fireball robert matzen

Visiting with the people of Flight 3

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

A spiritual welcome to the Potosi area: cactus and shards of light.

I spent the past few days in Las Vegas with 24 old friends and several new ones. Kim Reale Johnson is a retired figure skating champion, fantastic artist, and wonderful human. Mary and I spent an afternoon getting reacquainted with Kim and her husband Wally, who is a lighting and event professional with experience at major venues all around the country. We met at the Bonnie Springs Ranch in Red Rock Canyon, very near the site where Calvin Harper and Maj. Herbert Anderson rushed to the Wilson Ranch and rousted Willard George from his bed the night of January 16, 1942, looking for horses to use to reach the Flight 3 crash site. George gave them the horses and also his most experienced cowboy, Tweed Wilson, who led one of the rescue teams across the ridges to the obscure place on Potosi Mountain where the TWA plane had gone down. Prior to meeting Kim and Wally, we ventured down a long lane to visit the Wilson place and take some photos.

https://www.goodknightbooks.com/titles/fireball-carole-lombard/

The Blue Diamond Mine at the mouth of Red Rock Canyon. The night of January 16, 1942, Ora Salyer heard Flight 3 fly over from the business office and then heard an explosion. Danlo Yanich was on the ridge above the plant as he watched the fireball on the mountain to the south.

 

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

The Wilson Ranch in the Potosi foothills on a crazy, spooky day.

Knowing this land and this story as well as I do, it was otherworldly to be there 75 years after the crash and recovery effort, in January, with snow on the peaks and conditions very similar to those of 1942. The weather that day was enchanted, with rainbows and shafts of sunlight radiating down from the heavens and mists like you’d expect on English moors but not so much in desert. I like to think it was a welcome from 22 very special souls whose memory lingers on Potosi.

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

Love all round as we explored Blue Diamond and Red Rock Canyon.

That evening we made two new friends as we met Clark County Coroner’s Investigator Felicia Borla and her fiancé Jim Preddy, an emergency room doctor, so Felicia could recount the story of how 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue made his way from seven decades as a lost Fight 3 passenger on Potosi Mountain to the coroner’s office in 2014 and finally to burial with military honors in Maine this past October. Felicia spent so much time with Kenneth finding his identity during the investigation that he’s now known around the office as her “boyfriend” (which is sort of confirmed by the artist’s rendition of his head made from the skull during identification efforts; that 3D model now sits by her desk). Coolest of all is that when a police officer brought two brown paper bags of remains to Felicia from the site of the old mountaintop plane crash, her starting point in historical immersion was Fireball. She brought her copy with its highlights and post-it notes as confirmation. She told me that if I hadn’t given names to the three military men on the plane who hadn’t been IDed by dental records (Ed Nygren, Hal Browne Jr., and Donahue) she never could have tracked down his identity and brought closure to the Donahue family after so long.

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

Felicia has Jim, a terrific guy for a fiancé–she also has Kenneth for a “boyfriend.”

I was near tears when she told us about traveling to Maine to witness Kenneth’s burial. After the ceremony, the military honor guard lined up in front of Felicia and gave her a traditional salute to thank her for her tireless efforts “to bring our brother home.” Each member of the guard signed her copy of Fireball, as did Kenneth’s niece Maureen Green. I was honored to add my signature to what has become a precious keepsake.

On Friday, January 20, I visited KNPR, the National Public Radio affiliate in Las Vegas, for a 30-minute in-studio interview to talk about the circumstances of the crash from the perspective of 75 years later. Then it was on to the Orleans Hotel & Casino to speak about Mission and Fireball to attendees of the SPERDVAC old-time radio convention. It was a large, enthusiastic, and welcoming group and a rewarding two hours.

Wouldn’t this be enough for any commemoration? Well, yes, except for the encore. I had known pilot and crash investigator Michael McComb of the Federal Aviation Administration for many years but only long distance. Mike had advised on the aeronautics story in Fireball and made important comments and corrections. Well, as many of you know, he has also investigated the crash site on Potosi and reverently and painstakingly preserved and catalogued items found there in the name of future research. I had asked him if it were possible to view his archive, and so we had a date for Friday evening. Dear readers, it was overwhelming. In two hours I held in my hands so many items that were important to the story and the people; in fact it’s safe to say that I touched belongings of all 22 on board. The only word that comes to mind is poignant, from Capt. W.C. Williams’ engraved metal luggage tag to one of the rudder pedals he likely slammed his foot onto in a last-instant attempt to avoid the mountain, mangled silverware from the galley, parachute buckles from the fliers’ kits, and brass collar insignias reading U.S. and some brass lieutenant’s bars. There is a lady’s stocking still retaining its flesh color, stocking garter fasteners, a fountain pen, several coins, including quarters that may have included the one tossed by Otto Winkler, luggage clasps, hair clips, parts of a camera, and on and on, and on. He’s got some items that are distinctly Carole Lombard and Elizabeth Peters, including a compact and jewelry, and so much material from the Army boys.

In all, I’ve never been so close to the 22 on board as I was these past few days. It was like I was back five years ago immersed in their day-to-day lives, these people I got to know so well in writing the book. I stepped on a plane yesterday to come back home realizing that life is so short, and shorter still for some, and how important each day is because you never know when it will be the last.

Legacy

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIt’s 75 years plus one day after one of the most important women in America went up in flames. The way she died reflected the life that had preceded it: Charge ahead, accomplish at top speed, damn the consequences. Charging ahead that January 16, a Friday evening, had fatal consequences when her plane struck a mountaintop west of Las Vegas at 185 miles an hour. Up she went with Petey, Otto, and 19 other humans in a fireball seen in the moonless sky for 50 miles.

