TWA Flight 3 Lombard

Not in My Kingdom

I have this theory that you don’t need computer-generated explosions and cities crumbling in mega-earthquakes to make a good movie. Somehow, and call me crazy, I think the ability to do anything and create any scenario by computer works against the filmmakers of this generation rather than for them.

Case in point. I caught something called The King’s Speech the other week. It’s a modest picture, as pictures go in this Millennium, made in 2010 about Queen Elizabeth’s parents (King George VI and Queen Elizabeth—the Royal Mum to us) on the eve of World War II. The thing that makes the story go isn’t a villain who looks like the devil with his finger on the button of global destruction. The thing that makes the story go is a speech impediment that is bigger than the King of England and thus threatens the kingdom.

Imagine that. A whole movie, and a very interesting one that made me cry, concerns a speech impediment and its effect on a man and a nation. The King’s Speech is a title with a double meaning: it’s the way he delivers his words, the king’s speech, and the words he delivers at the dawn of World War II—the king’s speech. Get it?

In the IMAX, 3-D, super-woofer theatrical world we live in, bigger and louder is equivalent to better. There used to be something called the shark that it was possible to jump, but somebody CG-destroyed that poor discerning shark so, today, it doesn’t matter how improbable the action is. Fifteen years ago I enjoyed the simple quest of a Fellowship seeking a ring not because of how big that movie could get but because of how simple it was. It was a little story of a little Hobbit and his motley friends against really bad bad-guys. The next thing you know, computers got in there and … jeesh. Giant elephants, armies of tens of thousands, earthquakes, volcanoes, and what I initially thought was (I had never read Tolkien) a giant flaming vagina. I was all the way through my first viewing until I learned it was the Eye of Sauron. I stopped at movie number three when the king returned. (It took him forever.) I went on sampling CG movies and tried X-Men, various Spider-Man entries, and Battle: Los Angeles (because my nephew was a star in it). Then I gave up. Stopped going into theaters that were no longer relevant to me because story had been lost in the clamor.

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

This is not my rescue party.

I plumb missed The King’s Speech and I’m sure other good movies because of the constant din all around them. It warmed my heart to find a simple story out there that was rooted in history, and World War II history at that, about a human battling a speech impediment. It gave me hope for another simple story, about a band of rescuers trying to find a small airliner on a vast mountain. As noted, writing of a Fireball screenplay continues and I have to say, so far, so good. It’s a very simple story; an elemental story of Man against Nature and Man against Himself. I have to pat myself on the back because to date I haven’t written in even one CG avalanche, and no abominable snowmen or animated wolves have yet attacked the rescue party. There’s no cute snowman, no pet reindeer, and no princess except for the one on the plane.

All part of keeping it simple.

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

My rescue party will not see him. At least not as of this writing.

Two for Forty

I just returned from three days at Cinevent, the annual celebration of Golden Age Hollywood in Columbus, Ohio. I got plenty of opportunity to talk about Fireball there, and about my next book, with the likes of author and archivist James V. D’Arc, author and blogger John McElwee, Errol Flynn Slept Here co-author Michael Mazzone, and legendary Warner Bros. archivist Leith Adams, among many others.

While there, John dropped an 8.5×11 sheet of paper in my lap. It was a flyer pertaining to a topic I hold dear, the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3. In a nutshell, a self-dubbed “adventuresome couple” intends to climb to the site and pay for the trip by retrieving crash items and selling them to those who pay $25 in advance for one item; $40 for two.Carole Lombard crash site TWA Flight 3

I’m staring at the flyer now and will scan it for inclusion with this column. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I know I believe in free speech, free choice, free will, and free enterprise. Many aspire to these “free” concepts and today of all days, Memorial Day, they take on special meaning.

I guess I say, more power to you, Adventuresomes! By way of full disclosure, I purchased a piece of crash wreckage somewhere around 1998, back when eBay was new and I was obsessed with the site and anything related to it. In the back of my mind I asked myself, Is this creepy? I asked, but participated in the auction anyway, bidding against others for this item. A week later I held the piece in hand, a rib from the empennage, and yes, I was uneasy having in my possession part of NC 1946, the Douglas DC-3 born in February 1941 in Santa Monica, California, that would live less than a year and end up strewn in a million pieces over the side of Mt. Potosi, Nevada.

A decade later I would finally climb Potosi to visit the site as research for Fireball. Only then did it hit me where I was and what the wreckage represented. Only then, struggling to stand on sheer mountainside at the spot where 22 humans were blown to bits along with that infant of an airplane, did I comprehend the reality that I stood at something akin to a gravesite. I understood because human souls reached out and touched me. The pilot made contact. The co-pilot. The stewardess. Fifteen Army Air Corps guys. I felt them there. My communication with these souls infused life into my writing. Suddenly, the manuscript had a soul of its own.

