The Girl Who Lived

I have done a lot of public speaking in support of Fireball, most recently this past Sunday at Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo. I looked out on a large and enthusiastic crowd, especially for a snowy Sunday afternoon in the middle of the worst winter anyone can remember.

In case you don’t know, Fireball is the irresistible story of Carole Lombard’s hurly-burly life and the circumstances that led to her last fatal trip aboard TWA Flight 3 along with 21 other souls, which ended in catastrophe just west of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. Reviewers are calling Fireball a thriller, a page turner, a heartbreaker, and a book that’ll make you cry. It really is. I didn’t realize it myself until I reviewed the audiobook and heard the story performed by national voice talent Tavia Gilbert.

But there are some smiles in Fireball too. On Sunday in Perrysburg I told the crowd that I had found a survivor of Flight 3, a woman who had flown cross-country with Carole Lombard on January 16 and lived to tell the tale. You should have seen their faces. Mouths hung open. There were even some gasps. I always liken this survivor to hundred-year-old Rose Dawson whose memories form the basis for the plot of Titanic. Mary Johnson is my Rose Dawson, and at age 94 the unknown survivor of a catastrophe.

Mary was, of all things, a young aviation researcher working for the feds and NACA (the precursor to NASA) at Moffett Airfield, California. She had been on assignment in Washington, DC, and was heading for home that fateful day. To show you what a small world we live in, I worked in the same wind tunnel (the 7×11 wind tunnel) at Moffett Field in 2007 and 2008 during my NASA years that Mary had worked in during World War II.

Mary Anna Johnson Savoie 4
Mary was in her seat on Flight 3 when Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Peters (Carole’s mom), and Otto Winkler (Clark Gable’s publicist) boarded in Indianapolis. Mary then flew all the way to Albuquerque sitting two rows behind Carole, enduring stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and Amarillo. These weren’t fun stops either. There were weather and cargo delays for the plane and Miss Carole Lombard was anything but happy.

In Albuquerque a big clot of Army Air Corps personnel needed to fly west and all seven civilians on Flight 3 were ordered off the plane to make room for these priority passengers. Mary Johnson and three others gave up their seats; Carole Lombard refused to surrender her three tickets, so she stayed on the plane, and Mary Johnson’s dream of seeing Clark Gable up ahead in Burbank ended in what was the worst moment of her young life. Then the unthinkable happened and, said Mary Johnson, “Suddenly Clark Gable didn’t seem that important.”

I caught up with Mary Johnson Savoie near the end of the Fireball project. She’s right up there with the most interesting people I’ve ever met—smart, funny, and possessing vivid memories of that winter’s day. Just a couple of weeks prior to seeing Carole, Mary had been at the White House where she laid eyes on FDR and Winston Churchill, and after living through the crash of Flight 3 she went on to a rich full live with a husband and kids and became a world traveler. Hers is one of the central storylines in Fireball and yet another of a hundred layers of irony in its pages.

For me it was the biggest kick in the world to hand deliver a copy of the book to Mary this past December, and it was clear to me by the wonderful people surrounding her that Mary is a wonderful person herself and glows with an attitude that embraces life. She has been known to say, “I’ve always been lucky,” but isn’t luck really about the decisions a person makes that sets the stage for magic to happen?RM-MJS

Right now, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Mary is having some health challenges, and I hope you will take a moment to send some positive energy her way. The world needs Mary Johnson Savoie to be up and around and setting an example for all of us to follow, keeping it positive, showing us how to set the stage for good things to happen, and in general making the most of every single day because we just don’t know how many there’ll be.


  1. Life is crazy sometimes… and episodes like this always make me wonder: why did Mary get this chance and (the) others not? I get all philosophical at such moments…
    Great to have you back, Robert! And to see good old Tom here, too.

    1. Yes, Inga, it really is maddening–why do some get a pass from Fate and others do not? I guess we’ll find out someday when we have access to the Big questions and answers.

      We have to round up the rest of the gang. I’m thinking Rachel, Rosemarie, Elle, Lynn, Lesley, Volker…who am I missing?

  2. Great posting, Robert, and an unexpectedly inspirational one, too, with your story about Mary Johnson. Talk about the vagaries of fate. No wonder Mary has always felt like a lucky person! Carole Lombard would refuse to leave a plane at Albuquerque, thus losing her life at age 33. Meanwhile Mary, who didn’t have the actress’ pull, got ejected from the same plane and is here to continue to share the tale with us at age 94!

    And it must have been a special moment for you, Robert, as the author of Fireball (which I just ordered, by the way) to meet what I assume is the only living person today who saw Lombard in her final hours (not to mention hand a copy of your book about that plane disaster to a person who would perished in it, as well, had fate not played a hand).

    Mary, if you’re reading this, congratulations on your remarkable story, and I hope you get well soon.

  3. Thanks very much, Inga. It’s certainly good to see you back commenting on one of Robert’s blogs, as well.

    Philosophical ruminations aside, Mary Johnson was one lucky lady. Still, I have to wonder if she didn’t ponder the question more than a few times: “Why was I spared?”

  4. Great story, Robert! From your account, Mary obviously was and is someone extraordinary. Congratulations to her, and thanks for making her story known!

    A female aviation researcher! At the White House with Winston and Franklin!! Riding with Lombard!!! WOW!

    God works in delirious, I mean mysterious, ways.

    I have a cousin who was running late about a half hour for work in New York a while back. She was terribly worried about how her boss would react. As it turned out, she missed being killed at the Twin Towers by only a few minutes.

    1. I’ve been out of pocket for a few days, Tim, but wanted to acknowledge this comment about the incredible Mary Johnson. Your cousin’s story is very much like that of Mary, where something that seems bad in a given moment turns out to be, in fact, the luckiest break in the world. I am awestruck by all the ironies in Fireball, from the little occurrences that snowballed into disaster to the lives that were spared, like Mary’s.

  5. As an illustration of the quirks of fate, my grandfather once had a third class steerage ticket for a luxury liner that was to take him from Southampton, England to America. Because of a traffic jam, he was exasperated to have missed catching the liner in time. The ship was the Titanic.

    Lucky break for Grandpa. And, if it hadn’t happened, I may well not be here to share this anecdote.

    Maybe Mary Johnson and I have something in common.

  6. Thank you for all your kinds words. Mary Anna J Savoie was a wonderful person and I am thankful to have known her for over 30 years. I am also thankful she was bumped off of Flight 3 so that she could go on with her life; marry and raise a fine son. Because she is also my Mother-in-law. Miss you Mom!!!!

  7. I’m sure you asked Mary about every single last detail she could remember. I’m sure you used a great deal of what you learned from Mary in your book…but was there anything, any details,any memories Mary had that you didn’t use in the book ? Did she overhear any conversation between Carole,her mother or Otto ? Or anything else ? I’m glad Mary lived her life to the fullest.

    1. I did ask Mary every question you can imagine. She didn’t have any interactions with Lombard or her party, and the interior of the DC-3 was so loud that overhearing anything was impossible due to engine noise. I included in Fireball everything that Mary related, and more information came from articles in the local newspaper that were written about her immediately after the crash. She and her mother were both quoted in these articles. And thank you, Lori, for giving me another opportunity to say what a fantastic woman this was, and how lucky I was to get to know and love her, however brief the time.

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