The latest couple of generations, your average people on the street, don’t even recognize the name Carole Lombard, but in the 1930s and 40s she made dozens of motion pictures and earned a higher salary than any other actress in Hollywood. She was thought to be a glamour-puss but at heart remained a Hoosier from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a tomboy.

Lombard’s Hoosier generosity drifted gently across hedonistic Hollywood as she launched careers and rescued the occasional soul. Among those she nudged on the path toward greatness were Lucille Ball, future queen of television, and Robert Stack, the future Elliott Ness then just starting out.

The tomboy aspect made Lombard a fearless champion of women’s rights in a town then—as now—ruled by men. She cursed like a dockworker and, when irritated, told many a Hollywood executive to “kiss my ass.” In fact, she had “kiss my ass” etched in brass plates and placed on the doors and walls of her home. She gave interviews where she disclosed how she “lived by a man’s code” and proceeded to do just that. In 1938 she looked a reporter in the eye and stated, “There is nothing I’m afraid of.” She espoused equality of the sexes and the still-yearned-for-today equal pay, and more than held her own on male-dominated soundstages where she knew as much about camera setups and lighting as many of the hard-nosed crew members around her. She was certain she would move behind the camera one day and produce and direct motion pictures, which women weren’t doing at that time. She also knew she would move other talented women into prominent roles alongside her.

As World War II edged closer to the American consciousness, Carole Lombard the New Deal Democrat and fan of FDR began to drape herself in the flag. There was nothing unusual about this action because movie stars routinely told the public what the public wanted to hear. But Lombard put her money where her mouth was, literally. When it was revealed that in 1937 she paid all but $20,000 of her half-million-dollar salary in taxes, she said, “Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not? I live accordingly, that’s all.”

There was some sort of cosmic justice involved when this woman who once professed that “Hollywood marriages can’t succeed” fell in love with the fan-voted king of Hollywood, Clark Gable. They became Hollywood’s most beautiful and unconventional couple—unconventional because he was still very much married to another woman for the first two years of the relationship. When Gable finally untangled himself, he and Lombard eloped in the spring of 1939 during production of Gone With the Wind and settled into life on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley dubbed “the house of the two Gables.”

They were the Brangelina of their day, certainly in popularity, but Gable loathed the press and kept as low a profile as a king could keep. Lombard never met a camera she didn’t like, or as close friend Alice Marble put it, “What a ham! What a ham!” The marriage of self-involved Gable and socially conscious, shutter-loving Lombard worked for a while, but by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor late in 1941, cracks were showing in their marital veneer, in part because of Gable’s alley-cat prowling. The newly formed Hollywood Victory Committee went searching for a star to host the first event to raise funds for national defense against Japan and Germany. Lombard leapt out of her seat to volunteer and plans quickly developed for a wintertime trip to Indianapolis where she would sell war bonds in the capitol building of her home state.

As described in Fireball from GoodKnight Books, the resulting trip played out like a triathlon. Three days by train with whistle stops preceded arrival in Chicago and a day of appearances there. Then a commute to Indianapolis for 12 hours where she faced the crush to deliver two heartfelt speeches broadcast on national radio, and participate in two flag raisings, a tea, a dinner, and two receptions, all of which helped to raise $2 million for the war effort in one long day—four times the amount projected.

At the end of that January 15, she decided she had done her duty and now it was time to take care of Carole Lombard by getting home to her carousing husband by the fastest means possible. That meant air travel, something expressly forbidden because of the fear of accidents in wintry weather or sabotage by Hitler’s spies. To which the response was predictable: Kiss my ass.

At 7:20 local time on January 16, the brightest flame in Hollywood suddenly grew into the brightest flame on Mt. Potosi, Nevada, when TWA Flight 3 failed to clear the 9,000-foot peak and hit near-vertical cliffs. It took the better part of 24 hours to sort it all out and come to grips with the fact that force-of-nature Lombard now ranked as the highest-profile casualty in the new world war. Seventy-five years and one day ago she rode to glory at age 33, leaving behind a legend as Hollywood’s most original movie star along with a legacy of charity to her fellow humans and service to a nation just beginning to understand what sacrifices lay ahead.

A Stretch of Desert

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

Frustrating. Torturous. Maddening. She forces her legs down the steps of the DC-3 Sky Club for the umpteenth time. She’s so weary she can’t even remember all the stops, but among them have been St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and, of course, Albuquerque. Petey is practically a statue at this point and is not speaking to anyone or even getting off the plane most stops—except this time in Las Vegas she’s stretching her legs if not actually participating in conversation.

They’re so close to home. So painfully close. All that separates her, Petey, and Otto from their own warm beds is one last stretch of desert out there in the blackness of night. She’s told it’s only one hour by air from McCarran Field in Las Vegas to Burbank where Pa will be waiting for her, and Stuart for Petey and Jill for Otto. They’ll all be there, and she and Pa can finally make up for their knock-down-drag-out of a week earlier. Can it be a week already since he had left for New York? Yes, a week exactly, and how much she has seen and done since then, including this latest cross-country adventure courtesy of TWA. She can’t wait to tell him about all of it—every last story she’s been saving day by day. They’re already on their third set of pilots and third time zone in a long and grueling passage. They hadn’t slept at all Thursday night, and sleeping hasn’t really been possible today given the cold at 10,000 feet and the relentless screaming of the engines of the plane on either side of the cabin.

