a half old. This great tragedy that befell Carole Lombard and all aboard the ill-fated airliner, shocked the nation. The public wanted an explanation as to its cause. Could it have been sabotage? The entire nation was jittery over the possibility and it would have to be thoroughly investigated. Who better than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover could have been chosen to probe the mystery, and probe it he did. Carole Lombard was a beautiful, multi-talented actress at the height of her career. In addition, she was married to matinee idol Clark Gable. Both were very patrioticAmericans. Immediately after the war was declared, both she and Clark volunteered to head the "Hollywood Victory Committee" dedicated to raising money for the war effort. Both had agreed to go on a fund-raising campaign to sell War Bonds.

Carole had previously supported the Anti-Fascist, Greek war against Mussolini's Italy. In addition, she and her husband were involved in the "Bundles for Britain" drive to aid that country's war effort against Nazi-Germany. Needless to say, both wished to do what they could for their country in its time of need. They were slated to head a War Bond drive to be held at Indianapolis, Indiana, which just happened to be Carole's home state. Clark, however, opted not to go at the last minute, a decision he would live to regret for the rest of his life. Instead Carole's mother, Mrs. Bessie Peters, and her Agent, Otto Winkler agreed to accompany her. They would travel by rail and soon the Lombard party was booked aboard a Union-Pacific Express train bound for Indianapolis.

They departed on the morning of January 12, 1942 and were scheduled to complete the tour and return to Los Angeles via the same train on the 19th. The War Bond drive Carole was to head was one of the first out of many that would be held during WWII, and all measures to assure its success had been taken. The city itself was chosen because it was Carole's native state and her fame and commitment to the cause, it was felt would do the rest. The Lombard party arrived at the city in the very early hours of January 15th. They had made several fund-raising stops along the route, but the Indianapolis Rally was the focus. Government officials had set $500,000 in Bond sales as the goal to be met. Whether this goal could be met was of great concern. Would the public respond to Carole and the war effort? Much depended on the success of this rally. After reaching the city, Carole was involved in a frenzy of activity. Photo sessions, speeches, and meeting the public occupied her every moment during the day of the rally. When it was over and Government officials tallied the take, they were elated. Over 2 million dollars had been raised primarily by the efforts of a very dedicated lady.

In the aftermath of the terrible crash atop Mt. Potosi, some 20 miles Southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, rescue workers sift through the burned, battered and twisted wreckage of TWA's "Flight Three". There were no survivors.

The Lombard party would now face three long, hard days of train travel to return to the West Coast. Carole came up with a better idea, why not fly? The travel time would be reduced to a single day, and she was anxious to be reunited with Clark, who had been on location shooting a film prior to her departure. Carole's mother and her agent, Otto Winkler, were however more than content to ride the train, but the willful Carole got them to agree that the method of travel would be decided by the flip of a coin. "Heads", they would go by train, needless to say if "tails" prevailed, flight arrangements had to be hastily made. It is doubtful if the Lombard party got any sleep during the night of January 15/16, 1942, as the decision, to travel by air was not arrived at until 1:00 A.M., and take-off time for TWA's "Flight Three" was at 4:00 A.M. Carole countered her party's complaints by stating they could sleep on the plane. They would certainly have sufficient opportunity to sleep as the flight time to Burbank, California was 17 hours. They would, however, be traveling aboard one of TWA's newest airliners, a "Skyclub" Douglas, DC-3. This particular aircraft was less than one year old having come off the Douglas assembly line in March of 1941. It was assigned number NC-1946 by the Civil Aeronautics Board, and although it left much to be desired in the areas of comfort and luxury by today's standards, it was state of the art for the time.

The take-off of "Flight Three" was routine and the first scheduled stop was Wichita, Kansas. At that time several passengers deplaned and were replaced by new arrivals. The most notable of which, was Joseph Szigeti, a world famous Hungarian violinist. He, too, was on his way to Southern California, and Hollywood in particular, to participate in a forthcoming movie entitled "Holiday Inn", starring Bing Crosby. In this soon to become famous film, Bing would introduce the holiday classic song "White Christmas". Joseph Szigeti, although still technically a foreign national, had fled his homeland of Hungary at the out break of WWII, fearing the war and its consequences. "Flight Three" then proceeded to its next scheduled stop of Albuquerque, where its present passenger manifest was in for a big shake-up. Most civilian passengers were about to get "bumped" from the flight for the war effort.

