The Killer

From the beginning, crazy things have surrounded the project that became Fireball. In October 2012 when I climbed the killer mountain to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, which had occurred more than 70 years earlier, I wasn’t prepared for the experience of the people who had died there whispering to me. I had climbed 4,000 feet pretty much straight up to see the spot where Carole Lombard met her fate and to examine the wreckage of the plane still on the mountainside. The last thing I expected was for the others to make their presence known; don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that I heard voices, but I felt the people around me, including in my ears, and when I held a human bone in my hand that day I wasn’t creeped out, because I understood what it was: communication.

I don’t know if I inadvertently trod on 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue that autumn day four years ago because I don’t know exactly where they found him. Come to think of it, was it Donahue who took the time to hover around me? Who knows, but found he was, in April 2014, by people exploring the site as once I had explored it. There were twenty-two souls aboard Flight 3 when she hit that Nevada cliff at 180 miles per hour after dark on January 16, 1942—a flight crew of three, four civilians, and fifteen Army personnel. Three of those fifteen couldn’t be identified because of the horrific nature of the crash, and Donahue was one of them. When remains were found at the site last year, the coroner’s office sent out a team for recovery, and the starting point for DNA testing was that list of three lost men, which was obtained by reading Fireball. This being the coldest of cases, finding family members and securing DNA samples took more than a year, but finally a positive match confirmed that this was Second Lieutenant Donahue, a native of Stoughton, Massachusetts, and copilot of heavy bombers in the Army Ferrying Command.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

One of the 15 Army flyboys that perished aboard TWA Flight 3 was 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue, a co-pilot in the Army Ferrying Command.

Here’s the crazy part. The trade paperback edition of Fireball is about to go to press in time for the 75th anniversary of the crash, and I just barely have minutes to get Donahue’s story in there. It reminds me very much of dear Mary Johnson Savoie, the “human computer” who flew across the country with Carole Lombard and became a survivor of Flight 3 when she was forced off the plane in Albuquerque—so Kenneth Donahue and his mates could climb aboard. Through an improbable series of circumstances set in motion by my pal Tom Wilson, Mary popped up at age 92 in a retirement facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I interviewed her at length and rushed her story into Fireball just before it went to press. Mary lived long enough for me to sit and read her every passage recounting her story, and then passed on two months later. Her story was meant to be told, and now Kenneth’s story is meant to be told and will be told in the expanded trade paper version of Fireball.

As Lieutenant Donahue’s niece Maureen Green told me last evening, “Kenneth hung out until the right person and the right technology came along and he could make it home. I think that’s how things work.” The right person was Clark County Coroner’s investigator Felicia Borla and a team of experts, whose part of the story was reported in Biddeford’s Journal Tribune. The right technology was DNA testing that confirmed a match from a simple cheek swab. Confirmation set into motion events that took the small casket containing Donahue’s remains from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, where Delta arranged an honor guard that transferred the lieutenant from one plane to another. Then he flew to Logan in Boston where another honor guard saw the casket safely into a hearse for one last commute to Biddeford, Maine.

No one alive today in the Donahue family remembers Kenneth, but his niece Maureen has always felt a special connection. Maureen’s mother Rita was Kenneth’s younger sister and Maureen heard stories of Kenneth’s life and death, and grew up with a portrait of the young serviceman in her home. Rita passed on in 1999, but the connection between Maureen and Kenneth remained strong, so strong that when the Clark County Coroner called in February 2015, she said, “I knew it was him.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Thirty-six hours after the crash of Flight 3, body recovery has begun.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The same place in 2012, still guarding its secrets.

As recounted in Fireball, in 1942 most of the crash victims were positively identified, but the coroner had parts of some bodies and these were cremated and divided into three urns for shipment home to the families of the Army fliers who couldn’t be identified. That’s what was buried in Biddeford’s St. Mary’s Cemetery in 1942, and Maureen’s mother used to talk about what a tough moment it was when they played “Taps” at the graveside.

Well, on August 12, Kenneth came home to a formal military graveside service that Maureen and her older sister Peggy found emotional. Then, a soldier in formal dress blues stood under a tree and began to play “Taps.” It was quite a moment for Maureen, who felt the connection to Kenneth, and to her mother and that story of a lone bugler in 1942. “I got it right then,” she said. “I understood.”


  1. With all of those who have visited the site in the past, how could those bones have been overlooked? Just amazing!

    1. I don’t know, Christopher–I’ve asked myself that. A big factor is the nature of the crash in winter in two feet of snow and bodies tossed all about, in some cases for a hundred feet or more. Then there’s the loose shale in some places so one spring rain or just snow melt could cover over a body in shale. And brush, there’s a lot of brush up there that obscures things. So despite official and unofficial searches, he stayed up there 73 years.

      1. Hello Robert, I just finished the book and found it absolutely mesmerizing. One factual error though: Robert Stack never won an Academy Award. He was nominated once, in 1956, but didn’t win. Otherwise, a superb rendering of a fascinating tragedy and all who were affected by it. Many thanks, and keep writing!


      2. Leave it to me, Wayne. I can find the most obscure fact from a document buried in federal archives for 70 years, but miss an obvious fact about the Academy Awards. I’m sitting here crying because I did something just as stupid in the Mission manuscript and it has gone to press and then I realized. I should make it a contest to spot the stupid thing Robert did this time. Anyway, rest assured that the error about Mr. Stack was corrected in the trade paperback version of Fireball that will be released in January; otherwise, thank you for your kind words.