Coca-Colas and cigarettes have kept her going as they always do, and she is tired and hungry despite having just eaten on the plane, and boy does her posterior hurt. Everything hurts after going a million miles an hour yesterday in Indianapolis and then 180 miles an hour on the plane ever since. But finally the end is in sight after fog, headwinds, turbulence, mail delays, passenger delays—17 hours coast to coast my ass.

Nightfall has been chasing them west for quite a while and finally swallowed the plane up prior to landing here at this desolate little piece of nowhere. Las Vegas is fit for an Army base maybe but not for much else except coyotes. They’ve waited what seems like forever for fuel in the little Western Air building, the passengers milling about, including 15 Army boys that started out full of energy but have quieted down a bit. Her own companions sit there under thunderclouds, but at least Petey and Otto understand now: She had been right to ditch that stupid train in favor of a quick—well, everything’s relative—straight shot from Indianapolis to Hollywood. Two solid days on the train versus less than one by air? No contest!

She knows she hasn’t been her usual self today, and Petey has every right to be furious with her for needing to get home to a cheating husband as fast as possible. Petey has worked very hard to give Clark a chance and Petey likes Clark, but he is what he is, which amounts to a long set of pluses and an important set of minuses. Plus number one: He is Clark Gable, deemed the most attractive and marketable man in the world. Minus number one: He is Clark Gable, who draws women like a magnet and doesn’t have a whole lot of willpower to turn them down when propositioned, and that happens every single day when he’s out of her sight.

Still, she has so much to live for, work toward, and dream about. Sooner or later she’ll be able to carry a child to term, and that will change everything. It has been so much fun since Fieldsie has a little boy and Freddie does too and how Pa will love being a, well, pa. They’ll find the right formula sooner or later. And her career is rebounding, with a new picture previewing in three days that she believes might be her best yet and certainly is the most important yet given the world situation, plus she has two more lined up after that, both romantic comedies. So many people in her life need her and she loves to be able to help her family and friends. Loves it more than anything. So it’s important to keep making pictures and keep the money coming in, so she can help.

Then the big thing. The biggest thing. The war means new responsibilities, and she has already seen how important she can be and how much she can contribute and needs to contribute.

The station man calls the passengers to line up to board. A couple of the Army fellows ask her for autographs and she smiles as genuinely as she can given everything and signs, and then the door opens and they file out into the cold night air to the plane. She puts an arm around Petey on one side, and Otto puts a hand under Petey’s elbow to steady her up the steps on the other. What a godsend Otto is. She gets Petey in her seat and then settles into her own and fastens her seat belt. One more hour, then in the arms of her man. She’s going to talk his ear off all right, and he will kid her for not shutting up for the first hours they are together again. But driving him crazy is half the fun.

She can see the pilot up there working the controls and hears the engines sputter to life. One more hour. So much to live for. Almost home.

Pinnacle

Unexpected. Overwhelming. Astonishing. She steps out of a car at the Indiana State Capitol to a sea of bundled souls. If they’d been locusts they’d constitute a plague; if bees they’d be a swarm. But they’re people and they’ve besieged the Capitol. A military honor guard from the Culver Academy stands at attention 30 strong in present-arms. Police officers with batons keep a watchful eye of the cordons. A raft of newsreel cameras on tripods is ready along with a firing squad of photographers facing the platform where she will speak to the nation. When she climbs the steps onto the platform alongside Indiana’s governor, the mayor of Indianapolis, and others, all she can see are humans stretching back along the plaza all the way past the cross street and buildings beyond, a full fraction of a mile. Thousands of people—maybe tens of thousands.

It’s Thursday, January 15, 1942, and Carole Lombard has arrived. In every sense of the word, she has arrived. Never the most popular actress. No Academy Awards. A penchant for headline-grabbing that puts some in Hollywood off. A social climber, others say, for marrying king-of-the-movies Clark Gable. But today she will just be herself and let the chips fall, here in her home state among thousands of friends and family, people with her sensibilities and values.

For the next eight hours she will be in constant motion, deliver five speeches of varying lengths, shake thousands of hands, remember every name of every person she just met 10 minutes earlier, charm wallets into the open air, and sell four times the pre-event estimate in U.S. war bonds.

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

Leaving the Capitol after a speech and frenzy of bond selling. [©2013 by GoodKnight Books. All rights reserved.]

It had been a long road traveled to reach this point for the girl born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, quiet unassuming Jane who had been transplanted from Indiana to Southern California at an early age and caught the acting bug as a teenager at a time when motion picture studios had been a ravenous people mill. Jane-turned-Carole managed to get a few parts that impressed no one, and then her face had been torn up in a car crash that, it was assumed, had ended the journey. But those who believed her to be finished didn’t know this iron-willed girl who accepted the facial scars from the accident and moved on to start over in Hollywood.

The life that followed had been a full one, with its share of successes, failures, and controversies. No one so unconventional as to be labeled “Hollywood’s profane angel” would be universally loved, but all who truly knew her would be won over. Now here she stands in the spotlight in what she recognizes will be the high point of her life. If she lives another 40 or 50 years there will never be a day to top this one, when the self-acknowledged “ham” will kill more flashbulbs and magazines of film than any other celebrity on the planet. She’s in her glory, so on message, so keyed up, at times nervous to say the right thing. But all eyewitnesses will agree that she never once slips or fails to live up to the demands of the moment. She nails it. She hits every mark and delivers every line from the first public appearance at the train station to the last, a cameo at the Indiana Roof ballroom next door to her hotel where she steals the mic and makes a final plea to “buy a bond!” Every take is Cut and Print, to use the lingo she understands so well.

