In the late 1930s, Carole Lombard was a famous and much-admired film star. She had a long list of hits to her credit and was the highest-paid female movie star in the world.
In 1939, she married Clark Gable, the most popular film actor in America, often referred to as the King of Hollywood. Their marriage enhanced both stars’ images. Lombard and Gable were often seen as the perfect Hollywood couple, beautiful and very much in love.
Carole Lombard was a master of what was called screwball comedy and was also an American patriot. In 1936, she earned $465,000 and paid 85 percent in state and federal income taxes. On a film set, she happened to mention that she was glad to do it because she was proud to be an American. Her statement made headlines across the country and President Franklin Roosevelt himself praised her altruism.
War bond sales tour
Following the onset of World War II, with Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, authorities remembered that the fame of selected Hollywood celebrities could be utilized to further the war effort, as it had been in World War I. Helping raise money for war bonds was a case in point. Carole Lombard came immediately to mind. Officials asked if she would help out with a war bond sales tour. She said she would be delighted.
Carole had been born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and as a small child had moved with her mother to Los Angeles, where she had grown up. It was decided that she would take the train from Los Angeles to Indiana, raising money at stops along the way with a big push in Fort Wayne, then return home via train.
Accompanied by her mother, Bess Peters, and MGM press agent and Clark Gable’s friend Otto Winkler, they departed Los Angeles by train on January 12, 1942, with stops along the way to sell war bonds, including in Salt Lake City and Chicago, arriving in Fort Wayne on January 15.
Fundraising appearances were held during the day, then that evening Lombard was the featured speaker at a gathering of 12,000 Hoosiers, topped off with Carole leading in singing the National Anthem. More than $2 million was raised at the rally, exceeding $34 million in today’s value.
With events concluded in Fort Wayne, it was time to return home. The plan was to travel by train. It would be slow, taking several days. But Lombard was anxious to get home to Clark Gable and their 20-acre ranch at Encino in the San Fernando Valley. She suggested flying home, reducing the trip to one day.Winkler and Carole’s mother were opposed to this change in plans. Nevertheless, seats on a TWA flight were arranged. (TWA, of course, was owned by Howard Hughes, with whom Lombard had apparently been involved years earlier.)
Lombard’s mother, a numerologist, said the TWA flight was doomed; Carole was 33 years and 3 months old, there were three in their party, the plane was flight No. 3, and three was a bad number, among other things. Winkler protested he disliked flying and that they had agreed on the train. Lombard said she could not handle three more days on a “choo-choo train.” They flipped a coin, and flying won.
Transcontinental Western Air Flight 3 took off in the early morning hours of January 16, 1942, from Indianapolis—less than six weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The plane stopped to refuel in Las Vegas, headed for Burbank, California.
Thirteen minutes after takeoff, at 7:07 p.m., Flight 3 slammed into a cliff high on 8,300-foot Potosi Mountain, located 22 miles southwest of Las Vegas. Fire produced by the crash could be seen from Goodsprings to the south and Las Vegas to the north. It was soon realized that the fire was associated with the crash of Flight 3, which had not been heard from since departing Las Vegas.
Rescue efforts were organized but were hampered by deep snow on the mountain. When the crash site was finally reached, it was indeed TWA Flight 3, and a horrifying scene. The plane was mangled and all 22 on board were dead, including Carole Lombard, her mother, and Otto Winkler.
Meanwhile, Clark Gable had been waiting at the airport in Burbank for his beloved. There he received word of the crash and left immediately for Las Vegas. He checked into the El Rancho Hotel and Casino, the first such joint on the Strip—the real beginning of the Las Vegas Strip. At one point, having received no definite word on whether Carole had survived the crash, he was so pained at the thought of losing her he attempted to climb to the crash site himself, but soon turned back.
Co-founder of the Pahrump Valley Museum Harry Ford conducted an oral history interview with Bob Owens, who worked for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department at the time of the Lombard plane crash. Owens, who moved to Pahrump in 1966, had helped remove the victims’ bodies from the mountain. He said only four or five were relatively intact.
Eventually, Carole Lombard’s badly damaged body was found under part of a wing. Sixteen U.S. Army airmen were also killed in the crash.
Clark Gable accompanied his beloved’s body back to Los Angeles, where she was interred in the Sanctuary of Trust of the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn, Glendale, California.
Although Clark Gable married twice more, he never got over losing Carole. He now rests next to her at Forest Lawn.
Among first war casualties
The Potosi Mountain plane crash that killed Carole Lombard made headlines across the country. The editor of the Las Vegas Age said it was the biggest story to hit Las Vegas up to that time. Carole Lombard, along with the 16 airmen who died with her, were among the first American casualties of World War II. Carole Lombard died a hero, aiding her country’s war effort.
As reported in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on January 12, 1992, honoring the pending 50th anniversary of Carole Lombard’s death: “An elegy printed January 17, 1942, in the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal by the United Press noted, ‘Throughout (Hollywood) actors in greasepaint and grips in overalls kept asking in countless variations of the same unanswerable question: ‘Why couldn’t it have been some other movie queen? Why did it have to be the girl who paid for operations on movie laborers’ children, who felt it was a pleasure to pay 75 percent of her income in taxes, who confounded the town with her elaborate practical jokes?’
“In addition to her good looks, shrewd business sense, salty language, and feisty personality, Lombard was a patriot, too.”
The crash site, high on the east side of Mount Potosi, is visible from Highway 160 when driving from Las Vegas to Pahrump.
Bob McCracken has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and is the author of numerous books in the Nye County Town History Project.