Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Profane Angel Blogathon: The Final Hours of Carole Lombard

On December 7, 1941, as World War II was raging on in Europe, the Imperial Japanese Navy led a suprise military strike against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Commencing at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time, the attack was carried out by 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves, launching from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships stationed at the base were damaged, with four sunk. All but Arizona, which exploded beyond repair after being hit by four armor-piercing bombs, were later raised and six were returned to service for the remainder of the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer. In addition, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,430 Americans were killed (1,177 on Arizona alone) and 1,178 others were wounded. The Japanese losses were significantly lighter: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, 64 servicemen killed and one sailor captured as a prisoner of war. The attack on Pearl Harbor came as a profound shock to the American people and led the United States to declare war on Japan on December 8. Three days later, both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the U.S., which was instantly reciprocated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

World War II poster, encouraging
Americans to buy war bonds (1942)
After the United States effectively entered World War II, all Japanese employees of all the Hollywood studios were removed to so-called «relocation camps,» while thousand of technicians, drivers, actors and others immediately enlisted in the armed forces. Within months, about 70 percent of all Hollywood families had members in the military, including many movie stars who sacrificed their careers to serve their country. For instance, James Stewart joined the Army Air Forces; Tyrone Power joined the Marine Corps; while Henry Fonda, Robert Montgomery and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. all enlisted in the Navy.

Those who, for some reason or the other, were unable to enlist turned their energies to supporting the war effort. Myrna Loy joined the Red Cross, helping run a Naval Auxiliary canteen and touring frequently to raise funds. Bette Davis and John Garfield opened the Hollywood Canteen, a club offering free food and entertainment for servicemen and -women of all Allied nations. A large contigent of stars, including Bob Hope, Shirley Temple, James Cagney, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Rita Hawyworth, Marlene Dietrich, Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball and Gary Cooper, signed up with the United Services Organization (USO) to perform for troops, both at home and overseas.

Carole Lombard was one of many Hollywood celebrities who contributed to the war effort. Born Jane Alice Peters, she began her acting career at the age of 12, when director Allan Dwan cast her as Monte Blue's sister in the melodrama A Perfect Crime (1921). Three years later, she was contracted by Fox Film Corporation and assigned to a leading role opposite Edmund Lowe in Marriage in Transit (1925), for which she garnered good critical notices. She then went to work for «King of Comedy» Mack Sennett, before making her talking picture debut with High Voltage (1929). After returning to Fox to appear in the hugely successful Western The Arizona Kid (1929), Lombard signed a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures, where she flourished as one of the screen's greatest commediennes. She had a long list of hits, notably the Academy Award-nominated My Man Godfrey (1936), and by 1937 she was the highest-paid female star in Hollywood. In 1939, she married Clark Gable, her co-star in No Man of Her Own (1932), and decided to go back to dramatic roles. When films like Made For Each Other (1939) and Vigil in the Night (1940) failed at the box-office, Lombard returned to comedy — all while searching for a project that would bring her the Oscar she was so eager to win.

Carole Lombard raising the flag in Indiana
As head of the actors' branch of the Hollywood Victory Committee, Gable had been asked to tour the country to promote the sale of war bonds to raise money for the war effort. Because of a fear of public speaking, he declined the invitation, leading his wife to volunteer to go in his place. A patriotic citizen, she was determined to do something for her country in its time of need. 

Once it was decided that Carole should travel the country to sell war bonds, plans were put into action and the tour organized quickly. Carole hoped that her husband would accompany her, but his commitment to Wesley Ruggles' World War II romantic drama Somewhere I'll Find You (1942) prohibited that. Instead, she was joined by her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and Gable's close friend and press agent, Otto Winkler, when she boarded a train to her home state of Indiana on January 12, 1942. On the way to Indianapolis, she stopped off at Salt Lake City and Chicago to give speeches and press interviews, explaining the benefit of selling war bonds.

