Pearl Harbor Turns 80: Carole Lombard Was Hollywood’s First World War II Casualty (2024)

On Dec. 22, 1941, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, Hollywood’s most glamorous couple, called an emergency gathering of the Victory Committee’s actors branch at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Fifteen days earlier — on Dec. 7, exactly 80years ago today — Japan had launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that killed 2,403 Americans and brought the country into World War II. The swanky affair, attended by Gary Cooper and Bette Davis, mobilized the stars: Funds needed to be raised, troops entertained, the wounded comforted. As recounted in Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II, a new book by Christian Blauvelt about the industry’s involvement in World War II, no one had thrown themselves into the war effort more than Lombard, 33.

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In January 1942, the actress embarked on a tour to sell war bonds. A last-minute decision to surprise Gable in L.A. led her to book a TWA flight with her mother from Indianapolis, where the Indiana-born Lombard raised $2 million. The three-leg trip culminated in a Jan. 16 flight from Las Vegas to Burbank, but the plane, also filled with servicemen, crashed right after takeoff, killing all 22 on board and making Lombard Hollywood’s first war casualty. Her last film, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, satirizing the Nazi occupation of Poland, opened Feb. 19.

In an excerpt from Hollywood Victory, shared below by The HollywoodReporter,Blauvelt returns to that momentous chapter of U.S. history that affected every aspect of American life — including Hollywood’s dream factory.

The chairman of the actors branch of the Hollywood Victory Committee was Clark Gable, flanked by his wife, Carole Lombard, at that Roosevelt Hotel meeting. They had been married for more than two years, since they tied the knot during a production break on Gone with the Wind (1939). It was his third marriage, and her second. They were both Midwesterners, she from Fort Wayne, Indiana, he from Cadiz, Ohio. Their nicknames for each other? “Ma” and “Pappy.” In fact, they could hardly have been a more perfect match for each other: they shared the same rough-and-tumble sense of humor that seemed at odds with the gentility Hollywood usually tried to project. Suspicious of the possibility that Gable might stray before leaving on her own war bonds tour, Lombard left a naked, blonde mannequin in his bed to keep him company.

Gable and Lombard threw themselves enthusi­astically into the war effort. They lent horses from their Encino ranch to a group of mounted air-raid wardens who patrolled the San Fernando Valley. On December 22, fifteen days after Pearl Harbor, Gable convened a meeting of the actors branch of the Victory Committee at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he’d once lived. This event was considered one of the last all-out displays of Tinseltown glam­our before more frugal days ahead. In attendance were Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, Bob Hope, Rosalind Russell, John Garfield, Bette Davis, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Colman, Irene Dunne, Jack Benny, and Cary Grant—who had donated $100,000 of his $160,000 Arsenic and Old Lace salary to wartime charities. The women were dripping in jewels and furs. But all agreed that, in addition to the fundraising efforts they’d embark upon, they’d spend time visiting with and entertaining ordinary soldiers and sailors, par­ticularly those who’d ended up in military hospitals. To start, those on the committee who were MGM stars hosted a Christmas Day party on the studio lot for enlisted men. Gable served as master of cere­monies for a nearly impromptu revue featuring Red Skelton, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney. Wallace Beery played Santa Claus. Across town, Jimmy Stewart, on leave from Moffett Field for the holidays, played Santa Claus as well—at Henry Fonda’s house for the amusem*nt of Hank’s four-year-old daughter, Jane.

The night before, on Christmas Eve, the public had heard “White Christmas” for the first time when Bing Crosby sang it on his NBC radio show Kraft Music Hall; this debut didn’t make a big impression with the audience. Overall, it was a quiet Christmas in Hollywood: both a reprieve from the trauma of the previous eighteen days and a kind of collective deep breath in which everyone could brace themselves for the struggles to come. There was anxiety too about the possibility that the Japanese could next launch an air raid on Los Angeles. Or even attempt an invasion.

On Christmas Eve, Lombard had wrapped To Be or Not to Be. What she really wanted for Christmas was her husband in uniform. But it had to be real service, “not one of those phony commis­sions,” she wrote. Gable wanted to sign up too, but he had one last film to make for Louis B. Mayer: a drama called Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942), about innocents caught up in the Japanese conquest. It’s believed Lombard even personally lobbied FDR to make sure her husband would be able to see action. First, though, she had a mission of her own.

Lombard embarked on a multicity tour to sell war bonds during the second week of January 1942. The Victory Committee was now working directly with the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service. With her husband starting to shoot Somewhere I’ll Find You, she set out for Salt Lake City and then Chicago. She was filled with patriotic zeal at the enthusiasm of the crowds in these cities, telegraphing her husband, “Hey Pappy, you better get into this man’s army.” Finally she made it to Indianapolis so fans could cheer their fel­low Hoosier who’d risen to Hollywood stardom. For her home state, Lombard had a fundraising target of $500,000 from the Treasury Department. Instead, in one day she raised $2 million.