Fifteen trained U.S. Army Air Corps pilots were being transferred to West Coast bases, and had priority. Even the Lombard party was asked to relinquish their seats, but Carole adamantly refused. She stated her case that she was returning from a Government mission of great importance and should be allowed to complete her journey. Her request was granted, but Joseph Szigeti and the other civilian passengers aboard exited the aircraft to make room for the military pilots. One civilian in addition to the Lombard party, the wife of one of the army pilots was allowed to remain aboard. Soon the fully loaded airliner would begin the next leg of its journey, but not before a crew change would be made. The new airline captain would be 41-year-old Wayne C. Williams and First Officer Morgan Gillette, along with Stewardess Alice Getz. Captain Williams was a seasoned veteran airline pilot with 12,000 hours of flight time. He was a twelve year veteran in the industry. He began his career with American Airways in 1929 as an airmail pilot. He applied for a position with TWA in 1931 but was turned down initially. He had somehow acquired the reputation of being a "Maverick" pilot, however experienced pilots were hard to find in 1931 and TWA relented and hired him as a night airmail pilot only.

A January, 1942 photo of left to right, Eddie Mannix, MGM publicity agent, a bereaved Clark Gable and his close friend and fellow actor; Spencer Tracy, at the El Rancho Hotel in Las Vegas.

He lasted less than two years before he was dismissed from the company. As cause for dismissal he was cited for damaging company equipment, carelessness and insubordination. Williams was highly upset over his firing and took his case to the National Labor Relations Board. The board apparently felt that his dismissal was unfair and mandated that he be reinstated but only as an airmail pilot. This turn of events evidently had a beneficial effect on Williams, as for the next nine years he maintained at least a satisfactory record becoming a full fledged airline captain, although his "Maverick" reputation persisted. The passenger "bumping" and crew change at Albuquerque delayed "Flight Three" for about three hours, but it finally became airborne carrying l9 passengers and a crew of three. Captain Williams was advised that he might encounter strong headwinds and that an additional stop for fuel at Winslow, Arizona might be advisable before continuing on to his next scheduled stop, Boulder City, Nevada. The winds however did not materialize and Williams requested several changes to his flight plan. First, he would skip the refuelling stop at Winslow, but rather than landing at Boulder City he requested permission to land at the airport at Las Vegas.

The delay at Albuquerque meant that the flight would arrive at the unlighted Boulder City airport at dusk or after, and since Las Vegas terminal was lighted, it was the obvious choice. Air traffic control at Burbank quickly granted his requests and radioed back: "Proceed, Captain's discretion." The flight landed at what is known today as Nellis Air Force Base at 6:36p.m. on January 16, 1942. It taxied to the Western Air Lines terminal there, as the TWA facilities were at Boulder City only. The crew and passengers deplaned while the DC-3's fuel and oil tanks were topped off.

Passenger accommodations there were spartan to say the least, and consisted of a small structure that housed a waiting room and restaurant. Soon, the refuelling was completed and the passengers re-boarded the aircraft. It roared into the air at 7:07 p.m., its fate awaiting it shortly. "Flight Three" strained to gain altitude due to its maximum load condition, but by 7:22 had achieved its cruising speed and altitude. At 7:23 p.m. the black, but calm, peace of the Vegas Valley was shattered by a thunderous flash and roar, followed by flames that shot hundreds of feet into the air. No one knew what could have caused it, but speculation concerning a plane crash soon followed. Several eyewitness accounts placed the site of the explosion about midway up the slope of Mt. Potosi about 20 miles to the Southwest. If any daylight had remained it is certain that a rescue attempt would have been mounted, but in the blackness of that cold winter night all efforts would have to wait for morning. Clark Gable sat before a warm fire in his and Carole's San Fernando Valleyranch home. It was nearly 8:00 p.m., and he was anxiously awaiting the call from Burbank airport to pick up his wife and her party.

The author at the "Lombard crash site" as it appears today, some 57 years after the tragedy. Depicted is one of the two Wright "Cyclone" model G202A, 1200 horsepower engines that powered the airliner.

