Flight 3 Las Vegas

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Those Damn Peaks

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

Carole Lombard and dignitaries just off the east steps of the Indiana State House in Indianapolis on January 15, 1942. As of now, she had less than 36 hours to live.

If you’ve read Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, you know the significance of January 16; a year ago, since the date coincided with the fall of weekdays culminating in Friday January 16, I conducted a Twitter campaign to take you minute by minute through Carole Lombard’s last hectic 36 hours of life in real-time. That exercise taught me just how fast she careened toward her own death. It’s 11:30, she’s here; it’s 12:15, she’s there; 2:05, time for a wardrobe change to be here at 2:15. She had spent Thursday January 15, 1942 dashing and appearing. Make a speech, sell bonds, dash a few blocks to raise a flag, change clothes, go to a tea, change clothes, go to dinner uptown, then motorcade to the evening “gala.”

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

Mary Anna Johnson was a young federal researcher when she saw Carole Lombard board TWA Flight 3 in Indianapolis. Mary would be bumped from Flight 3 before it crashed, and tell me all about the experience 70 years later.

Last year’s Twitter recreation of the timeline for today, January 16, took a more linear turn. Imagine you’re flying west on a TWA red-eye, and it’s the middle of the night and you stop in lonely Indianapolis. Modern air travelers have no frame of reference for what a DC-3 interior was like. Basically you sat in the equivalent of a big tin can, sloped uphill, in terrific noise. You can’t imagine the noise of two commercial transport engines on either side of you, so if you got on the plane at LaGuardia or Newark and hopped your way west, by the time you reached Indianapolis, you were bushed. Sleep, when it came at all, was fleeting and fitful. Then as you sit in the silence of a darkened tarmac (the tinnitus of those engines still in your ears), your flight attendant, known then as an “air hostess,” announces that a VIP is boarding and please respect her privacy. Onto the plane steps Carole Lombard, her mother, and their PR man, with Lombard still wired from all she had experienced in the last 18 hours, from her first appearance in Indianapolis on.

As I write this I guess she’s somewhere over Missouri and now she’s sleeping fitfully and fleetingly while flying beside and in front of two passengers who are spitting mad at her for making them travel by air at all. Spitting mad. This is one of many aspects of the story that people don’t quite get because there are no photographs to depict it and few eyewitnesses spoke of it, but this party was Unhappy with a capital Un. Carole’s mother, whom she knew as “Petey” sometimes and “Tots” most of the time, would go to her fiery death furious at her daughter. PR man Otto Winkler would spend his last day trapped on the tin can and anticipating an air disaster because he had dreamed it would happen. So here he is right now over Missouri, expecting the worst after he had expended all his energy in Indianapolis and then hadn’t slept all night. Imagine, just imagine…

Stop after stop followed as the TWA’s transcontinental Flight 3 hedge-hopped west, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers and mailbags and to top off the tanks for the next leg. Then there’s another aspect of the thousand aspects to the story: the Army Air Corps guys. They had gotten onto the plane in dribs and drabs and by the last stop, the unscheduled stop in Las Vegas, there were 15 of these fliers on the plane as passengers, and only four civilians. One of the reasons I decided to write the manuscript I’m finishing today, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, is because of the affinity I feel for the Air Corps boys after writing Fireball. Newspapers reporting the crash of the plane gave the impression these young men were all pilots, but they weren’t. They were also co-pilots, navigators, radio men, and engineers. They were parts of flight crews in the Ferrying Command who took medium and heavy bombers east to the war, then snagged commercial flights back to California and did it over again. In the coming months these young guys were expecting transfer to American bases where they would train Air Corps conscripts because experienced Air Corps fliers were in short supply. Then after promotions they’d head to Europe or the Pacific as senior-level officers or non-coms.

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

A TWA DC-3 transcontinental Sky Club of the kind that crashed on this date in 1942 killing the flight crew, 15 Army Air Corps fliers, and four civilians, including Carole Lombard.