That’s one of two enduring memories of my day at Potosi: having those people reach out and touch me in a most physical way. The other is the sheer danger, the sheer exhaustion, of the climb up and back. There are two ways into the crash site: One is the way I went, four-wheeling to the embarkation point, then snaking up the mountain, which I felt I had to experience since I would be describing what the first responders faced trying to reach the site. The other way in involves riding the ridges by four-wheeler to a government gate, then hiking a long way and descending from the crest into the crash site—the route used to bring up bodies from the wreck. In the bullet points atop this flyer, the author describes “2.5 miles of hiking up into steep and rocky terrain.” He leaves out words, most appropriate descriptions, like perilous and life threatening. I trust the Adventuresomes are hardbodies who employ a good guide. Thanks to months of training and planning I had both, and it helped and didn’t help. I never would have found the site on my own because it’s a tiny pinpoint on a vast mountain. I had the luxury of following the guide as he used decades of experience in wilderness to lead me up contours of mountainside that could be climbed. But he couldn’t lend me any sure-footedness that day and despite being reasonably coordinated and physically prepared, I tumbled over time and again, smashing on the rocks and bloodying myself as I’ve described to you in the past.

Adventuresomes, and anyone else who takes on Potosi (I met another future climber in Columbus and urged him also), please don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s a killer. I’ve known several people who tried the “easy” way into the site and many didn’t make it for various reasons. Season is a consideration; weather; snakes; equipment; terrain. A normal wilderness hike is great fun, but if you’re struggling for your very life to climb 5,000 vertical feet on 45-degree angles or worse, with footing that gives way unexpectedly, the experience is something else. Even leaving at dawn, we had to hurry to make it back down the mountain before night swallowed us whole, so difficult was the round trip, with less than 90 minutes spent at the site. You can’t move at night on the mountain, believe me. I wouldn’t even underestimate the first and last parts of the journey by four-wheel drive, because the desert path we took, colorfully named Ninety-Nine Mine Road (it passes the old mine entrance), is not for your average driver. I wasn’t behind the wheel the day I went to Potosi—I couldn’t have made it on my own because this is serious off-roading and I don’t have the experience.

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

Ninety-Nine Mine Road is much worse in most spots than this photo shows. Here I was able to steady the camera, point, and shoot without being too badly knocked around inside the Jeep.

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

Behind this mound of earth lay the entrance to the old Ninety-Nine Mine in the foothills before Mt. Potosi.

If you are trying to lug anything extra back down the mountain, say, crash debris, if you put it on your back it’s going to a) weigh you down, b) add extra bulk, and c) change your center of gravity as you try to navigate the steep terrain.

It just occurs to me now that maybe Fireball inspired the Adventuresomes to attempt the climb. I’m not going to make any value judgments about the wisdom of selling crash wreckage to offset costs for the trip. I’m disqualified from making them anyway because I am a past purchaser. On all counts I simply advise, be cautious, dear couple. I want you in one piece to buy my next book, and if that book with James Stewart as main subject inspires you to visit places like Tibenham, East Anglia, where the 445th Bomb Group was based, or Hamburg or Frankfurt, which the 445th bombed, be advised: these places will welcome you with no dangerous climbing required.

Splitting a Limo

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

Nine years ago yesterday: the time they gave me a megaphone. The only time. The reason my clothes are hanging on me is because I was on the low-budget-feature diet, which includes no time for food but the stress-burn of 10,000 calories a day. The guy visible in front of me is my stepson, Rob. Like I say, I called in all markers on May 13, 2006.

The very first reviewer of Fireball, the savvy, revered, and (by a few) despised New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick, praised the book and said, “Fireball would make a great movie.” Since then I’ve heard the refrain often, up to and including this week on Facebook. It happens that I write and direct movies for a living, if one counts videos for NASA and the Department of Energy as “movies.” It’s no coincidence that things I write about present themselves as movies in my head, so it’s natural to describe them that way in books.

I know enough about making feature pictures to be just a little bit dangerous. Nine years ago yesterday, while making the George Washington documentary Pursuit of Honor, I directed more than 100 actors and extras in a Revolutionary War-era battle scene set in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Amidst cannon and buckets of fake blood, horses, cranes, and five cameras stood yours truly with a megaphone—the only time they ever let me use one while directing. All markers were called in that day, and every living, breathing relative who could work as crew or an extra participated. Even my dentist played a wounded Redcoat—so did his brother. This location shoot covered just three pages of the script in a feature that took us to Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, and many other shooting sites. I even fell in the Allegheny River while trying to shoot ice floes in wintry New York. This story doesn’t really have a point; I just looked at the calendar and remembered the date, May 13, 2006.

