This Day in History: Carole Lombard’s tragic WWII War Bonds tour

On this day in 1942, American film actress Carole Lombard is tragically killed in a plane crash as she returns from a WWII War Bonds tour. Her trip had been part of Hollywood’s early response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Lombard was between movies; her husband, Clark Gable, was chair of Hollywood’s newly formed Victory Committee. Perhaps it was natural that she was among the first to raise funds?

Lombard left Los Angeles by train on January 12, traveling towards her home state of Indiana. At a stop in Salt Lake City, she spoke to a crowd. “We’ve got to get out and get the boys pumped up!” she told her fans. “I don’t have to tell you what to do: Go out and buy a bond!” “This is the first unity Hollywood ever had,” she told a journalist in Chicago. “From now on it’s sell a bond, sell a bond, sell a bond.”

The goal for Lombard’s tour had been set low, at $500,000, because no one knew what to expect. But Lombard shattered that goal, raising more than $2 million.

“We all know what this war is going to cost,” she told an Indianapolis dinner crowd late on January 15, “But the peace it will bring is priceless . . . Now our task is to provide more airplanes, more guns, and more ships than the world has ever seen before. That is our job: to give our fighting men the instruments for winning this war and ensuring peace.”

The evening ended with a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Sadly, the story doesn’t end on that happy note. Lombard was supposed to take a train back to California: Washington had asked Hollywood stars not to travel by air during their war bond tours. But Lombard wanted to get home as quickly as she could: At least reportedly, she’d had a fight with Clark Gable just before her trip; she wanted to mend fences.

Would she have made a different decision otherwise? Her mother and Otto Winkler, Gable’s publicist, were both traveling with her. Each feared flying.

In the end, the trio’s travel plans were decided on a coin flip. Winkler lost, so Lombard got her way. The three would take TWA Flight 3, scheduled to depart Indianapolis at about 3 a.m. on January 16. They’d be in California by bedtime.

Back in those days, remember, a cross-country flight would have been a grueling affair. The plane cabin was not pressurized, so the passengers shivered under blankets. Frequent refueling stops were needed. One of these stops nearly averted tragedy, at least for Lombard. In Albuquerque, the actress nearly got bumped from the plane in favor of 15 U.S. Army Air Corps personnel. Military were given priority to board over civilians due to the war. But Lombard argued her case: She, too, was helping the war effort. Hadn’t she just raised $2 million?

Other civilians were bumped, but Lombard, her mother, and Winkler stayed aboard.

Normally, the last refueling stop would have occurred in Boulder, Nevada, but it was getting late and Boulder didn’t have runway lights. Thus, the pilots rerouted towards Las Vegas. Unfortunately, they made a mistake when they took off again, using a flight path that would have worked out of Boulder, but didn’t work out of Vegas. TWA Flight 3 slammed into a nearby mountain minutes later.

The unnecessary tragedy shocked the country, but it nearly undid Clark Gable. The new widower never really recovered. He would eventually make more movies and even remarry. But when he passed away in 1960, he was buried next to Lombard.

Further Reading:

Robert Matzen, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 (2017)