The life of an army aviator wasn’t easy because their ships were reliable and yet not at all reliable. We were then just out of the era of the biplane and still figuring out multi-engine aviation. Here’s something else to think about: When TWA Flight 3 took off into the Las Vegas darkness on this night, January 16, the 15 fliers sat there in the noise analyzing climb rate and engine performance. They could feel the overweight ship laboring to reach altitude because this is what they did for a living—they flew multi-engine planes. And since they were flying out of McCarran, an army airfield, they all knew Vegas and the dangers of the surrounding mountains and must have been wondering where those damn peaks were. But some of them also knew the pilot, Capt. Wayne Williams, because he had been teaching classes for the Army in multi-engine flying so they’d figure, with Capt. Williams up there, we’re OK.

They weren’t OK. A whole bunch of little things happened along the way that conspired to put Mt. Potosi in the way of Flight 3 as she power-climbed to altitude. The result: fireball—the image in my mind for years as I’d fly through Vegas and look over at Potosi and imagine what the people of Las Vegas witnessed in the western sky this night at about 7:30 local time. From 30 miles off they saw a little pinpoint of light that represented 22 humans going up in flames. I’m very fond of, and feel close to, all of them, not just Carole, Petey, and Otto, and on this January 16, with the trees barren and the sky appropriately gray, I’ll look at my watch and think about where they were and what they were doing on this, the last day of their lives.

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

Mt. Potosi, Nevada. Imagine TWA Flight 3 coming into view from the right and power climbing toward the distant peaks. At just about dead center in the photo she hit the rock cliff walls just below the peak in the dark at 185 miles per hour.

A Facebook Fourth

A couple months ago I mentioned that I was writing a film treatment of Fireball. It wasn’t my idea to create a movie version—it was suggested by my accountant, who’s a good man to keep happy. As I noted in my column about the idea of a Fireball film, the subject keeps coming up and I’ve been writing to satisfy what you might call popular demand.

Since mid-May I’ve had some conversations with Hollywood insiders and they’ve convinced me that I’m better off developing not just a treatment, which is the equivalent of an outline of the story of a film, but a complete screenplay. I got started working on the screenplay as time allows, basically when I’m not writing Mission: James Stewart and World War II. But a couple of Facebook conversations on the Carole Lombard page [login required for FB link] put spurs to my efforts and I’ve been working hours a day to get the screenplay done and out there.

On July 2, a member of the Carole Lombard group, Brian Lee Anderson, posted on the CL page, “I got asked today what actors I hope portray Carole and Clark in the film version of Fireball … Who would you like to see?” That question prompted 88 replies, many with photos of prospective Lombards and Gables. Vincent Paterno then picked up the conversation and moved it to his Carole & Co. website.

The next day, I mentioned on Facebook that I’m working on a screenplay of the story, which generated 79 replies on its own. I hesitated to post anything because, as I feared, a by-product of doing so is that now there are people out there counting the days until Fireball is released to screens nationwide.

It’s not quite that simple. Granted, a Hollywood management type and a Hollywood producer are interested in seeing the script when it’s done. Granted, I have a couple of other irons in the fire as to how to circulate the script, but make no mistake, this is a spec script. It’s not a work for hire at this point. There’s no guarantee Fireball will ever become a major motion picture, or a feisty indie for that matter. That said, I have never seen such a groundswell of interest, energy, and positive push for an idea before. It’s practically risen to the level of a grass-roots campaign to get this thing made.

To play along with Brian Lee Anderson’s July 2 question, a problem well beyond who’s going to option the Fireball screenplay and get a production in gear is who would play Carole Lombard? Who would play Clark Gable? They were true originals and we’re familiar with their faces, voices, and mannerisms because their movies are available today on DVD, TCM, Netflix, and any number of cable channels. Leo DiCaprio made a good Howard Hughes in The Aviator specifically because the audience didn’t know Howard Hughes that well. What did the shy, reclusive Howard look and sound like? Who the hell knows? Like Leo DiCaprio, I guess. But Gable and Lombard? We know them to a T and good luck with casting.