Carole, her mother and Winkler reached Indianapolis on January 15 and were immediately taken to the State Capitol for a flag-raising ceremony. As it unfurled into the air, Carole raised her hand with her fingers in a victory salute and shouted, «Heads up, hands up, America! Lets give them a cheer that can be heard in Tokyo and Berlin!» After the 30-minute event, which was attended by about 30,000 movie fans and local citizens, it came time to sell bonds at the Statehouse. It was announced that at least $1 million worth of bonds were expected to be sold that evening, but Carole incited so much passion from the crowd that she ended up raising over $2 million. Purchasers were asked to write their name, address and bank details on a piece of paper and then hand it to one of Carole's assistants. In return, the beloved actress gave each person a receipt on which was her autographed picture and the words, «Thank you for joining me in this vital crusade to make America strong. My sincere good wishes go with this receipt, which shows that you have purchased from me a United States Defense Bond.»

Carole Lombard at Cadle Tabernacle
Carole's victorious trip to Indianapolis culminated in a huge rally and concert held at the now-extinct Cadle Tabernacle, where soldiers, sailors, drummers, bands and singers «thrummed with patriotic fervor.» The magnificent event reached its climax when Carole stepped up to the microphone to give an impassioned speech, encouraging people to buy bonds and stamps to help the war effort. She reminded the audience of their heritage: «As a Hoosier, I am proud that Indiana led the nation in buying Liberty Bonds in the last war. I want to believe that Indiana will lead every other state again this time — and we will! We won the last war, and with you help, we will win this war!» The night's festivities concluded with Carole asking the crowd to join her and the accompanying band and choir in a heartfelt renditon of «The Star-Spangled Banner», the national anthem of the United States.

Carole was supposed to return to California by train, the day after the Indiana celebrations. Anxious to get back to her husband, however, she decided to travel by plane instead. Her mother and Winkler were both afraid of flying and begged Carole to change her mind, but the actress stubbornly refused. The decision to take the plane was ultimately made by the flip of a coin. All direct flights to Los Angeles were booked, but Carole found three cancellations on a TWA flight out of New York that would make half a dozen stops before arriving at its final destination in Burbank, California. Mrs. Peters, a keen numerologist, opposed taking that flight, warning that the departure date and several other factors were signs of an impending accident — or worse, a death. She begged her daughter to charter a private jet instead, but once again Carole ignored her mother's concerns. In the early hours of the morning of January 16, 1942, Carole and her party left Indianapolis aboard a DC-3 Skylab.

A TWA DC-3 aircraft similiar to that used by Carole
Lombard and her party on January 16, 1942
Upon arrival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Carole and her travelling companions were asked to yield their seats to make room for 15 members of the United States Army Air Corps who wanted to board. She refused, citing the fact that she had been on a war bond tour as a reason why she was allowed to stay. Other passengers were removed instead, including Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, who had fled to America in 1939 to escape the war and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Manned by a new crew, the DC-3 then left Albuquerque and headed to Boulder City, Nevada, where it was scheduled for a refueling stop. However, since there were no landing lights at Boulder City, the pilot, Captain Wayne C. Williams, requested air traffic control in Burbank to reroute the plane through Las Vegas.

At 6:36 p.m., the DC-3 landed at Las Vegas Army Airfield (now Nellis Air Force Base), where 225 gallons of fuel were taken on. It took off again at 7:07 p.m and seven minutes later it broke radio contact. At precisely 7:23 p.m., the plane — travelling at more than 150 miles (241 kilometers) per hour — slammed into a near vertical cliff on Potosi Mountain, 32 miles (51 kilometers) southwest of the airport. The gasoline tank, located under the passengers, exploded violently with the crash, killing all on board instantly. At the same time, in Los Angeles, Clark Gable was impatiently waiting the return of his wife. Shortly before 8:00 p.m., he received a call from Eddie Mannix of MGM informing him that Carole's plane had gone down. Accompanied by his close friend Spencer Tracy, Gable immediately boarded a plane for Las Vegas, arriving at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday. Once there, all they could do was wait, though Gable himself tried desperately to climb the mountain to reach Carole.