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

The battle as it appeared in the feature.

Believe me when I tell you, making movies ain’t easy. I was reminded of it this morning when a story crossed the wire about Cate Blanchett’s new lesbian picture 10 years in the making. This article resonated with me on many levels given my present undertaking with Fireball, which is, simply, that I’m in the middle of writing a film treatment of the story. In the Blanchett article about the movie called (ironically enough) Carol, the difficulty of writing a romantic picture came up. Said the director of Carol, Todd Haynes, “…I think love stories are hard to pull off, period. They require forces that keep the lovers apart.”

It’s true, as I’m learning. The best love stories feature lovers struggling to be together, or forced to be apart. The need for this dynamic, the eternal struggle of lovers, sunk the 1976 feature motion picture, Gable & Lombard, which sought to find the conflict separating the characters by inventing it: Gable is a wet-behind-the-ears Hollywood newcomer and Lombard is the brassy movie veteran; Gable is incapable of love and Lombard fears being hurt by it; society torments them for their unmarried relationship until they reach the breaking point and then … well, see the picture. Better yet, don’t see the picture, because it bears no real resemblance to the living, breathing people or their situation, not to mention the grisly miscasting of the actors playing said characters.

In my development of Fireball as a cinematic property, I’ve already run afoul of the physics of how to make the relationship of Lombard and Gable corporeal and not cliché. I used to be angry at the ineptitude of Gable & Lombard but now see what the screenwriters were up against in bringing two highly recognizable Hollywood legends to life as real people. I’m not sure anyone short of John Huston or Joe Mankiewicz could have pulled it off. Or maybe it’s just plain impossible to have an actor and actress impersonate Clark and Carole because their body of work lives on so we know exactly who they were and what they were like.

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

Impersonate THIS? I have my doubts.

I’ve had a discussion or three in recent weeks with people on the inside about Fireball the movie—the pros and cons and ins and outs of screenplays in the modern era. Should I concentrate on selling the intellectual property? Should I develop a treatment? Should I write a screenplay? Ask five Hollywood people these questions and you’ll get five diverging expert opinions, each one valid. My response is I’m just doing what I always do; I’m writing, spurred on by vivid scenes that have played on a loop inside my head for years. Weary people stepping inside an airplane. A fireball in the night sky. Men climbing through snow. A husband staring at a mountain. So many vivid moments that now haunt many as they once haunted only me.

Right now I’m trying out the story I want to tell in two hours. I’m picking the best scenes and identifying the characters that will populate my picture. I’m pretty sure my approach, arrived at after a meeting in Beverly Hills, is going to surprise lovers of the book. I’m open to ideas for what to include, and if you forward them to me, keep in mind that I’m not going to guarantee you a piece of the action. But I’ll remember you if I use your idea. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up splitting a limo one of these years on our way to the Oscars. At the very least I’ll give you one hell of a shout-out in my acceptance speech. You and Lou Lumenick.


A group of men climbed a mountain on January 17, 1942. Men had been climbing mountains for thousands of years before that, but these men were special. They were in a rush. They didn’t know exactly where they were going, and they were underequipped, underdressed, and underfed for the climb. History forgot these men, but I had a feeling they had a story worth telling. Brother was I right.

Ron Kantowski, a writer for the Las Vegas Tribune-Review, reminded me this week about these men when he climbed Mt. Potosi to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, where Carole Lombard and 21 others died on the evening of January 16, 1942. I hadn’t met Ron when I was researching Fireball in the Vegas area or when I stopped there on the book tour last year. I wish I had, because Ron gets Fireball. He took inspiration from Fireball and decided to make the climb himself.

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

Mt. Potosi as seen from Ninety-Nine Mine Road. The outcropping at center-right is an hour’s hike/climb away up a boulder-strewn dry wash. Then you cut left along the line of green at the right edge of the photo, which is where the loose shale begins. Then you go UP. The outcropping seems to be the peak but no, it’s just a foothill.

Ron documented his climb in a Review-Journal piece that to me was validation. Mt. Potosi kicked my butt the day I climbed it and left me bruised and bleeding after falling and bouncing off rocks onto other rocks, with enough cactus embedded in my arm to make a hairbrush. I could feel cactus needles in my arm for a year after the climb; there will always be cactus needles in my arm. “Something to remember me by,” I can hear Potosi saying.