Gracious.

Radiant.

Genuine.

Humble.

Warm.

Vibrant.

These are words used most often to describe Carole Lombard this day. As revealed in an audio recording that surfaced recently courtesy of Lombard enthusiast Brian Anderson, Carole is heard displaying all the poise of her hero FDR in a speech in front of 12,000 who are all but hanging from the rafters at the giant Cadle arena in downtown Indianapolis.

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

Hours later still going strong with Otto by her side as she chats with an official. [©2013 by GoodKnight Books. All rights reserved.]

An hour later she’s running on pure adrenalin in her Claypool Hotel suite greeting cousins and friends from Fort Wayne. Her mother, the 65-year-old Petey, is all-in but not Carole. Carole knows what she’s just accomplished and she pronounces it enough. Tomorrow morning she’s to appear at Wasson’s Department Store down the street to sell more bonds but she knows she’s already raised $2 million. In other words she’s done her duty, as have the people of Indianapolis. It’s a wrap. Rather than depart on the train tomorrow, Carole pronounces that she, Petey, and Otto Winkler the PR man are packing and leaving tonight, and not by train, by air. Eight hours of absolute power have corrupted absolutely. They’re taking the first available flight west, Carole proclaims to the shock of Petey and Otto. Both protest, but Carole knows how safe air travel is these days, and she swears they’ll both thank her when tomorrow night at this time they are snug in their beds at home and not in the middle of nowhere on some damn train. Otto digs in his heels so she turns magnanimous and offers to leave it to the fates. A coin flip. Call it, Otto, heads—or tails?

With furious packing, consternation, and hurt feelings, the most successful day of her life ends. With a vengeance.

Learn all about Carole Lombard’s life and death in the expanded trade paperback edition of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by GoodKnight Books.

Windswept

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Just off the train in Chicago, Carole poses with a war bond poster in this shot later used to publicize To Be or Not to Be. Eerily, her death date is visible on the wall calendar.

On Wednesday, January 14, 1942, Carole Lombard stepped off the City of Los Angeles, one of Union Pacific’s streamliners. In a little while she walked out of the North Western Station in downtown Chicago and received quite a shock: an air temperature of 35 degrees F, which wasn’t terrible, but winds gusted to 30 miles per hour, and that stung. Back in Los Angeles cold weather of the American north had been theoretical, but now she and her mother, Petey, tested their dainty Southern California blood and found just what they expected: This blood turned to icicles pretty fast so close to Lake Michigan.

Carole knew the train as the “choo-choo” and the “clickety-clack,” and likened it to your usual experience of watching grass grow or paint dry. She preferred to fly over the earth and not interact with it mile for mile. Flying got you places a lot faster, and she didn’t mind flying, although she did mind heights. But the powers that be had forbidden her to fly on this trip to Indianapolis via Chicago to sell war bonds, so she was earthbound on the Union Pacific Railroad for every bloody mile but hardly idle as the train bisected America’s vast western spaces. She spent her time battling United Artists by telegram over the title of her latest picture, To Be or Not to Be, which UA wanted to change (over her dead body). She also pumped her husband’s best friend, Otto Winkler, her PR man on the trip, for information on said husband’s carrying on. And she gabbed with Warner Bros. star Pat O’Brien, who was taking the same train east.

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

Petey and Carole at the North Western Station in Chicago on January 14, 1942.

In Chicago she appeared on WGN Radio to talk about war bonds, and was interviewed by Marcia Winn of the Tribune and then retired to the Tribune’s color studio to have portraits made for the cover of Sunday’s rotogravure. Before departing she boldly signed the wall of the dressing room Carole Lombard Gable and dated it 1-14-42. In the WGN building she ran into Don Budge and Bobby Riggs, tennis pals from Alice Marble’s set on the SoCal courts, and made a loud fuss over both.

After too much confinement in a Pullman car and too many Coca-Colas and cigarettes, she was practically wired for sound and paced, growled, screeched, and otherwise carried on through the various interviews, at times frightening those asking the questions. But finally she was through it and ready to retire for the day, and yet it was early and she had a plan: She wanted to fly from Chicago to Indianapolis, and she wanted to do it now, or as close to now as possible. Otto did not want to fly, but Carole had an ulterior motive for getting into Indy early, and son of a gun if there wasn’t an Eastern Airlines flight that would get them there in little more than an hour. Otto knew better than to go up against Carole in this particular mood, so he said OK and off they went, leaving Petey behind to catch up with family who had come up from Fort Wayne for the day.

The DC-3 flight into Indianapolis on Eastern Airlines Flight 7 went well, far too well, and Carole and Otto checked into the Claypool Hotel lickety-split, leaving Carole time off the grid for a visit with a local Indy celebrity, as described in the trade paperback edition of Fireball, due for release on Monday.

What a whirlwind day it had been, and finally, finally she had seen some action instead of remaining confined on that damn train. After an evening bath Carole managed to get some rest and contemplated what likely lay ahead tomorrow just a couple of blocks away from the Claypool at the Indiana State Capitol Building. And in the back of her mind she noted the success of that hop by air down from Chicago. It made so much sense. Sure Otto had protested; in fact Otto had white-knuckled it all the way, which wasn’t like him, but the results were spectacular. Here they were in a third of the time it would have taken by train, and they’d wake up rested and refreshed in the morning. Yes, she would have to think about this some more. Getting home two days earlier than scheduled was quite the attractive proposition for any number of reasons, not the least of which was hubby and his new object of fascination. Yes, she’d have to start working on Otto first thing in the morning, but then there was her mother who had not stepped on an airplane in her 65 years and intended to keep that record intact. Getting Petey on a DC-3 would take some doing.

