Fear of Flying

I didn’t expect to be writing another column about Mary Johnson Savoie, the girl who lived, but she passed on Thursday night, two weeks shy of her 95th birthday. To refresh your memory, Mary is a survivor of TWA Flight 3, the DC-3 that crashed on January 16, 1942 killing 22 people, including Carole Lombard. No, Mary didn’t walk away from the crash. She was bumped from the flight during a refueling stop and a serviceman with priority status took her seat. The serviceman died; Mary did not.

A local California newspaper reporter wrote on January 17, 1942, “Today, Carole Lombard, idol of millions, is dead, and little Mary Anna Johnson of Benicia, whom millions do not know, is still alive. In a little New Mexico city called Albuquerque, Fate held out its hand—and then waved back Mary Johnson.”

Mary-clipping

How Mary Johnson did live. Survivor’s guilt? She felt sorry for those who perished, but chose to look on the bright side, summing up decades later, “I’ve always been lucky.”

Fear of Flying? That would be natural after such a close brush with death. Not Mary. She loved to fly before the crash and loved to fly after it. “I took a plane to San Francisco the next day,” she said with a shrug. “No problem.” Then she added, “Some people might have taken the train, but trains have crashes too.”

In an era where women aspired to find a good man and settle down, Mary graduated from college and became a working girl. After the war, she told me, grudgingly it seemed, she “met a Cajun” and that was it for her career. Lee Savoie snagged the girl who lived, and they were married for a while and had a son. But the marriage didn’t take and they divorced—and remained close friends for the remainder of Mary’s life. Mary had a lot of friends and a wonderful family, and they represent the finest group of people I have ever met.

Mary’s friend Pamela Weir said of her back in December: “Mary has a spirit of adventure. She finds adventure in everyday life, always. It could be going to lunch, but there’s always adventure. She creates it or she finds it.” In fact, Mary loved the experience of helping with Fireball, and being a part of the narrative, and holding a copy in her hands. She found working with me to be yet another adventure.

Marie Earp is the one who connected me with Mary’s family, allowing her story to be included in Fireball. Said Marie, “Mary is and always was lovely, daring, exciting, and chock full of life. I think she did it all at one time or another. Carole Lombard was ‘another Mary’ in my book.”

Marie makes a great point: Mary and Carole were peas of a pod and shared many traits. Both were attractive, energetic, humorous, met life head-on, took each day as it came, loved hard, and surrounded themselves with people of high quality. I can’t say whether Mary lived life recklessly like Carole did because I only met Mary near the end of her life. Then again, if you get to almost 95, it means you made a great number of right decisions and no fatal ones.

Savoie-6

In the photo above, Mary (in plaid skirt) clowns in Lombard fashion with an aeronautics researcher reluctant to return a research document he had borrowed from the NACA library at Moffett Field, California.

For this column I tracked down Mary’s own encapsulation of a long, successful life as related to me. “I can sum it up in a sentence,” said Mary. “I rode a camel to the pyramids of Egypt; I rode an elephant in India; I rode the Bullet Train in Japan; and I walked the Great Wall of China.”

Mary’s story reveals what was lost with the crash of Flight 3. Of the 22 people killed, 20 were under 40 years of age and most were in their 20s, as was Mary. These people were highly accomplished and on their way to destinations far beyond Burbank, where the DC-3 was scheduled to land. But, as Carole herself said on a number of occasions, “When your number’s up, your number’s up.” Twenty-two died on that remote mountaintop, while Fate granted Mary another 72 years and 1 month.

I’m not going to say that the world is a poorer place because Mary Johnson Savoie has left it. In fact, the world is a far better place for Mary having been here. Mary’s story lives on in Fireball and her spirit lives on in those fortunate enough to call her “Mom” or “Grandma” or “friend.” Boy, am I lucky to have been a friend, even if only for a little while.

Benecia-girl

2 comments

  1. With Mary’s travels around the world, it doesn’t sound like she was afraid of many things, including flying. While, quite frankly, I’m shocked to hear that she is gone within days of your posting about her just last week, Robert, I’m glad you at least have the opportunity to celebrate a life well lived.

    And, as you wrote, with Mary’s collaboration with you on her story in Fireball, she had yet another adventure, along with walking along the Great Wall of China and riding on the back of an elephant. How many others can say that?

  2. I have ,due to a personal fear of flying ,a facination of it too,learning airplane controls and every aspect of why’s and how’s of crashes,and people who have fear of it tend to wish to risk it even moreso.not everyone will admit it,but it is an adventure to do things you know bring you on the edge perhaps?Otto had premonitions,as did Buddy Holly.Mary lived and seemed to love risk.I wish I had known her.My late father in law was an ace flyer in the second world war,and he often spoke of near misses.He truly enjoyed them!

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