Guess what? Kantowski’s experience was similar, like reporting cuts and bruises and torn clothes. Like getting mired on all fours in shale, which doesn’t sound like peril but try it on a 45-degree mountainside with a drop of a couple thousand feet behind you. The oddest thing about the Potosi climb was going up facing the mountain, focused on each branch to hold on to, choosing rock ledges carefully because some were solid and some weren’t. Going up occupied my brain so completely that I didn’t think much about getting back down until I started the descent. Then the realization: holy shit, I can see all the way down. Thousands of feet down.

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

After 2.5 hours of climbing, you reach a ridge. Across a valley you can make out the destination, visible through trees at lower-center.

There’s a way to access the crash site along the ridge that calls for driving and then hiking, but it’s the long way and first responders to the plane crash followed a more direct route. The leader of this group was a Clark County deputy sheriff named Jack Moore; the group also contained a former high school football star named Lyle Van Gordon who climbed into the morning sky like a rocket that day and reached the crash scene, in two feet of snow, long before the others.

I’ve been told that the most powerful moment in Fireball is when Van Gordon climbs up to where he can first see gleaming silver aluminum from the plane and believes that it has crash landed; that he can smell wood smoke from a campfire built by survivors. Van Gordon was an uncompromising man, not the friendliest in the world, but in this moment having just made that climb his intentions were pure. He represented the best in all men. Because he did smell a campfire, because the aluminum gleamed silver in the morning sun, he believed in a happy ending. It becomes chilling because of what happens next.

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

The plane, in a million pieces large and small, ended up in a ravine. This is the lower end of the ravine, where Lyle Van Gordon climbed 73 years ago until he could see gleaming airplane ahead. The first pieces of debris that I saw that day were spotted here, far below the impact point.

Ron alluded to this passage in his column—he and I both understand that moment, having stood where Van Gordon stood in a place that I guess is beautiful for a limitless view toward the north, with Las Vegas spread out 30 miles off like Plasticville. To me Potosi is a harsh place. A savage, unforgiving place. It was harsh prior to the crash, and it was harsh after the crash. It will always be harsh. Brittle, brown desert that goes straight up. Potosi is a killer—that’s the truth of it. Anyone who scales its heights is lucky to come down more or less intact.

The crash site is about to grow a lot less accessible in coming weeks, as the heat takes over, bringing with it all the trappings of a desert summer. Round about October nature will unlock the peaks of Potosi again for the next adventurer. I know I want to go back one of these days to pay my respects to the 22 lost there, and 6 men who scaled a mountain.

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

This photo of a random spot of ground at the crash site shows the amount of debris on the mountain. The more you study the photo, the more pieces of airplane you can find.


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

Seventy-six years ago today, March 30, 1939, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable addressed the media at her Bel Air home and announced that they had wed. Newsreel cameras rolled, flashbulbs popped, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Gable then reigned as the hottest thing in Hollywood—the number-one box-office draw in the world and definitive sex symbol of the movies. Lombard was a popular leading lady known as the “screwball queen” for her comedy pictures and madcap Hollywood parties.

Their relationship was more than three years old by this time. Lombard had made herself available on the social scene 16 months after the Labor Day 1934 shooting death of her lover, 26-year-old popular singer Russ Columbo. She emerged from a period of mourning with a vengeance, landing a very married Gable at the end of January 1936 and carrying on a public love affair based from her home right there on Hollywood Boulevard, in full view of the movie colony and the press. But scrutiny proved withering and Lombard left her Hollywood “party house” for a home in secluded, difficult-to-access Bel Air where she continued her activities with Gable.

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

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

I’m not sure that we can imagine today what a sexual playground Hollywood was in the 1930s. We think of the stars of the day as above it all, but nobody was immune and everybody was doing it with everybody. They were beautiful people dressed by professionals and promoted by powerful ad men. They cavorted with other beautiful people, and sex became a sport of who could bag whom. Many stars came from troubled backgrounds and brought emotional baggage with them to a city without morals. This was Clark Gable, certainly, a narcissist by definition because he was an image created by his acting teacher/wife and projected by MGM. Lombard, on the other hand, had bounced westward as a child after her parents’ separation back in Indiana, but she had enjoyed a solid Los Angeles upbringing thanks to her practical, loving mother. Solid, yes; conventional, no. Lombard had grown up a sexual athlete from her teens on and been made wise beyond her years due to a car crash that chopped up her face just shy of her 18th birthday.