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

When you look at Henry Cavill, do you see Clark Gable?

At the same time, my brother-in-law Michael Rothhaar and nephew Will Rothhaar are Hollywood actors, really accomplished actors, and I’ve seen them do remarkable things with the characters they’re playing. I’ve directed actors giving performances that made my jaw drop—How do they do what they do? How do they become other people and recite pages of dialogue memorized the night before as that other person? There are enormously talented actors out there, and I can’t rule out the fact that the perfect Lombard and Gable exist—actors capable of playing these two from the inside out.

Casting today’s stars as Hollywood legends is the stuff of endless debate. For the sake of argument, here are the results of the Facebook threads of last week:

Lombards mentioned include Kate Hudson (most votes), Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Garner, Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Maggie Lawson, Amy Poehler, Kelly Rutherford, Amy Adams, Michelle Williams, Amber Velletta, Dakota Fanning, Melissa Joan Hart, Blake Lively, Kate Winslet, Melanie Laurent (who’s French), Kristin Chenoweth, Charlize Theron, and Naomi Watts.

For Gable, George Clooney ran away with the voting, and then came Henry Cavill (multiple votes); Leo DiCaprio (“Yes definitely!” and “Not in a million years!” votes), Robert Downey Jr., Colin Farrell, Anson Mount, Jeffrey Dean, Chris Pratt, Hugh Jackman, and Brad Pitt.

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

George Clooney during production of The Monuments Men. Pass the hair dye and let’s get this thing going.

I don’t like to wade into such frays, but I can’t resist. Personally I always thought Gable was George Clooney’s part to give away. He’s got the movie-star presence of a king of Hollywood, and as affected as Gable always played Gable, well, Clooney would be all over that. A growing problem is Clooney’s age, given that Gable was 41 at the time of the crash, and Clooney’s past that now. Still, I think he could do it if only because it was difficult to pin Gable’s age down back in the day and he was always playing younger and older. Blacken his hair and he’s 30; gray his temples and he’s 50.

I’m always looking at actresses to see if they’re Lombard candidates. Whoever it is better be funny by nature. Charming as hell. Jill Clayburgh (God rest her soul) was neither, and a lack of connection to who she was playing helped sink her rendition in Gable & Lombard, made way back in 1976. I could see Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, or Anna Faris in the part and my dark horse—my literal dark horse because she’s part Brazilian with raven hair and dark eyes—is Jordana Brewster of D.E.B.S. and four of the Fast & Furious pictures. She’s capable of charming your pants off and she’s got the Lombard square jaw that could evoke CL to those in the know.

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

Jordana Brewster. Coloring’s wrong but personality’s right.

Most intriguing of all the casting opinions:

  • NC 1945 the restored TWA DC-3 in Kansas City to portray its sister ship, the doomed NC 1946, better known as Flight 3. They were on the assembly line at the Douglas plant in Santa Monica at the very same time in February 1941. Thank you, Michael McComb, for that idea.
  • Kate Hudson as Carole and Goldie Hawn as Carole’s mother Petey, as pitched by Brian Lee Anderson. Yes, Brian, that would be cool as hell.
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Goldie and Kate as Petey and Carole?

So that’s how I spent my Fourth, writing like mad while keeping an entertained eye on Facebook.

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

The sister ship of the doomed Flight 3, now being refurbished in Kansas City and awaiting its big break in Hollywood.

Time Machine

I imagine that time travel would be a pretty cool thing to experience. This past weekend I flirted a little with time travel at “World War II Weekend,” staged at the Reading Regional Airport in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. There, several hundred living historians (a.k.a. “reenactors”) got together to represent American G.I.s, German infantry, French resistance, and many other groups for the benefit of the history minded of this millennium. The authenticity was astonishing to the extent that the very sight of the “Krauts” in person and up close produced in me a chill—broken only when these 1940s apparitions, precise in every detail, tall, square shouldered, in gray-green uniforms and helmets, would sneak a peek at a smartphone.