One Saturday morning

It’s funny how close you get to the people you write about in a book. Spend every day over a couple-year period with Carole Lombard, and you get to know her pretty well, then you go away and write another book and lose touch with your friend until something yanks you back, like the upcoming 75th anniversaries and release of the expanded trade paperback edition of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 , and suddenly you’re going, “Carole! Nice to see you! How you been?”

As I write this, it’s the morning of January 10. This day 75 years ago Carole was at home off Petit Avenue in quiet little Encino, California, packing for her trip east to sell war bonds. And packing and packing, trunks and trunks of carefully mapped-out wardrobe for whistlestop bond-selling opportunities, interviews in Chicago, and then multiple events in Indianapolis and more whistlestops heading west for home.

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

She had a lot on her mind this Saturday morning the 10th. She’d had a dust-up with her old man about his closeness with a certain younger woman. Now he was gone east to New York and here she was listening to the ticking clock and remembering all the words they had used to bloody each other. He wasn’t what you’d call an elegant or articulate fighter. He was quiet by nature and went from zero straight to rage, and she could match him and bring a lot more intellect to the battle along with an arsenal of four-letter words he just couldn’t match, and the result was carnage on both sides.

The larger issue: How could she compete with the endless parade of youthful flesh passing before his eyes? She had already maxed out on diet, exercise, and beauty creams. Personally she had no fear of aging and said so to the press and meant it, but aging in the context of holding her man was a different matter. To keep up, she had already met the man’s man on his terms and done the gun-moll bit. She did everything to please him, from hunting and fishing trips into the middle of nowhere to discreetly averting her gaze for his frequent dalliances. Now, to her horror, she could see him growing bored anyway. He had had a tough life and was not a happy guy despite his fame and millions, despite the fact that he was reaping all the many benefits of a beautiful woman offering him unconditional love. Despite everything, absolute power had corrupted him absolutely in just five years of being together, and less than two married.

Because this was such a slow-speed train wreck in the making, she had had time to try to prevent the collision, chief among them to get pregnant and present the king with an heir. But the skin she was so comfortable in had betrayed her and she kept miscarrying. Such heartache that caused. So frustrating for a woman who specialized in willing dreams into reality.

Tripping over the opened suitcases and trunks reminded her of a thousand details, and she got on the phone to her mother, nicknamed Petey, who would be going along on the trip. Petey grew up in the ice station known as Fort Wayne, Indiana, but had spent nearly 30 years thawing out in Southern California, so they kept reminding each other how cold Chicago and Indianapolis were going to be in January. Hats, coats, stoles, gloves, scarves—pack plenty of each. And relatives were suddenly coming out of the woodwork wanting to meet up with the Peters girls for reunions in Chicago or Indianapolis, and could they please stop off in Fort Wayne for a day? No, they couldn’t, because Carole had to be back home for a sneak preview of her new picture Monday, January 19, and she would be enslaved on passenger trains for days and days to her great frustration.

Otto kept calling because the schedule was a living thing even on a Saturday. Otto as in Otto Winkler, hubby’s PR man and best friend who was now hers for the trip. Men had no trouble packing even for a week, and she managed to kid him about that despite her mood. A few suits, a tux, some dress shirts and ties, and he was good to go, while the mess surrounding her looked like the contents of the Lusitania bobbing on the water after torpedoing.

The next nine days were going to be a blur, she knew, and yet it seemed like an eternity until she’d be able to see her man again and really patch things up. Carole being Carole, she had to do what she could to control the situation, and she’d come up with the idea of writing a series of notes that would be doled out to him one a day—intimate little reminders of good times past and future. He was going to be spending considerable time with that younger woman, and the notes might serve as the conscience of the king. She could hope, anyway. So she sat and thought and wrote nine notes and tucked them in envelopes and sealed them up with love.

That was life at 4525 Petit Avenue in Encino 75 years ago this morning.

Long Live the King

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but laugh. In the past two months I’ve been interviewed dozens of times about the themes of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, my GoodKnight Books release. It’s a story with so many angles that the media practically has a smorgasbord. But my experience of a couple days ago was one I didn’t see coming and an angle I wasn’t comfortable talking about at all.

A certain talk show host at a radio station in a major Midwestern city asked me for a 7- to 10-minute interview. It was on the schedule for 10 days. Sometimes the station calls me and sometimes I call the station. Usually, I speak first with a producer during a commercial break who patches me in so I hear the intro, and then go live. Well, this time it was me doing the calling, and there wasn’t any conversation with a producer. I automatically went into a queue where I heard the commercial break and then the talk show host, a woman, started her segment with a folksy chat about the holidays, and I thought she was segueing nicely into a mention of It’s a Wonderful Life and then here I’d come after she completed a standard welcome of Jimmy Stewart biographer Robert Matzen.

She was going on about the baking of holiday cookies, and I wondered how she was going to bring it back to Mission, but OK I’m sitting there listening waiting for the plane to circle around to my direction. Then she started talking about the “Cookie King,” Robert Merten who has written a book about holiday cookies and in a split second I realized: Wait a minute. Robert Matzen, Robert Merten. World War II book, cookie book.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

A book not about cookies.

