We remember the bad, forget the good

Although it is not scheduled to be released until January 2014, I have just finished reading “Fireball, Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3” by Robert Matzen. His research is impressive.

Rather than dwell on the superficial or get bogged down on the sensational aspects of the story, Matzen treats the subjects like real people, getting right to the heart of the men and women the story revolves around.

It all culminates in a single, horrible night on a cold dark mountain in Nevada. But that’s not the whole story. Thankfully, Matzen gets deeper into the personalities than others might, and in doing so he makes the book worth reading. I’m certainly glad I got the chance.

Matzen_R_039-1For those who are too young to remember, Carole Lombard was a notable movie star back in the days when that really meant something. She was married to Clark Gable, a movie star in his own right, making Carole Lombard one half of one of the great Hollywood couples of all time.

There was no television to speak of in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Consequently, the men and women who made it to the silver screen were accepted as royalty in a time when royalty wasn’t a term of derision. They were noble and stylish with perfect hair and clothes. They never stumbled over their words, they never tripped on the carpet. They were perfect. Or so thought the general public.

Yet for all her acting prowess and comedic timing, Carole Lombard is not remembered for her work. She’s not even primarily remembered as half of a tremendously high-profile celebrity couple. Rather, she is frequently remembered as the most famous passenger aboard TWA Flight 3, which departed Las Vegas en route to Los Angeles on the night of Jan. 16, 1942. The flight did not arrive safely, or on time, or at all. Instead it imbedded itself into the side of Mt. Potosi only minutes after departure. There were no survivors. Much of the wreckage remains in place on the mountain, even today. There is little doubt at least some human remains were left behind, as well.

That’s the bad news. And for whatever reason, we tend to remember the bad news while we let the good news slip from our memories. Why was Lombard on an airplane headed west, anyway? Frankly, it’s the good news that I prefer to remember about Lombard’s final jaunt.

You’ll notice the date of her death is barely a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. America was deeply involved in preparation for World War II, with young men lining up at induction centers while their wives, girlfriends, and mothers busied themselves in supporting roles — roles that expanded dramatically over the subsequent years, effectively and thankfully changing the opportunities enjoyed by women in America.

Lombard was a leader, even if she’s not remembered that way. She was one of the first to volunteer to go on a war bond tour, traveling from her quiet home in southern California to the wintery depths of the midwest in an effort to support the war effort. She was astoundingly successful, too. Carole Lombard’s final days were spent raising money, substantial sums of it, to fund the troops who were going off to war. She was doing her part, and Lombard threw herself into the work like it mattered – because she knew it did.

She didn’t just appear to be noble on the screen, she was noble in real life. That alone makes Lombard worth remembering.

Along with the movie star and her party of three on that final flight there were a number of Army pilots on their way west to collect new aircraft to ferry to the east, some headed all the way to Europe. Those young men were ready to do their best to win the war, too. They stood in line, boarded the DC-3 with their gear, and settled in for the short flight to LA where they’d shift from passenger mode to pilot mode.

All this occurs to me because we might want to remember Carole Lombard and her fellow passengers this week as we reflect on closed national monuments and outdoor exhibits. It might do us some good to consider the sacrifice those boys and girls suffered. And although they are old men and geriatric ladies today, stooped and weakened, and living their final days – perhaps we should remember that some of these people who have travelled so far to see and be with a reminder of their youth, and their friends, knew one of those men who went down on Mt. Potosi with Lombard. Or perhaps they brushed elbows with the stewardess, or learned to fly from one of the TWA pilots who met such an unfortunate fate that night.

Perhaps we would do well to remember the good our elders have done and show a level of respect and thanks that each member of that long, thin, gray line of veterans earned through years of dedication and service — service we so fervently hope we are never asked to repeat again, ever.


  1. Mike Lambert says

    It makes for fascinating reading though of course rather forlorn reading at that. It really gives another side to Lombard and not a particularly nice one. She is hellbent on returning to LA by plane and puts her mother through sheer bloody hell. I don’t know how she could have done that. I can only surmise that she was in some regards a driven egotist. This last epic journey was full of delays and stress and discomfort. Her mother’s last day on earth was for her an unrelieved nightmare. In my opinion Lombard does not emerge as some sort of heroine in this narrative. Not at all. In terms of research this comes across as bonafide. It’s well written and spare. But we are not really any closer to understanding what went wrong that night other than what we have always known.

  2. Richard Baker says

    What a difference time makes. Other than a small handful, the movie industry narcissists of today couldn’t be bothered. Carole, may you RIP.

  3. says

    As someone who has historically researched this aviation accident for over 20 years, this is a book that’s long overdue. TWA Flight 3 and those aboard should never be forgotten.

    • Mike Lambert says

      Yes. I agree with you on that. I also want to say that I appreciated your journeying to Potosi to write about and document the crash site as sensitively as you did. Whenever I visit family in Vegas I still find myself looking toward that peak and wondering. How could that flight have been allowed to continue with so much weight aboard?

  4. Michael Dean says

    Thank you, Mr. Beckett. For reminding us that there was a time when “celebrities” cared about things other than themselves.

    And thank you to every man and woman, past and present, who has ever been in service to this great nation. To those who returned. And to those who did not. Thank you.

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