A few weeks ago, I made a small discovery. A piece of twisted aluminum with a row of rivets along one side was tacked up in the roof rafters of an old shed in my barnyard. Pulling it down, I was about to toss it into a pail bound for recycling when I noticed some words penciled on one side of the fragment, where a bit of lightly oxidized surface made the writing especially visible. “Part of the airplane in which Carole Lombard was killed” it said.
The wife of Clark Gable, Lombard died the night of January 16, 1942, when a DC-3 Sky Club airplane she had boarded at a Las Vegas airfield strayed off course and crashed into a rocky mountainside about 15 minutes after takeoff. The actress was returning to California from an early war bond tour, and was traveling with her mother, MGM publicity agent Otto Winkler (said to be Clark Gable’s best friend), and several others, including 15 young Army Air Corps pilots. All 22 persons aboard were killed instantly when the airliner flew into a near-vertical cliff on Mount Potosi. Beacons that might have warned the pilots that they had strayed from their flight path had reportedly been blacked out due to the war.
Carole Lombard had married Clark Gable in 1939. At the time of her death, the pair were widely-regarded as “Hollywood royalty,” drawing top pay for their work in motion pictures. One of Lombard’s notable roles was in “My Man Godfrey,” a part that earned her an Academy Awards nomination.
Is it unusual to find bits of history in unexpected places? Probably not. We’ve all heard stories of something as small as a forgotten baseball turning up in an attic trunk – signed by a hall-of-famer. Or something as large as a vintage automobile has frequently turned up, covered by a thick layer of dust in an old barn. We sometimes come across letters from relatives that tie us to unknown bits of history, such as one our family found many years after my uncle’s death. It had been sent home to his younger brother (my dad) with some words of advice. At the time, Uncle Dwight was in the U.S. Army during the latter stages of the Second World War, and the note was addressed from “the Philippine Islands.”
Pieces of history, from the tragic to the triumphant, are all around us.
Some claim that six (or fewer) degrees of separation can link any two human beings. That’s also known as the “six handshake rule.” So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when a physical item also offers a link to an event that changed lives a world away and deep in the past. We have to pause when we find a Grand Army of the Republic medal from great-great grandpa, or see a document that pinpoints exactly when and where a relative decided to set out across the ocean and immigrate to the United States.
What was the aftermath of the Mount Potosi airplane crash? We don’t know much about most of the family members of those killed, but the people who knew him best said that Clark Gable was utterly devastated after the accident. History records that he joined the Army Air Forces in August of 1942, and flew five combat missions as part of a motion-picture unit serving with the 351st Bomb Group in Europe. He was apparently nearly hit by shrapnel on one of those missions, and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Author Robert Matzen penned a 2013 book about the crash entitled “Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.” In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he stated that “It was obvious to all his friends that Gable had no more use for living after she died... He said he wanted to die in a plane like she did.”
Eventually, William Clark Gable did marry two more times, but when he died of a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 59, he was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, next to Carole Lombard Gable.