The couple that met the press this day 76 years ago had been galvanized by years of couplehood in the glare of the public spotlight. He had been crowned king of Hollywood and she had made some big pictures and now earned more than any other actress in town. Their out-of-wedlock shenanigans had earned scorn in the Bible belt, and the backlash reached the board room at MGM, where Gable was ordered to divorce his wife and make an honest woman of Lombard. Gable didn’t take kindly to orders from anyone about anything, but he had been beaten down from all sides, and so during a day off from production of Gone With the Wind, he sneaked out of town with his girl and got hitched.

Fireball tells the story of the elopement for the first time thanks to an unpublished account by Jill Winkler, whose husband Otto had driven the disguised couple out of Hollywood and clean to Kingman, Arizona, for the ceremony. They didn’t have a proper wedding night, or any sleep at all for that matter. You can see it in their faces in the thousand-and-one photos snapped at the Bel Air press conference. One has to laugh at Lombard’s acting job, playing it demure for the newsreels complete with shy and loving gazes at King Gable.

The press conference on this date proved to be a brilliant move as it established these two, dressed to the nines and appropriately bashful, as the closest thing America had to a royal couple. They wouldn’t enjoy even three years past this date as husband and wife due to the plane crash that removed Carole Lombard from the living in January 1942. As explored in this column recently, the union was in rough waters and possibly heading for the rocks by the end of their second year as an official couple, but her tragic passing erased any trace of negativity and pressed these two into America’s book of memories as one of the perfect couples of all time.

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

Carole’s mother, known as Tots or Petey, stands with the happy couple at the Bel Air press event. Less than three years later she would ride into history with her daughter aboard TWA Flight 3.0

Electronic Eyewitness

We now know that no alarms sounded in the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. The co-pilot locked the cockpit door from the inside and set the autopilot for an altitude of 100 feet. It was an eight-minute controlled descent from 38,000. There were no automatic warnings because that co-pilot was operating the ship within parameters, and passengers didn’t catch on for several minutes.

No civilized human being outside of a psychiatrist or psychologist can comprehend the murder of 149 innocent people, and I certainly can’t make sense of it here. But the parallels with TWA Flight 3 continue. Earlier this week we all wondered, was the Germanwings crash due to mechanical failure? Terrorism? Sabotage? Investigators ran through the same checklist in January 1942 after Flight 3 went down, with the United States fighting a new world war against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Was the crash of Flight 3 the result of a premeditated act? Another theory had to be examined after the crash of this “giant” DC-3 airliner with 19 passengers and a crew of 3: Did the pilot, Captain Wayne Clark Williams, commit suicide by intentionally crashing the plane? At least one civilian claimed that he did and expressed the opinion in writing to the FBI. The Civil Aeronautics Board and House Committee investigating the crash in 1942 scrutinized Williams’ behavior and mind-set on the day of the disaster, interviewing eyewitnesses that included the TWA station managers in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, the two stops of Flight 3 prior to its crash. Both TWA men stated that Williams was in good spirits and a positive frame of mind, like always. Williams was a cool character, a former barnstormer who had flown in all weather and faced all adverse conditions with a calm demeanor. Wayne Williams could be counted on to bring his ship in safe. More than 14,000 flying miles confirmed this fact.

The “black box” hadn’t been invented in 1942, and answers were uncovered (if they were uncovered) the old-fashioned way—by investigation and scientific measurement. In March 2015 we can usually figure things out by examining those two critical collectors of data: the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. Already the cockpit voice recorder has revealed truths we can’t fathom but must accept.

Some reviewers of my book on the TWA crash, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, gave the opinion that there really wasn’t a mystery. Air & Space Smithsonian, while praising the book in general, took that approach. I disagreed then and disagree now. Imagine if the Germanwings plane had gone down without data recorders. Maybe it was tracked on radar but we couldn’t know what went on in the cockpit because there were no witnesses, human or electronic, to tell the story. How could we ever know for sure that one of the pilots had deliberately flown the ship into the ground? We couldn’t. In 1942 the answers were never found because of a lack of conclusive evidence. I think I ultimately did find the reasons for the crash through a synthesis of 70 years of evidence and perspectives that investigators didn’t have in the 1940s. Back then they tossed the “official” cause of the crash into a bucket called “pilot error” because, ultimately, the engines and controls were deemed to be working, so the pilot must have been at fault.

But they didn’t know why back then. Yes there was circumstantial evidence like an erroneous flight plan, but an experienced pilot should have spotted trouble and taken evasive action. In that sense the crash of TWA Flight 3 is a mystery and always will be, specifically because no one lived to answer the question, why?