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

U.S. paratroopers check an all-important equipment check before their jump.

What makes a guy enact a paratrooper jumping out of a plane at 1,500 feet to provide an audience of thousands a sense of what it was like to see a flock of C-47s overhead if you were in France in 1944? The sense I got from it was, these guys of the Airborne Demonstration Team love the history that much. I also realized that the 1944 fellas were up in the air for several minutes over enemy territory as they floated to earth and impersonated clay pigeons for marksmen on the ground. There’s bravery, and then there’s paratroopers.

You learn things by experiencing history up close that you wouldn’t or couldn’t from reading about it in a book or watching a movie. You know me: I don’t feel I can write about a physical location without being there; this time the physical location was inside a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a 74-year-old heavy bomber of the type that pulverized Germany from 1943 to 1945. James Stewart and other characters in my new book flew in these growling monsters so I had to too. Thank God I’m not writing about those paratroopers.

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

The last flying B-24 Liberator, Diamond Lil, and crew wait on the tarmac.

It’s always sobering to fill out a form that asks for “next of kin” before one of these adventures, but the truth is these planes crashed when they were new, and Diamond Lil is the last of her kind, the final flying Liberator in America. I love to fly in vintage bombers. The cabins are unpressurized because of the gun ports, and the engines are louder than you can possibly imagine. It rides like a 20-ton bucket of bolts, just as it did through the war. It is magnificent!

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

For luck.

Which brings me to the topic for today, which is not Diamond Lil but another gal. It’s about a chance encounter, the kind where you glimpse someone and feel a primal rush and think to yourself, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. Well, it happened right there on the runway during my pre-flight briefing as I stood by the wing of the B-24. I turned around and saw her and thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m committed to Diamond Lil, because there she is.” Across the runway, a vintage gleaming silver DC-3 had just landed and taxied to a stop. Right. Over. There.

The conflict raged inside me as the captain of Diamond Lil went on with his safety briefing. Yah, yah, sure, skipper. Whatever you say. I was too busy replaying in my head a DC-3 landing in Las Vegas, weary passengers, a final takeoff and ascent. Eyewitnesses seeing and hearing a plane on an unusual heading…

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

Helloooo, beautiful! First glimpse of the Douglas DC-3 that had landed right behind me.

You’d be proud of me, people: I got my head together and wrung every minute out of my flight inside Diamond Lil, from engine run-up through an airborne exploration of the ship, from flight deck to tail gun and then a landing that felt like the worst pothole you ever hit in your car.

An hour later I was inside that DC-3, which was configured as a C-47—the design most used in helping to win World War II. But whether used for passengers or cargo, they were all stamped out the same and so stepping inside this 1945 model was exactly like stepping inside TWA Flight 3.

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

Looking forward from the tail of the Douglas DC-3/C-47.

Passengers had to be made of sterner stuff back then. Today, I grouse if an infant is on my flight on a 737 or Airbus—and I’m talking if an infant is anywhere inside the roomy cabin so its screaming little voice will bounce off the fuselage and disturb my experience. Well, not a problem in 1942. You’d never hear the little bastard with two 1200-horsepower engines five feet from you, one pressing in from the left, and one pressing in from the right. You wouldn’t hear anything in the unpressurized cabin but an urgent, purposeful growl at somewhere around 110 decibels. It’s not like Carole Lombard could chat with her afraid-to-fly mother during the trip west to offer consolation. Even screams from mouth to ear wouldn’t convey a message, so you sat there in a cabin smaller than your average trolley car, stuffed Kleenex in your ears, and took it.

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

Inside the DC-3 (here configured as a C-47 for cargo). For passenger travel there were three seats across, two on the left and one on the right, with an aisle between. Not exactly roomy. Folks, this is the entire cabin.

