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Crash that killed actress Carole Lombard, 21 others near Las Vegas still echoes after 75 years

A coin flip and a pilot’s inexplicable miscalculation combined to snuff out one of Hollywood brightest stars 75 years ago Monday, writing a chapter in local history that continues to attract fans and the curious to the rugged Clark County crash site from all corners of the world.

Carole Lombard, the blond, screwball movie star whose marriage to Clark Gable three years earlier had been front-page news, and 21 others perished when a TWA prop plane crashed on the night of Jan. 16, 1942, shortly after takeoff from McCarran Field in Las Vegas. Gable rushed to the city, first hoping for a miracle and then keeping a grief-stricken vigil until rescue teams recovered his wife’s remains.

“This tremendous drama unfolded over the course of one weekend, and it stole headlines from World War II,” said Robert Matzen, author of the 2013 book “Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.”

Decades have passed since Lombard’s death, but patrons at the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings undoubtedly will raise their glasses to the actress this weekend. They likely will spend a few minutes gazing at the Lombard and Gable memorabilia hanging on the wall and the cigar burn marks on the bar that legend says were left behind by a disconsolate and drunken Gable. And then they’ll listen once more to a tragic tale of fame, love and fate that continues to captivate to this day.

HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY

They were the king and queen of Hollywood. Clark Gable. Carole Lombard.

The highest-paid stars of their era, they rose from silent movies in the 1920s to silver screen romance films of the ’30s, though pairing up just once in the 1932 film “No Man of Her Own.”

Both were divorced when they became an item. After a three-year romance, they eloped to Kingman, Arizona, where they were married March 29, 1939, just before the premier of Gable’s epic Civil War hit “Gone with the Wind,” becoming the pre-split Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their day.

The nation already was on edge following the U.S. entry into World War II the previous month when word came that there would be no happily ever after for the celebrity couple: The twin-engine DC-3 airliner carrying Lombard, her mother, Gable’s press agent and 19 other passengers and crew had exploded in a fireball on Potosi Mountain, 20 minutes after taking off from McCarran Field.

The news took on a patriotic tint when it became clear that Lombard was returning from a tour to hawk war bonds to support the war effort.

When she died at 33, the nation lost “a humanitarian who helped the down and out in Hollywood, an advocate who pushed the boundaries for women’s rights and a patriot who died in service of her country,” Matzen said.

FIRE AND LIMESTONE

The crash caused a stir in the still-sleepy town of Las Vegas.

“A thunderous explosion immediately followed, sending wreckage, bodies, cargo and luggage down the cliff,” FAA accident investigator Mike McComb wrote recently, after his passion for “aviation archaelology” inspired him to dig deeper into the pilot-error cause arrived at by his congressional and Civil Aeronautics Board predecessors.

“Patrons of the city’s resorts and casinos rushed out into the crisp air when the sound of the explosion echoed through the Las Vegas Valley. What many described that night were sheets of fire several hundred feet that cast the mountain in a red glow.”

Search-and-rescue teams formed spontaneously and rushed into the pitch-black night, quickly reaching the rugged, snow-topped ledges that jut from the 8,500-foot mountain, 32 air miles southwest of what is now Nellis Air Force Base.

If they were hoping to find survivors, their hopes were quickly dashed. It soon became clear that none of those on board survived the violent crash that occurred when the Transcontinental and Western Air DC-3’s left wing clipped a limestone outcrop.

SUPERSTITIOUS NUMBERS

Lombard, a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, had just wrapped up a war bond drive that took her by train from Los Angeles to Chicago and Indianapolis. As one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age, she was a big draw at the patriotic events, where she happily signed autographs and sang the national anthem with gusto. The $2 million raised was well beyond expectations.

Tired and eager to return to the family ranch in Southern California after the last rally in Indianapolis, she challenged her mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Peters, and Gable’s friend and press agent, Otto Winkler, to flip a coin to determine their mode of transportation. If she won, they would fly out on the next available westbound flight; if her mother, who had never flown, or Winkler, who was prone to air sickness, won, they would climb aboard the next train.

For a while, it appears Lombard’s luck was running hot.

After winning the coin toss, she found that cancellations had opened three seats on TWA Flight 3, so they arrived at Indianapolis Municipal Airport the morning of Jan. 16 to catch a flight that had originated in New York and was ultimately bound for Burbank, California.

Peters, “a numerologist who believed in the science of numbers,” according to Matzen, was distressed to learn the particulars about the flight.

“Three was a hard luck number in her mother’s mind. And it was Flight 3 and Carole was 33 years and three months old and there were three in the party,” the author said Thursday by phone from his home in Pennsylvania.

When they finally boarded the silver DC-3 Sky Club airliner, which was running more than 1½ hours late when it arrived in Indianapolis, they settled in for the marathon that was cross-country air travel in those days: hopscotching across the Plains and Southwest, stopping to get fuel, load mail bags, drop off passengers and take on more with luggage along the way.