It’s a horrible thing when you realize, This plane isn’t landing. This plane is about to crash. She launched into an adoring, full-fledged introduction to Cookie King Robert Merten and the deeper she got into it, and the closer I got to going live, the faster my brain operated as I tried to think of what to do. I imagined the conversation that was about to take place, the one where I hesitated and stumbled my way through an explanation of how, yeah, I like cookies just fine but I’m not the king of them and in fact my blood isn’t blue but rather, it’s as red as the next guy’s, and I’ve written this book called Mission about death in the heavens over Germany. It would be a conversation blinded on both sides by egg on faces, and there would be earwitnesses all over a major Midwestern city.

The flop-sweat started to flow as she brought the intro into what she imagined was a smooth landing with a warm, “Joining me today in a rare radio appearance is the Cookie King himself, Robert Mert—

*CLICK*

Yes, people, I strapped on my ’chute and jumped before the plane crashed in flames. I left the host to die in the cockpit and I besmirched Robert Merten’s reputation but at that moment the Cookie King was on his own and I was out of the doomed ship in one piece. I lived to fight another day.

The post-mortem with Sarah my top-notch publicist left us both baffled (and her furious on my behalf), and I don’t feel too bad because somebody at that station wasn’t paying very close attention: How do you confuse an author who’s written a book about cookies with an author who’s written a book about World War II? I mean, I can sort of imagine how this crash happened, but only sort of, and the startling lack of preparation on their end mitigates any guilt I felt about bailing out with bare seconds until impact.

For the record, the Cookie King’s book is entitled, logically enough, The Cookie King, and sports a royal crest on its cover. The subtitle is, “Delicious, sweet and savory cookies from a lifetime journey of cookie baking” and my sweet tooth thinks it must be a steal at $34.95.

So there you have it, just another day in the life of an author who is soldiering on in a major publicity campaign. And Robert Merten, the next time you realize that somebody has booked you to talk about Jimmy Stewart as a combat pilot in World War II, please bail at the last moment and leave the host to crash in flames. At that point we’ll be even.

Inside the Reptile

There is an affectionate term for the planes that helped win the fight against Hitler: warbirds. Mary and I saw all the warbirds of World War II in our recent visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe was launched the evening of October 27.

This Veterans Day it’s easy to think about the boys who stormed Normandy’s beaches 72 years and 5 months ago because they’ve been memorialized in the neat and tidy The Longest Day and in the stunningly realistic Saving Private Ryan, and as one who sees and hears and feels and smells and tastes history, I don’t know how they did what they did that day. You know how you blanch when facing headwinds and slanting rain and the natural sense is to squint from it and recoil and run for cover? Well imagine the raindrops are eight-ounce parcels of lead coming at you like slanting rain. We’re all waterproof so the rain can’t really hurt us, although we act as if it could. None of us are bulletproof and for thousands of those guys that day, the rainstorm ended in instant death or worse.

Where do the warbirds fit in this story? Well, I didn’t know before writing Mission exactly how the war had played out up to the point that the LSTs hit the beaches of France. I knew there was an air war and a ground war in Europe, but it didn’t sink in that the air war came first and made the ground war possible, which means that for Americans over a two-year period, the front lines in the war for Europe were manned by flyers of the U.S. Army Air Forces. They climbed into their warbirds every morning not knowing if they’d ever walk the earth again. They’d give a thumbs-up and take off not into a glorious sunrise but into pea soup because, after all, this was England and the English weather is usually dreary.

And the warbirds themselves? Yikes. Sure, you had your sleek and nasty fighter planes, your Warhawks and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, and the kids who climbed into them fought like the glamorous swashbucklers they were. Theirs was the grave responsibility of guarding and defending the most unglamorous of warbirds, the heavy bombers. And that is the core story of Mission.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The B-24 Liberator, mocked as “the packing crate the B-17 came in,” but beloved by the men who flew inside.

Two heavy bombers flew for America in WWII, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. The relative beauty of the 17 and its lethal firepower made it the media darling of the war. Think Memphis Belle. The 24 was described as “the packing crate the B-17 came in.” It was boxy; it was decidedly unglamorous. Imagine this as a verbal portrait of your airplane: “On the ground it looks like a slab-sided prehistoric monster wading through swamps.”

But the boys assigned to the B-24 Liberators loved their airplanes. They cared for each as if it were a hotrod, as if the thing wasn’t a flying death trap. The Liberators Jim Stewart flew exclusively in the war had real problems, like controls that required muscle at all times and leaks in the fuel lines that would, all of a sudden, cause them to blow up in the air, usually on ascent when loaded with gas and bombs. Ka-BOOM! Ten men obliterated over friendly skies because of spark meeting fuel leak: pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, engineer, waist gunners, ball turret gunner, tail gunner, all gone. This happened to Lt. Earle Metcalf and crew of Stewart’s squadron one morning during a relatively “easy” mission to bomb German rocket emplacements near the coast of France. There one moment and vanished the next, with no trace ever found.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

This Veterans Day I am saluting the flyers of the Eighth Air Force, with a special shout-out to this crew: (kneeling, L to R) engineer Don Dewey, gunner Stan Treusch, gunner Bill Timmons, radioman Phil Bronstein, gunner Earl Doggett; (standing) engineer Jim Crawford, navigator Paul Fischer, copilot John Lercari, pilot Earle Metcalf, and bombardier Ernie Hutton. Of the men in this photo, only ground crew chief Eugene Peterson, kneeling at far right, lived past Feb. 2, 1944 when the Lib they were in, Billie Babe, blew up without warning in English airspace. These men were under Jim Stewart’s command in the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group, and their deaths hit him hard.