      3. What a cool response; thanks! I look forward to reading more of your writing.

        I recently completed my first novel, & am seeking attention for it. Would it be OK if i send you a copy of the manuscript? If you like it (ahem) and could send it along to any interested publishers I’d be forever grateful. But one step at a time.

        Thanks & best wishes,

  2. Wow. Powerful stuff. I shed a tear on that one, despite sitting in the middle of a large office in Manhattan.

    1. It wasn’t whisper-whispering, Gail, as in words in my ear, but it was a very strong impression from them to me: We’re here, and we feel like we’ve been forgotten.

  3. Hello Robert, my brother and I hiked to the site in May ’16 via the maintenance road route. It was our second visit, the first was in April ’15. We immediately noticed large piles of soil indicating some sort of excavating had taken place since our initial trip. We’d assumed it was due to reckless treasure hunters and were angered and disgusted by the condition of that sacred ground. Now I’m assuming it was the result of the CO recovery effort. Whichever, it was nonetheless disheartening to arrive to that scene and can only hope the site is restored. Also, we couldn’t find certain crash debris items that were present in 4/15 and assume they were taken as souvenirs. We did find some poignant reminders including a clothing button and a silver spoon with TWA markings…really put things into perspective.

    1. That’s interesting about the missing debris. When I was there, larger pieces still littered the area–it’s sad if they’re gone now. I like the physical connection between the plane, the people, and today. Thanks for the report, Rob.

      1. I would be shocked if the bigger plane debris is gone. I mean, weren’t some of them huge? Like parts of the engine?

      2. When I was there, some pieces of fuselage three and four feet long were present. The toilet from the lavatory was still there. And of course the engines and landing gear. Plus many smaller pieces. Brush and cactus had grown up around some of it. Someone determined could have gotten the aluminum sections out, but you’re right, Gail, the engines and landing gear will probably remain.

      3. The engines and landing gear are there along with plenty of aluminum shards of various size. There was an oxygen tank in 4/15 that I turned over and was shocked to find a scorpion underneath it (didn’t know they lived at that elevation). But I didn’t see it in May and we were there much longer than the first visit. It just seemed like much of the debris was farther down slope than before. We had intended to spend the night on the flat ridge above the crash site and brought the necessary provisions, which made a very tough hike almost unbearable. But the wind forced us to abandon that plan and we made it back to the car at sunset. This latest visit had a sadder feel for me, partly because of the way the site was disturbed by the excavation. I don’t think I’ll go there again.

      4. The irony is, of course, that the telling of stories of these forgotten souls has brought increased awareness of the crash site. Change is inevitable, though, be it man or nature.

        I am as fascinated by this story as the next guy, but ultimately, it is the lives these people led that we must remember, not how they died.

      5. I’m not one who exactly embraces change, so I’m not thrilled with the disturbances on Potosi whether made by the coroner’s office or whomever. That said, you’re right, Gail, change is the way of life and I’m dragged kicking and screaming into it all the time.

        And, right again, these bright young people boarded that plane and lifted off into the future and in some sense I like to believe Fireball keeps them alive, or at least keeps our memories of them alive and fresh. And the finding of Lieutenant Donahue brings to focus not the bones but the flesh-and-blood pilot loved and missed by a family.

      6. I remember the oxygen tank, and don’t you wonder why somebody lugged it out of there, and how it was done given that terrain? There was a stack of rusting tin cans on that ridge and I wondered when they were from–did you see that there?

        Rob, where exactly was the excavation? In the ravine under the cliff? Did it extend to the base of the cliff?

  4. It’s possible the tank is still up there but, if so, it’s well hidden. I did see some cans which looked pretty ancient scattered about, have no clue who left them. I can report the ice bucket is there; of all the items you’d think that would be a desirable souvenir. There were two distinct mounds of dirt at the base of the granite wall, both close to where Carole was found. There is a 15′ log that extends from the face of the wall pointing downslope and beside it is where the activity occurred. I should confess I removed a number of bright green ribbons tied to tree branches marking the way from the maintenance road to directly above the crash site. At the time I thought they were placed by other hikers but now it makes sense they were placed by the CO recovery team. My brother filmed our exploration with his GoPro, we’d be happy to send you a DVD copy!

  5. I have a feeling Lt. Donahue COULD have been found immediately after the crash and buried immediately and that his remains surfaced during this latest period.In your book. Robert, you document in Fireball the finding of part of a body, part of a torso, badly burned a few weeks after the crash, which was buried by the discoverers at the site of the crash. This revelation precipitated the blasting of parts of the cliff by the army and the airlines, as I recall reading in Fireball, to further bury the wreckage, around March or April of ’42. If you are somehow able to obtain details about the type of bones found of Lt. Donahue, you might be able to then compare his bones with what was described in your book. If there is no match, then ANOTHER large portion of a body of an unknown person, likely a flyer, discovered after the crash, still remains buried there. Did this thought ever come to you? It must have.

    1. Oh yes, Christopher, it’s come to me. I forwarded the coroner’s investigator the original TWA letter from April of 1942 about the recovered body an she and I had a conversation about it. She is certain it’s not the same set of remains because the 1942 body was described as being heavily burned. Examination revealed that the remains of Lt. Donahue were only slightly burned, meaning he was thrown clear of the wreck and, I guess, landed in deep snow and was missed because of it in the chaos of the weekend. But that was my first thought when I learned of the discovery, that the body reburied in 1942 had finally been discovered. So, yes, there is at least one more person on the mountain. Or more.

      1. Thanks for the reply. Something tells me to go there, and I hope it’s not just obsession.

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