Today the data recorders “lived” and we learned the what of this past Tuesday. Time will tell if we end up getting an answer to the question we want so desperately to be able to ask that co-pilot: Why?

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.


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

Glamour pusses Gable and Lombard share an ‘up’ moment exiting Ciro’s on the Strip in August 1941.

Why do we need there to be a happily ever after? When I was interviewed during the Fireball book tour, I would often hear things like, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured.” There would be such conviction in the voice of the interviewer, and at moments like that I found myself in an awkward place because the interviewer believed what was being said and, in fact, it was and was not true.

During the years that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were together, she was in love with him in a mature way and he was in love with her in his own way. She was an older soul and possessed a strong altruistic streak. He was a perpetual adolescent and quite selfish the way males can be. Up to the time they became an item, he had relied only on himself, number one, and there was no number two. But suddenly she became number two and worked like hell to maintain that position, which must have been, for her, something like barbequing in a snowstorm. As the premiere sex symbol in the world and therefore a male of unquestionable power, Gable cut a swath through the female population of Hollywood. He slept around and continued to sleep around until the day Lombard died. She approached this fact as practically as she could: This is the price I’m paying to be Mrs. Clark Gable. He can get his rocks off wherever he likes because I know he comes home to me.

But that doesn’t mean she found rationalizing easy, and even a self-confident soul and sexual libertine like Carole Lombard had her limits.

Every indication is that if she had lived, he’d have gone right on as a brigand for as long as the marriage could endure. There were rumors at the time of her death that their union had already hit the rocks. A particular photo that appears in Fireball bears this out. They are sitting together in a restaurant, and she is smiling politely but looking like hell and he looks as miserable as you’ll ever see Clark Gable looking. It’s not the kind of grouchy-miserable that you see when Clark Gable is acting. This is vulnerable-miserable, pained-miserable, as if they are arguing and he’s wrong and he knows he’s wrong.

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

Three months later, here they are, her smile painted on, his nonexistent. She rests her hand on top of his hand, but she’s not holding his hand and he’s not playing along.

When the host of a Fireball interview would turn the statement into a question, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured, didn’t they?” there was my opening and I would answer with the truth: They loved each other, yes, but there were problems with the marriage that I think would have ended it before too much longer. Probably by 1945 or 1946, had she lived, she would have given up and left Clark Gable. Sometimes, loving someone and giving it your all isn’t enough. Sometimes, unconditional love causes the self to endure too much, give away too much; in this case she would have given away the prime of her life. I could easily see her reaching age 36 or 38 and no longer being willing to serve as consort to a hard-drinking, womanizing sovereign. Or I could see Gable waking up one morning and beholding a Lombard whose looks were beginning to wane from smoking, drinking, stress, and the natural process of aging. You can see the beginnings of it in the photo discussed earlier. At that point Gable might decide to trade his wife in for a newer model, say the sleek, 10-years-younger Lana Turner.

Whether Carole would have ended it or Clark would have, I don’t think this relationship was headed for happily ever after, and it was the shattering event of her death at age 33, after only two-and-a-half years of marriage, that bronzed the timeless, forever love of Gable-Lombard legend, the kind of love this twosome sometimes captured but was beginning to find elusive.

Looking even further down the line, I could see the Gables divorcing and remaining friends like she was friends with her ex William Powell and somewhere around 1955 getting together again for a Gable-Lombard picture or two. Precedent: Lombard made My Man Godfrey with Powell three years after their divorce. Gable made Key to the City with Loretta Young 16 years after she bore their love child—a child he would never acknowledge. Stars set personal feelings aside for the sake of box office. Astaire and Rogers weren’t exactly fond of one another; Abbott and Costello grew so far apart they didn’t speak except in front of the camera.

That’s life is how I look at it. Happy endings don’t come about very often and “for keeps” usually isn’t for keeps, especially in Hollywood. But that doesn’t detract from the story of Lombard and Gable. They were real people, “juicy people,” Loretta Young called them, and they deserve to be remembered for who they really were, not who we wish they would have been.

Hail to the King

Happy Birthday, Clark Gable. Today, had you taken better care of yourself, you would be 114. Let that be a lesson to you.

Come to think of it, Mr. Gable, I guess no matter how many cigarettes you had eschewed, no matter how many bottles of Chivas Regal you hadn’t consumed, you wouldn’t be around at 114. That’s a lot of years, and how they do fly by.