So, I went inside the DC-3, talked to the people, took some pictures, exited, came back again, took some video, walked all around it… I knew my followers would find the experience interesting so I tried to document to give you the best look you may ever have at the plane that hit the mountain. One of the many benefits of time travel.

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

Landing gear as it’s supposed to look.

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

Landing gear (right) with other pieces of DC-3 on Mt. Potosi in 2012.

2D to 3D

I have nothing profound to say today.

Ooh, I just heard about a hundred clicks as people flew off this page.

The time between book releases is quiet, and a lot happens within the confines of an office surrounded by government documents and original photos and published works like biographies and military histories. At the moment there’s a stack of file folders related to the Eighth Air Force a foot high beside my chair, and another pile half that high next to it.

A funny thing happened about three weeks ago. I was researching a bombing mission by Capt. James Stewart’s squadron over Frankfurt, Germany, and all of a sudden the project went from 2D to 3D. From black and white to color. From mono to six-speaker surround. It happened when a character I didn’t know would be in the book jumped out from the shadows of history and said boo to me. A woman I had never heard of but realized would be a friend by the time this book is finished. Granted she’s been dead 71 years, but we’ll be friends just the same, just like I’m friends with Alice Getz and Wayne Williams. They’re real to me, flesh and blood, thoughts and dreams, cologne and perspiration. Now, I have to learn all about this German woman, track her down in a language I don’t speak (sorry Miss Diamond, but your two years of trying to teach me German in high school were for naught … kaput) in places I haven’t yet seen.

I’ve said more than once that a couple years ago I’d be sitting here writing Fireball all alone for months on end thinking, who the heck is going to care about a movie star dead for 70 years? What if nobody cares? But I don’t have any such concerns rattling around in my head this time. I’ve got an epic story to tell, a story as big as Europe and 30,000 feet tall. But just like in Fireball it all comes down to molecules of human beings; who they were, where they were placed, how they acted and reacted in good times, bad times, and the worst times. If I do it right, then you’re riding along in the airplane with engine number 3 on fire or you’re on the ground under 1,000 bombers screaming to yourself, I can’t stand this! I’m going to die!

It’s strange looking at an outcome like that when it’s still two years away, with so much research dead ahead, trips to libraries and interviews of experts. In between each trip and each interview, I’ll be sitting here in the smoke of battle, writing.

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

As the final validation that people would care about the movie star dead 70 years, Fireball won the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for biography of the year at ceremonies in Austin, Texas, on Friday night. It was agony not being there because of a scheduling conflict, but all was well because my friend of 30 years Carole Sampeck stepped in and represented author and book beautifully, accepted the crystal statuette, expressed my appreciation and my regrets about not being there in person, and stood for photos better than I ever could have. Ms. Sampeck—a leading expert on Carole Lombard and her place in Hollywood history—played a crucial role in the development of Fireball, so it was fitting that she experienced this payoff and heard the heartfelt cheers of those in attendance. I am certain of 22 attendees, my friends from Flight 3 whose stories were told in Fireball. Mary Johnson was there too, the 23rd passenger who left the plane in Albuquerque. They will always be my friends, very close at hand, and I am thrilled to see them get a moment to stand there with Carole Sampeck and enjoy the spotlight of an Austin Friday evening.

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

Carole Sampeck after accepting the Benjamin Franklin Award in Austin, Texas last Friday evening, April 10.

Too Much

Well, it’s happened again. An airliner has crashed into a mountain, this time in the French Alps. Reports indicate that the A320 flying from Barcelona to Dusseldorf descended from 38,000 feet to the impact point at 6,000 over the span of 8 minutes. There may have been a fire on board that incapacitated the pilots. There may have been a failure of one or both engines, with the descent accompanied by automatic warnings chiming in the cockpit and pilots desperate to restart an engine or engines. I’ve sat in various flight simulator cockpits that are used to train airline pilots. It’s chilling when you’re sitting in a simulator on terra firma and warnings begin to sound—it’s a simulator and utterly realistic. Imagine living the experience six miles up. Better yet, don’t imagine it.