On each mission to Germany, missions sent up every possible day, hundreds of planes would take off from a cluster of bases each five miles from the next in eastern England into that pea soup I described earlier featuring low cloud cover. If the pilot didn’t fly precisely in that cloud cover, as in, fly straight for 47 seconds after takeoff while climbing to 5,000 feet at an air speed of 150 and then on the 48th second turn right to a precise compass heading, ka-BOOM! Two bombers both flying blind would collide—loaded with gas and bombs—and not 10 but 20 men would be erased from the roster. That happened more than once on missions Jim commanded. He would hear the deafening explosion close by, muscle the controls as the shock wave hit his plane, and know that a score of fine flyers alive five seconds ago were now dead. Young men he had just seen and eaten breakfast with.

Dear readers, we haven’t even left friendly airspace yet! This was the easy part before hitting an enemy coastline that featured hundreds of anti-aircraft batteries aimed at Forts and Libs lumbering straight and level across the sky as if targets in a carnival shooting gallery. Each plane held 10 males somewhere between 19 and 26, except for Jim, the old man of 35. They were kids, so very young, so very brave, so very skilled, who died by the hundreds and thousands for the two years leading up to D-Day in an ongoing effort to smash Hitler’s ability to manufacture weapons of war. Not until they had succeeded in the task of fighting and fighting and fighting on endless brutal missions to knock out enough of the German air fleet did D-Day even become possible.

I spend a great deal of time in Mission driving home the point that, yes, Jim was a hero, but the band of brothers he flew with every day were people who lived and breathed. Each represented the best the United States had to offer. On the morning of a mission they rode out to their slab-sided reptile of an airplane, a beast that might turn around and bite them at any moment. They struggled inside it while loaded down with flying gear. They held their breath through a lumbering takeoff, each focused on all the tasks essential to keeping that plane in the air for a flight to and from Germany. For many, too many, something would go wrong and they would fly on to glory.

I am writing about the men of the Eighth Air Force today, but I think of them every day. They inspire me to be an American worthy of their bravery and sacrifice.

 

To learn more about Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Flight to Europe, visit the publisher’s website.

Icons

If this were 1966 instead of 2016, you could go down any street and ask passersby if they knew who Clark Gable was, and be met by incredulity or outright anger. “Of course I know who Gable is! (…you idiot!)” Back then we were still attached to Hollywood’s golden age because the movies played on local and network TV and the glamorous movie stars showed up in series and variety and game shows. They existed in the fabric of our culture. If this were 1966, in just two more years would come yet another major revival of Gone With the Wind, this time updated in 70mm, and moviegoers would get another shot of Gable, Vivien Leigh, and crew to keep them fresh in our minds.

But that was a long, long time ago now. The old stars have passed on and their motion pictures no longer play on the late show. Instead those feature films have been relegated to that great Indian reservation for old cinema, Turner Classic Movies, where they can roam in free black-and-white isolation and not offend the youngsters. Here’s a great explanation of why classic film is not likely to endure in popular culture much longer.

Most of you come here to read my babble because you love classic Hollywood. And because you do know so much about it and have seen hundreds or thousands of vintage Hollywood movies and read dozens of books, you might not be aware how dramatically popular culture has changed around you. It’s no longer a slam dunk that some stranger will know even the name Clark Gable since his most famous picture hasn’t played network television in, what, a generation? Forget getting a glint of recognition about Ronald Colman or Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford is known only as the eyebrow lady who hated wire hangers—if she’s known at all. Astaire and Rogers; what’s that, a law firm? You get my point.

But there are a few old stars who still ring the bell all these decades later. One is John Wayne, subject of a definitive biography by Scott Eyman a couple of years ago that became a runaway hit and New York Times bestseller. The Duke is an American icon whether or not you’ve ever sat through one of his pictures. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn are unquestionably still bigtime. And then there’s Jimmy Stewart.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Duke and Jim together in one of their best pictures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

One thing that led to Stewart’s longevity is that after World War II, he reinvented himself and started looking for edgier roles. For a solid decade he made pictures you wouldn’t expect to find him in, usually with strong box office results. In other words, he didn’t play it safe and go out to pasture (move to television). He looked down his nose at television, skillfully played the system, and kept showing up on theater marquees well into the 1960s.

That’s not to say business acumen makes JS relevant in 2016. He died in 1997, about a generation ago. He stopped making public appearances long before that, and so for practical purposes he slipped from the “newsfeed” at the end of the 1980s. His last starring role in a feature film was way back in 1971. And oh by the way that picture bombed. Sure he left behind some wonderful films—Vivacious Lady, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester ’73, Harvey, and Vertigo come to mind off the top of my head. He made his share of clunkers too, but my point is, if you’re under 40 and not a fan of old Hollywood, you belong to a vast majority that doesn’t know these pictures. Nor do you likely have any urge to see them. It’s very much a generational thing.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Jim in one of those pictures you wouldn’t expect, grinding Dan Duryea’s face into the bar in Winchester ’73.

But Stewart has something no other leading man has, and he’s not about to lose it. Stewart starred in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I could ask the person on the street, “Who’s Jimmy Stewart?”—even ask it of a 20-something—and I’ll get a smile and an enthusiastic, “I love Jimmy Stewart!” and that’s because of It’s a Wonderful Life, a picture I’m beginning to believe has become the most beloved in American popular culture. Parents pass it along to children who grow up and pass it along to children, and it keeps resonating because the concepts are universal. Do the right thing. Have honor. Don’t give up. Value your friends. Value your life.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read customer reviews of Fireball that said, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard before I read this book,” and for good reason. Carole Lombard died almost 75 years ago! Why should the modern reader know about Carole Lombard?