Rescuers reach the scene 36 hours after the crash
On the afternoon of Sunday, January 17, search parties were finally able to reach the wreckage and sent word to Gable that, sadly, there were no survivors. Carole's body, identified only by her blonde hair and a diamond and ruby clip that her husband had given her, was eventually brought down from the mountain and Gable took her back to Los Angeles by train. Because of her work for the war effort, Carole was offered a full military funeral, but Gable decided to obey his wife's wishes, expressed in her will, of a private ceremony with just a few friends and family. So on January 21, 1942, a service for Carole was held in the Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. There were just 46 mourners, including William Powell (her first husband), Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Marion Davies, Jack Benny and Ernst Lubitsch. She was interred beside her mother Elizabeth under the name Carole Lombard Gable.

The tragic accident that took Carole Lombard's life at the age of 33 was intensively investigated by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also entered the matter to determine if the flight could have been sabotaged. Eventually, it was concluded that the probable cause of the crash was Captain Williams's failure to adjust his flight chart when landing in Las Vegas instead of Boulder City. The original flight plan form, completed by the first officer in Albuquerque, showed the outbound magnetic course from Boulder City at 218º and altitude of 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), which would have taken them on a safe path to Burbank. However, since this course is about 500 feet (150 meters) lower than the terrain in the Las Vegas course, Captain Williams — who failed to follow the proper course by making use of the navigational facilities available to him — led the DC-3 straight into Potosi Mountain. But it was still perfectly possible to fly safely from Las Vegas to Burbank. Although most airway light beacons had been turned off because of the war, there was still one operating beacon in the area, referred to as «Arden beacon 24,» which was located 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the right of the airway. Had the crew used it as a reference and passed to its left, the accident would surely have been avoided. The CAB speculated that Captain Williams either ignored the beacon or incorrectly assumed that it was centered on the airway, passing well to its right and into high terrain.

Christening of the Liberty ship SS Carole Lombard

Clark Gable was devasted by the loss of his beloved «Ma,» as he affectionately called Carole. According to his friend Adela Rogers St. Johns, the man who came way from that mountain «was a blind giant, maimed, wounded almost to death, trying afterward to find his way in darkness.» Hysterical with grief, Gable shut himself from the world, drank heavily and struggled to finish the sadly ironically titled Somewhere I'll Find You. From the day before Carole's funeral, he had made his future intentions clear. «There is nothing left for me in Hollywood now. I cannot stay there,» he said to friends, adding that he would soon enlist as part of the war effort. Carole has asked him to do that several times after the United States entered World War II. In August 1942, Gable joined the Army Air Forces, attended training courses in Miami Beach, Florida and then headed to England as head of a six-man motion picture unit to film aerial gunners in combat, flying five missions himself.

On January 15, 1944, not long after his reassignment to non-combat duty, Gable attended a dedication ceremony to christen the Liberty ship SS Carole Lombard, named for his wife in celebration of her extraordinary war effort. As Carole's close friend and fellow actress Irene Dunne broke the traditional bottle of champagne over the ship's bow, Gable stood at attention saluting, watching with tears running down his face. Although he remarried twice following Carole's death, Gable chose to be interred beside the only woman he had truly loved upon his own death on November 16, 1960.

This post is my contribution to Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.
To view all entries to the blogathon, click the links below.

Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star by Michelle Morgan (History Press, 2016)
Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (McFarland & Company Inc., 2002)
Las Vegas: The Great American Playground by Robert D. McCracken (University of Nevada Press, 1996)
«Carole Lombard's Swan Song» by Tiffany Benedict Brown for Indianapolis Monthly (January 2017)


  1. An excellent account of Carole Lombard's last day/night. Thanks for sharing all this research – you almost made me a little weepy.

    1. Aww, thank you. I was a little weepyy myself while writing this article. Such an awful tragedy. And knowing that it could have been avoided makes it even more heartbreaking.

  2. So agree x Lovely post for such a sad topic,, you did Carole proud by writing about her last hours so tactfully x

  3. Your post was wonderful. I'm very shook right now, but I certainly learned a lot. Now excuse me because I have to get my tissues.