Some places reflect the years better than others. This past week I found myself in a city that feels very old: San Francisco. I was there on business, business so intense that I had barely a moment to see the sights, but a friend and I scaled Telegraph Hill from Chinatown to Pioneer Park and Coit Tower and looked out at Alcatraz, my first-ever glimpse of The Rock. Hard not to think about Al Capone or Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz. Or his Dirty Harry, for that matter. It’s going on 70 years since Capone died; almost 40 since Escape was made; more than 40 for Dirty Harry. Hell, it’s already been 52 since The Rock closed as a prison. Years, years, years, speeding by.

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

My discovery: the top of Lombard Street. Pioneer Park is above.

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

It’s a long way down Lombard Street from here, all the way down Telegraph Hill to Columbus Avenue in the Italian part of town.

Exploring the streets that radiate out from Pioneer Park, I stumbled on Lombard Street, and it was one of those moments when my mind went boinggg! I had read someplace decades ago that Jane Peters took the name Lombard because of Lombard Street; it was here in San Francisco that mother Elizabeth Peters had first lighted with the kids in 1914 after leaving Fred in frosty Fort Wayne. Now, here I was at the head of Lombard Street all these years later, in another century, feeling some magic about the name and exploring on down the long hill to Corso Cristoforo Colombo—yes, Lombard intersects with Colombo. (Another intersection of the two would take place in 1933. Sort of.) Up yonder hill to the west Lombard Street turns serpentine in a crazy little section that’s a kick to drive down as I found out later in the evening.

I asked Carole Lombard authority Vincent Paterno, proprietor of bold and sassy Carole & Co., if he had ever heard this story about the origin of Lombard’s name, and he said he thought she took Lombard from family friend Harry Lombard. I had heard this too, but part of me wonders if she would have appropriated the name of a friend, which could have made an awkward moment or two had he said no. But I could see her using the name of the wildest street in San Francisco, Lombard Street.

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

Original poster art from San Francisco, selling the bad boy and the warbler with the gams.

Birthday boy Clark Gable made a picture about San Francisco called San Francisco while banging his new girlfriend, Carole Lombard, in the spring of 1936. The picture San Francisco featured a different kind of banging as it details the earthquake of 1906 that leveled parts of the city. Does anyone know if the picture premiered in San Francisco? I like to think it did, back in the day when studios took their stars and the press on junkets amid much ballyhoo to launch the A-pictures.

This was a landmark film for its recreation of the Big One and shows off Gable at his finest as yet another black-hearted rogue, the kind of role that established him as a man’s man and bad boy who made the ladies swoon. Women didn’t want to own Clark Gable because they knew he couldn’t be owned—but they spent a great deal of time imagining what it would be like to get roughed up a little by Clark Gable, who was 35 at the time of San Francisco and in his absolute prime. It became a great part of the legend between them: Lombard in her prime, the year she made My Man Godfrey, landed Gable in his prime, causing a great stir among the gods. It was quite a year on Olympus.

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

Clark and Carole early in their relationship. Customary Coca-Cola in hand, she wears a look that admits she just ate a canary.

Carole was always very big on birthdays, so somewhere, maybe up there on Olympus, she is calling Benny Massi to make sure the catering from Brown Derby is perfect for Pa’s surprise party to celebrate this, his 114th birthday.


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

A 1944 Government Printing Office poster for Gable’s wartime feature. Notice he was Major Clark Gable by the time of the picture’s release in the second half of 1944.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner to check out Clark Gable’s 1944 propaganda picture, Combat America, as background research for my new book project. But it took prompting from my pal Tom before I went ahead and sought out Combat America.

For those not in the know, Gable enlisted in the Army Air Corps in August of 1942, seven months after the death of wife Carole Lombard aboard TWA Flight 3. At this time Gable was making no secret of the fact that he didn’t care whether he lived or died. In fact, he preferred the latter over the former, and if he were to cash in, he would like to go the way Ma did.

Meanwhile, at MGM of Culver City, Louis B. Mayer and his lieutenants had spent many of their waking hours worrying about their multi-million-dollar investment, Clark Gable, king of the movies, getting mixed up in the war. Whenever the subject would come up they would hammer into Gable’s ear: You’re too old to go. For God’s sake you’re 41. Stay stateside where you can do the most good for the greatest number of people.

Gable was the hardest-headed man in Hollywood. Lombard had learned this sideways and in their six years together developed ways to penetrate that cement noggin—but mostly she just surrendered and did thing’s Pa’s way.

After Ma’s passing, Pa Gable was a sleepwalker, at first numb and somewhat pliable, and then after some months his old cement-head self. When it became inevitable to MGM that Gable was going to enlist, the powers that be dealt with ways to keep their man in one piece. He told them flat-out that he would not be a paper soldier who stayed stateside and wore a uniform for show and appeared on camera reading scripts about how hard the war was. He was going over. He was going up.