A call soon came but its contents were far from what he expected. It was from MGM publicity man, Eddie Mannix who told Clark that Carole's plane had crashed, but that nobody knew any of the details. Gable and Mannix immediately chartered a plane for Vegas and arrived at 1:00 a.m. They were informed by Police officials that the suspected crash site was very remote and that it would be well into the day before search parties could reach the site. As dawn broke on January 17, 1942, several search parties began the long and arduous trek up snow-covered Mt. Potosi. A 21-year-old former high school football star named Lyle Van Gordon was first to reach the still smoldering wreckage. It was instantly apparent to him that there were no survivors from the horrendous crash. The beautiful and talented star of stage and screen with every thing to live for, along with her mother, her agent and the remaining passengers and crew of "Flight Three" were all dead. Several Deputies remained at the site to guard it against intruders, and Van Gordon and the other members of the search party began the long trip back to inform the world of the grim tragedy that had befallen the flight. Upon their returrn to the base camp near the mining community of Goodsprings, they met MGM publicity man Mannix and told him the sad news. Mannix then sent a telegram to Clark simply stating "no survivors - all killed instantly."

Gable probably suspected the truth, but here was absolute substantiation, and his life from that moment on would be forever changed. Heavy drinking, failed marriages and somewhat of a "death wish" would pervade his life throughout the war years and far beyond. He received thousands of letters of condolence from all over the world and one particularly poignant message from the then President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It captured the feelings of many Americans and read as follows: "Mrs. Roosevelt and I are deeply distressed. Carole was our friend. She brought great joy to millions. She served her country in war and peace. She is and always will be a star we shall never forget." Soon the passengers and crew of "Flight Three" were laid to rest, but the public clamored to know how and why they had died. We were at war with the Axis Powers. Could an evil agent of theirs have been responsible for the crash, for which there was no immediate explanation? Days after the crash, FBI Chief J . Edgar Hoover set an all-out investigation into progress. It would be continued for six long months with great intensity. Hoover "would get to the bottom of it!" It was initially suspected that a time-bomb was placed aboard the doomed craft somewhere along its route, and the investigation centered upon that possibility. The FBI soon received a multitude of letters pointing the finger at a saboteur. The prime suspect was violinist Joseph Szigeti. Hoover, bowing to public opinion, immediately began a thorough but quiet investigation of the war refugee. He was placed under the most intense scrutiny of the Bureau for the duration of the investigation, but came up clean.

All other passengers "bumped" from the flight at Albuquerque were also investigated in depth. In spite of the fact that Hoover had exerted great pressure on his agents to come up with something, no evidence of wrong doing could be found. Beyond the "crank" calls and anonymous letters received, all of which were thoroughly investigated, everything lead to a "dead end". Finally, all of Hoover's Bureau Chiefs admitted to him that no shred of evidence linking the crash to sabotage could be found. Although the files remained open, the active investigation was halted.

Catholic "Miraculous Medal" issued to one of the 15 doomed US AAF pilots who were going to war. Medal was found by a friend fellow aviation archaeologist, George Petterson.

Six months had now elapsed since that fateful evening of January 16, 1942, and the cause of the crash still remained a dark mystery. It made absolutely no sense that a state-of-the-an airliner, on a routine flight with a highly experienced crew, could smash into a mountain far below its summit. Mt.Potosi, was in fact, the highest terrain hazard that the flight faced on its journey to Burbank, a hazard which Captain Williams had to be intimately aware of. So what had gone so terribly Wrong?The Civil Aeronautics Board, forerunner of the FAA, had began its investigation at approximately the same time as the FBI. Exactly six months to the day of the crash it made public its findings. The CAB's explanation as to cause, although couched in more technical terms, attributed the crash to a simple case of pilot error. In their investigation, which covered the background of Captain Williams in depth, they found he was long known for his "maverick" tendencies. Those sometimes desirable tendencies in this case proved fatal, not only to himself, but to the 21 other human beings whose lives he was ultimately responsible for. Their lives were all forfeited due to his simple act of negligence.