My heart goes out to the crew, the passengers, the families. And my heart goes out to the recovery teams because I was once forced to relive the recovery effort at the crash scene of an airliner—TWA Flight 3 that crashed into Mt. Potosi, Nevada, on January 16, 1942. I undertook this exercise while writing Fireball. Among those lost in that crash was Hollywood actress Carole Lombard. It was “only” a 21-seat, twin-engine DC-3 and there were “only” 22 people on board (19 passengers and a crew of 3) and it hit the mountain at “only” 190 miles per hour versus the 180-seat A320 with 150 that hit at 350 yesterday.

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

A plane crashes into a mountain, in this case TWA Flight 3 on January 16, 1942.

The fuselage of a state-of-the-art 1942 DC-3 Sky Club was gleaming aluminum, meaning that when the aircraft struck granite, it exploded and deformed, but large pieces remained. In fact, some of those pieces of twisted aluminum can be seen today on Mt. Potosi. Modern airliners are made of composites that disintegrate on impact, resulting in the bizarre scene in the Alpine landscape, which looks like a litterbug went mad. How many pieces of people and debris are up there? Hundreds of thousands? A million? Each will have to be removed from the site with care because some are human remains and the rest are potential clues to what happened to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. Perhaps the aircraft’s badly damaged voice recorder and flight data recorder will answer all questions, in which case the jigsaw puzzle of wreckage will still need to be collected and removed. All this will be done by people who are now witnessing sights that are meeting and then far exceeding the human capacity to rationalize and cope.

Previously unpublished and in some cases undiscovered accounts of the recovery effort of TWA Flight 3 were blunt by 1942 standards. A few of the bodies of crash victims were thrown clear of the impact point when the ship blew apart and these remained intact. The rest were put through a literal meat grinder—and then set afire. Imagine being ordered up the mountain on a U.S. Army recovery team or volunteering for the recovery job. Better yet, don’t imagine it. The team of about 30 painstakingly picked up what there was to pick up in the way of human remains for four solid days. In the book I referred to it as a “pudding” composed of flesh, bone, melted snow, and pieces of plane as small as splinters. There were 22 victims, remember. Then the recovery team declared the job finished and departed the scene. An hour later, a TWA man still onsite discovered more human remains and stuffed them into all he had with him—a mail sack. Seventy years later when I visited the site, a human bone turned up. That’s the way it is at such sites.

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

The recovery team reaches the scene 36 hours after the crash.

Take that scene times six and you’ve got something akin to what’s facing recovery teams in the Alps as we speak. There isn’t any snow, but there is a vast mountainside and a ravine covered in objects foreign to serene Alpine landscapes. As for people living the recovery, let me put it in perspective this way: One of the Flight 3 civilian volunteers was interviewed more than 40 years later as a wheelchair-bound old man and said in something akin to bewilderment, “I still see it in my dreams sometimes.”

More than 300 police officers and a like number of firefighters are up there at present, all of them heroes for doing what they’re doing. Many will get past the task they’re accomplishing right now, but none will forget it. They’ll keep seeing it in their dreams.

Marathon

Here we are on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Seventy-three years ago today, Sunday, January 18, 1942, recovery teams were combing the unforgiving mountainside of Mt. Potosi, Nevada at the site of what one Civil Aeronautics Board investigator called “the most completely destroyed airplane I have ever seen.”

This year of 2015, the events covered in the book Fireball occurred on the same days of the week as they did in 1942, which led me (after the germ of the idea was hatched by Carole Sampeck) to launch a Twitter effort to replay key events in Carole Lombard’s last days in real-time, as they happened, beginning at 1:35 P.M. Central on Thursday, the moment Lombard and her party—including her mother Elizabeth Peters (“Petey”) and press man Otto Winkler–were greeted at Union Station, Indianapolis, by the Indy mayor and other officials. I then followed her progress through the day, which included five big events and interactions with at least 20,000 people, and her sudden decision made on Thursday night to fly home instead of take the train.