Of all the studios, MGM was tightest with Official Washington, so it was no great feat in summer 1942 for Mayer’s brain trust to arrange for Gable to be inducted into the Army Air Corps with the mission of making a motion picture about the importance of aerial gunners on heavy bombers that would soon be flying dangerous missions over the wartime industrial heart of Nazi Germany.

Gable went in in August 1942, fulfilled 13 weeks of officer’s training in Florida with men half his age, and emerged an officer for assignment in the Polebrook-based 351st Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force. Gable was thus a member of the Mighty Eighth and in the middle of the great air war in Europe at its most devastating point. Daily, he saw bomb crews go over and not come back. He saw B-17s come limping home to base shot to pieces. He was there to record all of it on 16mm color film with an MGM camera crew.

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

Gable poses for a photo with the crew of the B-17 Delta Rebel after a flight with them in 1943.

For Gable personally, there were problems and they were significant. MGM couldn’t let him serve as an enlisted man—how would that look for a king to be a private or noncom? So he served as a captain with a specialty in aerial gunnery…but gunners on B-17s were at most noncoms, not officers. The officers on a B-17 were the pilots, navigator, and bombardier. Plus, Gable hadn’t been assigned to a crew from the beginning and hadn’t trained with that crew for grueling months and years in preparation for service with the Eighth. He flew from May to September 1943 on five missions, mostly “milk runs,” which were shorter hops from eastern England over the Channel to targets in German-occupied countries. Practically speaking, Gable had to go on shorter runs because he was an extra man on the plane, taking up space and adding weight. You can see a recap of the Gable missions here. On his only mission to Germany as a gunner/observer, one man in the crew was killed and two others wounded, and this was the mission during which a piece of ordinance nicked Gable’s boot in his gunner’s position in the waist of the plane.

Gable’s bigger problem in the service was being Clark Gable and a center of attention. If ever an organization did not thrive with a celebrity in its midst it was the United States Army fighting the most brutal war imaginable in 1943, and there was Gable distracting air crews just by being around base. It wasn’t going to work; it couldn’t work. So when Gable “ran out of film” after exposing 50,000 feet of 16mm footage, he was sent home to MGM to cut together a feature that would become Combat America.

Gable’s biggest problem was how fast the air war had changed. Since his enlistment in August of 1942, the Eighth Air Force had converged on Great Britain like so many swarms of bees and set up massive operations in and around Norwich. They started sending concentrated bombing missions into Germany right away and got shot out of the skies with sickening frequency. By the time Gable got over there and into the war and made his film and came home, there was no need to make a movie explaining to the civilian population what it was like to be a machine gunner on a bomber—the whole thing was daily news and men were enlisting by the thousands to be glamorous flyboys.

That’s a lot more backstory than you needed about Gable’s feature documentary, Combat America, which meanders through 62 minutes to remind us how little direction Gable had making his picture and how frustrated he must have been with the entire enterprise. He wanted to go and fight and die in the air. Instead he went, fought a little, spent too much time on the sidelines filming and drinking, and lived. Lived to sit in the dark back at MGM looking at real fighting men on a moviola.

The title itself sucks. Combat America: what the hell is that? Audiences had no chance to feel a sense of mystery, a sense of, “I have to go see Gable’s new war picture.” On the other hand the title didn’t matter because the picture got negligible distribution. In the end, Gable had gone overseas on what might have been the greatest snipe hunt in recorded history.

Most of the footage shot in England was MOS (picture with no sync sound). A few times cameras rolled with audio to show Gable interacting with the brass or with other soldiers—non-actors all, men who were terribly self-conscious in the presence of the king. Gable narrates throughout and he’s sincere in the effort. He takes us on tours of ancient British sites, he takes us to character studies of the men of the 351st, he takes us inside pre-flight briefings and through missions all the way to landings back in England. It’s a bittersweet experience watching Combat America because we know where Clark Gable was at this point in his life. A widower who had been launched into mid-life crisis; a man who wanted to serve but ended up (in his own mind) a buffoon among those fighting and dying; a filmmaking professional denied a real goal and the support to do what he did best: make movies, and convey to the people back home what he had seen, heard, and done in the war. It soothed Gable not at all that he earned the Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross, or that Adolf Hitler put a bounty on the king’s head.

Combat America is available complete on YouTube, although the print looks like Lake Erie stands between it and you; one only wonders how it could benefit from Blu-Ray restoration, if the original elements even exist in the MGM vaults.