Maybe Lombard thought that such a huge suc­cess meant she’d done her part. Or maybe rumors had reached her that Gable was allegedly having an affair with his costar Lana Turner. Either way, she canceled the rest of her trip, including the return journey to L.A. by train. She’d rush back to her husband by air. The tickets for herself and her mother were for TWA Flight 3, the next flight out of Indianapolis, at 4:00 a.m. on January 16. Nonstop cross-country travel was impossible in those days, so Flight 3 needed to make stops in St. Louis, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas. That model of aircraft, a Douglas DC-3-382 propliner, had a cruising speed of just 207 mph. So by the time it took off from Las Vegas at 7:05 p.m. Pacific Time for the final leg to Burbank, complete darkness had already fallen. At Albuquerque, fifteen of the nineteen passengers had been replaced by a contingent of Army Air Corps personnel and a new three-person crew. Since the flight overbooked, the Air Corps asked if Lombard and her mother could stay there overnight and catch the next plane. But Lombard argued that her fund­raising efforts made her just as essential to be on that plane as any of the servicemen. Fifteen minutes after takeoff from Las Vegas, Flight 3 crashed into Potosi Mountain, hitting a vertical cliff face head-on about eighty feet from its top. The plane had strayed seven miles from its intended course.

When word of the crash reached MGM that night, Louis B. Mayer’s crisis manager and “fixer” Eddie Mannix immediately arranged for him and Gable to travel to Las Vegas, booking them both bungalows at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel while search parties scoured the scene. Gable held out hope that his wife might still be alive. Wracked with worry, he stayed behind at the bungalow while Mannix went to the crash site. Gable thought a soft glow in the distance was flames from the wreckage. When Mannix got there, a grisly scene awaited. Blood and personal effects were sprinkled on the waist-high snow around the mangled fuselage; the bodies, compressed into a ten-foot space, unidenti­fiable at first glance. A little while later, Mannix sent him a telegram: “No survivors. All killed instantly.” All Mannix could find was a strand of blonde hair Gable would always believe had come from his late wife. Though he wanted to enlist in the Armed Forces, as his wife had wanted him to do, he still had to finish Somewhere I’ll Find You for MGM—a film newly poignant even from its title alone.

Gable was never the same again. Though he had initially refused alcohol in the days after he received that fateful telegram in Las Vegas, saying he was “already numb,” he’d start regularly drinking a quart of scotch a day, a habit he’d keep for the rest of his life. The “King of Hollywood” began to with­draw into himself.

Each day on set he took his meals alone in his trailer, never sitting in his usual chair at the end of a large table at the MGM commissary, where he had been known to hold court. It was almost like his throne, his seat of power where he lorded over the eight-thousand-square-foot dining room—as much a fixture for everyone who worked on the lot as Leo the Lion himself.

When Gable finally did enlist in the Army Air Forces in August 1942, some onlookers said they thought he had a death wish. He didn’t. In fact, his work during the war, including his filming of a documentary, deserved more praise than it’s ever properly received. But this was a heartbreak he’d never get over.

February 19, 1942, saw the premiere of Lombard’s final film: To Be or Not to Be. In so many ways, the Jack Benny comedy from Ernst Lubitsch was as daring as The Great Dictator. And critics hailed it as a triumph for Lombard, if not in many other respects. In the sixteen months since Chaplin’s film, the mood of the country had changed dramat­ically. No one wanted to laugh at Nazis now. Few took their ideology seriously, sure, but they were too great a threat to disarm with chuckles alone. Benny’s own father walked out of the movie after seeing his son in a Nazi uniform. Lubitsch, Jewish like Benny, even had to defend to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was not “a Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw.” In the years after the war, people finally came to consider To Be or Not to Be one of Lubitsch’s best films. Benny’s own father, after furious explanations from his son, went to see it again. Giving it another chance, he loved it so much he ended up seeing it forty-six times.

Pearl Harbor Turns 80: Carole Lombard Was Hollywood’s First World War II Casualty (3)

Lombard had an incandescent final statement on film. It was not enough to allay Gable’s grief. “Why did Ma have to go?” Gable kept asking his friends. “Did you ever see anyone more beautiful? There was never a person in the world who was as generous, who was so full of fun. God damn it, why Ma?”

It hadn’t even been six weeks since Pearl Harbor when Lombard died on January 16, 1942. She was widely considered to be Hollywood’s first casualty of the war. But she would not be the last.

Christian Blauvelt is the managing editor at IndieWire and author of books includingCinematic Cities: New YorkandStar Wars Made Easy.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Pearl Harbor Turns 80: Carole Lombard Was Hollywood’s First World War II Casualty (2024)
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