What sort of terrible error had caused the crash? The explanation provided in the CAB Report pointed to a simple oversight on behalf of the Captain. The three hour delay at Albuquerque was also certainly a factor. It caused "Flight Three" to arrive in Southern Nevada just after dark, on the night of January 16, 1942. The field at Boulder City was unlit and Williams requested, and was granted clearance, to land at Las Vegas airfield and the Western Air Lines terminal there, which had lighting. Although the refuelling stop there Was brief, the Captain failed to recalculate his compass heading from Las Vegas to Burbank. He had flown the route many times, but usually from TWA's terminal at Boulder City. His original flight plan and compass heading would have taken him sufficiently southwest of Mt. Potosi to miss it completely, had he left from Boulder City. That same heading from Las Vegas airfield put him smack into the 8,500 foot mountain at the 7,700 foot level. The scenario for the horrendous crash could not have been worse. The left wing of the DC-3 contacted the triangular, solid rock face first. Then the nose section hit, and the fuselage accordioned, rupturing the fuel tanks in the Wing's center section. A massive explosion then occurred, followed by an inferno of flaming wreckage streaming down the rock face to a ledge below. The violent crash broke the silence of a calm winter night in the Vegas Valley, and the burning wreckage was visible for hours after the impact. Needless to say all aboard died instantly.

The terrible news would reach the American public and the world in a few short hours. Captain Wayne C.Williams, the "maverick" pilot, had committed his final error. The Army Air Force would be denied the services of 15 vitally needed combat pilots, a great and patriotic lady was dead, as well as her Mother, agent, and the remainder of the crew and passengers. The families of all the victims were in a state of shock, as was the nation.

Lombard Site Artifacts: left to right, top to bottom, Control Column & Yoke Remains, Throttle Quardrant, Electrical Box, Wright Cyclone Engine Spark Plug.

A grief stricken Clark Gable would survive the loss of his beloved wife, but would suffer greatly for the remainder of his life. Within days after Carole's death he enlisted in the Army, not at the Officer rank which he could have easily attained, but as a lowly Private. He did, however, use his "star" status to gain an interview with Air Corps Chief, General "Hap" Arnold. He simply asked the General what could he do for the war effort. Arnold, possibly in a quandry about how to respond to Clark, thought for moment. He then asked him to go to Europe and make a training film on the 8th Air Force, bomber crew, air gunners. Gable accepted the job enthusiastically and began to make plans for his new assignment. Before he left the states, General Arnold promoted him from Private to Lieutenant, in order for him to head the film unit.

What was to become of the mighty 8th Air Force, was far from it in mid 1943. Aircraft and crews had just arrived in England and their first missions would be flown in August. Most of these fledgling missions were shallow incursions into German occupied France, against lightly defended targets, Gable and his film crew arrived in England and began filming during the Fall of 1943. General Arnold gave Clark no parameters or objectives to guide him in his film making debut, and so he set them himself. Whether motivated out of a sense of patriotism, or a "death wish" stemming from guilt over his wife's death, Clark became proficient at aerial gunnery and actually flew half-a-dozen or more combat missions, blazing away at enemy fighters. Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering learned of Gable's brash exploits and quickly put a bounty on his head! He offered any German fighter pilot the equivalent of 5,000 American dollars plus an automatic promotion and furlough for shooting down Clark and his bomber. No Luftwaffeman ever collected the bounty. Gable and his film crew completed the training film and returned to the states.

The film itself was a tribute to the enlisted air gunners of WWII and a great success as a training supplement. For his efforts, above and beyond the call of duty, in producing and acting in the role of a combat air gunner, Clark was awarded the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and promoted to the rank of Major. At the end of the War he was discharged from the service as a Captain, by another actor member of the Army Air Forces who would go on to the ultimate political fame, Ronald Reagan. After Gable's meritorious stint in the service, he returned to civilian life and his career as Hollywood's leading man. Although his career flourished, heavy drinking and failed marriages would plague him until his death in 1960. He would many three more times after Carole's untimely death, but his true emotions remained with her. They became quite evident in his request to be buried next to her in Forest Lawn Cemetery. After Clark's death, the memory of his beautiful and talented wife who had preceded him in death by some 18 years would further fade from history. Present generations know little about her or her fame and popularity. If she had survived the war, Hollywood's history books would have been written differently. In truth she and all others aboard ill-fated "Flight Three" were all casualties of the war, for without the war, their paths would have never crossed.

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