Stewart is a different animal. Everybody thinks they know Jimmy Stewart because they know George Bailey. Know him very well, in fact, and figure Jim is George, but guess what? Jim isn’t George. Jim isn’t even Jimmy. Jim is a complex, almost impenetrable character, and for me the hook was Jim came home from war and made It’s a Wonderful Life. From the moment the dynamics of this formula hit me, horrors of war, beloved actor, beloved film, I started writing and didn’t look back for fear somebody else was out there banging out the same story in Peoria or Sioux Falls.

Luckily, nobody was, and in a short six days you can tell me if you really knew Jim and if you still love him, because in six days Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (GoodKnight Books) has its official release. In fact, why not plan to join me at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio for the launch event next Thursday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m.?

The Time I Was a Legend

In the ninth grade I cut my fingertip off in shop class. It’s the ring finger of my left hand, and I was planing a piece of wood on a machine called a joiner and the plastic guard was off it for some reason and I was holding the wood carelessly. Mr. Russell the shop teacher watched my fingertip fly up in the air and I’m sure imagined his career flying beside it. Such a sound it made, the blade hitting my flesh, that whenever I hear a similar sound today all these years later a chill runs from the base of my spine down my legs. I just heard a version of that sound out the open window as someone in the neighborhood fed tree branches into a wood chipper.

Blood was everywhere. Mr. Russell kept his cool and wrapped my hand up so the principal could drive me to the doctor’s office. Now, I come from a small town and we had two doctors, both alcoholics. I remember the doctor I went to that day had an old portrait of himself as a navy officer in his office, so he must have been in his 50s, although at the time I thought he was ANCIENT. Or did he just look ancient because of the booze?

Anyway, as the principal parked along the street in front of the doctor’s office I watched my mother run into view and straight inside. She wasn’t exactly a graceful woman and definitely not an athlete but she had still managed to sprint about three-quarters of a mile and beat us there even though the principal was hurrying and only had to drive three blocks. In other words, Mom cared.

When the doctor removed Mr. Russell’s wrapping, my finger was sticking up at a perfect sightline between my eyes and Mom’s, and I watched her face turn chalk white at what a high-speed circular saw can do to human flesh. It looked like ground sirloin, except purple.

My fingertip looked like this, but purple.

My fingertip looked like this, but purple.

The doctor said there was nothing to sew so he didn’t sew it. He wrapped it in gauze and then cotton bandage and sent me home. Even then at—what was I, fourteen?—I thought to myself, shouldn’t you lubricate that, because things are going to congeal and it’ll be difficult to get the bandages off down the road?

I believe seven days ensued. In that time I became a high school legend as the ninth grader who cut off his finger in shop class. My school was a junior high, a decrepit old set of buildings long since torn down, while grades ten to twelve were jailed in a shiny new school out in the country. Aside from being a mediocre baseball player on championship teams, I had never achieved notoriety of any sort until now, unless you count the time I (along with at least 100 others) colored a picture of a clown flawlessly and won two free tickets to the circus, or the time I won a drawing in the fifth grade and got to take home the week-old jack-o-lantern at Halloween.

Now? Now I hit the bigtime as the ninth grader who lost a hand in shop class. None of the upper classes laid eyes on me, but when one loses an arm, you can imagine what the poor bastard must look like in all those bandages lying in a hospital room hooked up to IVs and monitors. That was the progression, as I found out later, with my condition worsening until a week had passed and I was hanging on by a thread in ICU.

The day came for me to go back to the alcoholic ex-navy man for a follow-up, and here I am just a kid kind of shaking my head thinking… Salve? Ointment? Something was supposed to go between my flesh and those bandages.

He started unwrapping and, son of a gun, the bandages were stuck. He said, no problem, let’s soak it. I can still remember the kidney-shaped metal dish that my hand, bandages attached, soaked in. He came back after a while and gave a tug. “YEEEEOWW!” I think I’m quoting myself accurately. I think it was, “YEEEEOWW!”

My doctor sort of looked like this while sober.

My doctor sort of looked like this while sober.

No problem, let’s soak it some more. We repeated the process. Same result. Finally he said, “Here, lie back,” as he must have said to many a wounded navy man back in the South Pacific, and I did as ordered and he said—I kid you not, he said, “This might hurt.”

I reached out with my right hand and found the metal stirrups that are used when ladies are examined. Just as I did, he gave it all he had and yanked the bandage off.

I don’t remember the next moment or two because the lights went out, but for years afterward my big sister Janet would ask me to tell the story of the time the doctor removed the bandages from my finger, and she would laugh and laugh.

What happened was that he knew he was going to have to pull hard, and I guess he was trying to make it go quick for me, but with the bandage when it separated from my hand went all the ground meat, plus what was left of my fingernail, and the cuticle, which was ripped clean up to the first joint. What a scar it made, and for ten, fifteen years the slightest bump would put me through the roof.

I was reminded of this incident while cutting my nails and facing again the result of that morning in shop class. The end of my finger grew back after a fashion, although there’s no fingerprint and the nail, which did grow back against all odds, is about half the size of its right-hand mate. The coolest thing in retrospect is that if you look closely, you can see where the cuticle was ripped in a blazing trail in the direction of his yank. I was actually pretty lucky when you think about the alternative, like my brother-in-law who was a meat cutter in adolescence and apparently not a very accurate one by what’s missing today.

I know what you’re thinking, what a lawsuit this must have made because of the missing guard on the table saw, but that wasn’t the cut of my father’s jib. Dad chalked it up to inherent Matzen clumsiness and we moved on, and the grateful school district rewarded me in the only way it really could, with an A in shop class.