This past Friday, two days ago, the Twitter reports transitioned to updates from TWA as Flight 3 progressed across the country.

I learned a couple of things through this Twitter campaign. First, I learned how many people still care. The effort drew many new Twitter followers who were eager to participate. Second, I was struck by how fast events transpired for 19.5 hours, from the moment she stepped off the train to the moment Flight 3 struck the mountain. She was in almost constant motion one way or another. For example, from the train station at 1:35 she was driven to the state capitol for a speech and flag raising at 2:00, a bond sale from 2:30 to 3:30, another flag raising at the Claypool Hotel at 3:45, more driving to the governor’s mansion for a tea and reception from 4:15 to 5:30, private dinner with VIPs back at the Claypool at 6:30, a bond rally in a local civic center before 12,000 at 8:30, and a private reception for her friends and family once more at the Claypool at 10:30. Then did she retire for a long sleep? No, of course not. After midnight, Carole, Petey, and Otto packed up for a trip to the airport to wait for a flight that came in late, and you know how easy it is to catch a few winks in an airport terminal. The travelers didn’t board until 5:00 A.M. and then proceeded through a day of hops from city to city on a DC-3 (an uncomfortable plane to fly in) that ranged from the shortest of 1 hour, 11 minutes to the longest of 2 hours, 56 minutes in duration. During the Lombard portions of Flight 3’s intercontinental progress, the plane took off seven times and landed six. Get off the plane, climb on board. Get off the plane, climb on board. For any of us today, one layover is too many and two is torture. But six?

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

Detail of one of Myron Davis’s photos for Life, this one taken at the governor’s mansion, shows Carole Lombard with her guard down for a moment and already exhausted–hours before beginning her cross-country trek. Was she capable of rational decisions by the time she ordered Winkler to book plane reservations?

The first landing out of Indianapolis was into a bad weather situation in St. Louis that caused a two-hour delay in a crowded terminal. Living that in real-time was difficult (because I wanted to get on with the story), but I was sitting at my computer after a good night’s sleep. Imagine those two hours when you’re on Coca Colas, snack bar sandwiches, and upright naps all night and through the morning. Another weather delay followed at the next stop in Kansas City and this one made the local papers because of so many delayed flights and stranded passengers. From there the plane dragged its passengers to Wichita, then Amarillo, then Albuquerque where what was left of Carole Lombard was told she must vacate her seat and wait for another flight.

As I tracked events real-time, I realized that any human—even good-hearted, down-to-earth Carole Lombard—would snap. She must have been seeing polka-dotted koala bears by this time when all she wanted to do was get home.

Many have asked the unanswerable questions: Why was she in such a rush? Why did she drag her companions on a plane when both expressly wished to avoid the dangers of air travel? Was it all about her husband Clark Gable cheating on her? Or was there something more than this? It’s been hypothesized that Carole believed, or had it confirmed in Indianapolis, that she was pregnant and wanted to rush home to tell Gable. This explanation would solve the problem of obtaining the buy in of her companions to get home ASAP. But after at least two miscarriages and a procedure at Johns Hopkins to “clean her out” in efforts to get pregnant, would she put her reproductive system through this particular 19.5 hours of hell? We will never know the answers, assuring that this aspect of the mystery of Flight 3 will remain.

I ended my Twitter effort on Friday night with TWA Control cutting off any further public information about Flight 3 when it was clear that the plane had crashed. Several people confirmed for me later what I already knew: Those last moments are chilling to re-live, no matter how often we do it.

Some people heard of the real-time Twitter feed and signed on after events had transpired, so I have been issuing sporadic updates about goings-on at the scene and thinking about the fact that when Carole Lombard’s marathon ended, Clark Gable’s began. With no warning what was coming or how brutal it would all be, Gable never had a chance.