When they reached Albuquerque, New Mexico, a new flight crew came aboard — veteran TWA pilot Captain Wayne C. Williams, co-pilot First Officer Morgan Gillette and flight attendant Alice F. Gett. A contingent of 15 soldiers from the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command, who were returning to the West Coast after delivering aircraft to a new bomber base, also got on board there, bumping all civilian passengers except for the Lombard party and Lois Hamilton, an Army wife.

PILOT ERROR MYSTERY

Facing a stiff headwind, Williams received permission from TWA in Burbank to save time by not stopping in Winslow, Arizona, for a scheduled refueling. Instead Flight 3 was to proceed to Boulder City to refuel before the final 90-minute leg to Burbank.

But when the crew realized it would be dark when they arrived in Boulder City, where the airport had no runway lights, the pilot decided to continue another 20 miles to land at what was then called McCarran Field at the north end of the Las Vegas Valley.

Flight plan records show the compass heading and cruise level — a 218-degree compass heading climbing to 8,000 feet above sea level — were never changed to reflect the new departure point at McCarran Field. So when co-pilot Gillette took over the controls following the 7:07 p.m. takeoff, he unknowingly was flying on a collision course with Potosi Mountain, just southwest of what is now Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The collision might have been avoided had a lighted beacon system not been shut off out of concerns that Japanese warplanes could be poised to attack the western U.S. Only a single beacon at Arden, east of Potosi, was shining.

It’s also unclear why the crew wasn’t using another available navigation device, a radio compass which projects signals to follow much like spokes from a bicycle wheel.

“That’s really the main mystery: why the captain with all his experience wasn’t using it, or maybe he was using it and it didn’t work properly,” McComb said.

PRINT THE LEGEND

As soon as they heard the impact, residents of the mining town of Goodsprings, downslope of Double Up Peak and 11 miles southeast of the crash site, organized search parties.

One, led by former high school football star Lyle Van Gordon, was first to reach the site, finding wreckage but no survivors.

Another group that included Review-Journal news editor John F. Cahlan and advertising manager James H. Down, saddled up to ride horses to the site with Paiute rancher Tweed Wilson.

By this time, Gable had been notified by telegram that the plane his wife was on was missing and apparently had crashed.

With no word on the fate of the passengers and crew, Gable chartered a flight to Las Vegas with MGM executive Eddie Mannix and the film company’s publicity head, Howard Strickling. They were met at McCarran Field about 1 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1942 by the Clark County sheriff and taken to the El Rancho, the year-old first hotel on the Strip where Gable stayed sequestered in a bungalow.

As it became clear that the search was a recovery effort, reporters and photographers from Southern California and beyond converged on Las Vegas to wait for Lombard’s body to be brought down the mountain.

Legend has it that Gable spent much of his time waiting at the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings.

Bartender Chad Hanson, 32, recounted the oft-told story Thursday:

“To drown his sorrows, so to say, he came to the saloon. He was a big cigar fan, and he sat right here and this is where these cigar burns came from, over the hours he spent here, falling asleep, drowning in his sorrow,” he said, pointing to four worn, pock marks in the century-old cherrywood bar.

According to Matzen, however, Gable, who died in 1960 at age 59, at some point passed the Pioneer but did not spend time there “because it was crawling with reporters.”

“The Pioneer was a very important site in the whole drama, but it really wasn’t Gable’s site,” Matzen said. “He was being protected by Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling. The heads of MGM were very protective of the Gable brand. He was the most popular actor in the world. Everything he made was a hit, and ‘Gone with the Wind’ pushed him way over the top.”

UNLV history professor Michael Green was noncommittal when asked whether the incident was truth or legend, saying there are some points that back up the tale “and a lot we don’t know.”

“With this kind of story, we end up with something akin to ‘Liberty Valance’: print the legend,” he said by email, referring to a famous Western and role that myth played in forging the legends of the West. “And since the legend (in this case) involves actual Hollywood legends, there’s even more uncertainty.”

WAGING WAR

In addition to doubting the Pioneer Saloon legend, Matzen casts cold water on the storybook romance angle of the Lombard-Gable marriage.

“They had an idyllic realtionship for several months,” he said, before adding, “Their marriage was already in trouble when she died. He had started a relationship with Lana Turner, which was the primary reason why (Lombard) rushed back to Hollywood and died on that mountain.”

Whatever the state of their marriage, Gable took his wife’s death hard.

He joined the Army Air Forces, entering Officer Candidate School in Florida in August 1942.

He later flew five combat missions as an observer-gunner in B-17s as part of a motion-picture unit with the 351st Bomb Group in England. On one mission, he just missed being hit by shrapnel and was the recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross.

He rose to the rank of major before leaving active duty in 1944.

Matzen sees Gable’s wartime service as a direct reaction to that terrible January night when Carole Lombard and 21 others were killed.

“It was obvious to all his friends that Gable had no more use for living after she died,” he said. “He said he wanted to die in a plane like she did.”

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Follow @KeithRogers2 on Twitter.

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