Unshaven and pickled by two days of ceaseless drinking in the El Rancho Vegas Hotel, Clark Gable didn’t care what the “fixer” Eddie Mannix wanted. He didn’t care what MGM wanted. Or the Army Air Corps. Drunk or not, heartbroken or not, Clark Gable remained “King of Hollywood”, one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles.
Millions of dollars in studio assets and thousands of jobs hinged on the stardom of Clark Gable, who had produced more hits than boxer Joe Louis. He was MGM’s largest investment. Somehow, this Ohio-born drunk with the wide shoulders, jug ears, and bad breath had stockpiled a tsunami of influence. Gable used it all in this dusty desert hotel two days after his wife died on a snowy mountain to the southwest.
His wife, Fort Wayne-native Carole Lombard, died along with 21 others when their plane had crashed into a Vegas mountain. She had just finished a whirlwind tour selling war bonds. Her final stop in Indianapolis, the capitol of her home state, had marked $2 million in bonds sold. The dramatic vamp turned comedy queen was now America’s darling. And now “Ma” (as Gable frequently called her) sat crumpled in the twisted mountain wreckage. For a man who had spent his whole life living selfishly, leaving her up there would be beyond unforgivable.
Clark Gable told Mannix and MGM that he didn’t care what they had to do, he wasn’t going anywhere without his wife.
The two men waiting with Gable—Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix and PR man Howard Strickling—knew Gable wouldn’t budge, so they made it happen.
Eddie got on the phone. No one knew how to turn on the heat better than Eddie. He made his calls to serious people and they sent requests not only to the US Army personnel in charge of TWA-3’s recovery, but also to the heavies in Washington. Those heavies called even heavier people, who contacted the Army recovery personnel in Vegas.
FIND MRS. GABLE.
At 7:20 PM January 16th, the people in and around Las Vegas saw a massive fireball erupt to the southwest, near the top of Mount Potsoi. Very soon the word spread that a DC-3 carrying almost two dozen people had left only fifteen minutes before the fireball appeared…in that direction. Professionals and volunteers alike headed out to the mountain, which burned for hours in the January night.
As the men suited up, grim at the grueling night ahead, they heard the plane carried 15 soldiers, 3 crew, and four civilians, one of which was Carole Lombard, aka. Hollywood’s Comedy Queen, aka Mrs. Clark Gable.
Thoughts of fame vanished quickly as the cold night came on. Mount Potosi’s peak jutted over 8,000 feet into the air, and the TWA Flight 3 had crashed just below that cliff, near a V-shaped alcove sometimes called Double-Up Mountain. The men hacked and trudged up the sheer mountain face, sometimes crawling up on their hands and knees. Even with their best effort, it took 14 hours to finally reach the wreckage.
In the late morning light and as the last of the fuel smoldered out, the would-be rescuers stood absolutely silent. It was like God Himself had taken a sledgehammer and pummeled the prop liner flat, then set it on fire for good measure. Twisted, charred, and melted hunks of metal littered the ground, spread in a rough cone from the cliff face. About 80 feet from the cliff’s peak, a smashed circle of metal still jutted out. That was TWA-3’s nose, which quickly settling any question of where the plane hit.Just eighty feet. The pilot had been so close to missing the cliff face. Eighty feet. The length of a putting green.
All around them was the answer to a question no physics class in the world wanted to answer: What happens when a 16,000 pound aircraft—carrying 3,500 pounds of human cargo AND a few hundred gallons of fuel—slams into a sheer limestone wall at 185 mph?
THAT wasn’t the worst part.
There were just parts of bodies everywhere you looked, everywhere. At first we tried getting bits that went together, but reached a point where we was [sic] just grabbing pieces and stuffing them in bags. I’ve never seen nothin’ like it before or since. I still see it in my dreams sometimes.
~Recovery volunteer Tommy Young
In this charnel house of torn bodies and metal, volunteers had to find a the body of a slim, blonde woman barely over five feet tall. It seemed impossible. Remains further away from the point of impact were easier to identify. The fireball had only burned on and just below the cliff face. The recovery volunteers sifted grimly through this mix of charred and torn limbs looking for anything to identify Carole Lombard. They all knew what she looked like in life. But now..?
Time passed. Their lips were tight and their words were few as they tromped through the snow on the steep slope. They lifted the wreckage they could and counted bodies. Many bodies were simple to identify as Army Air Corps personnel. The rescuers wrapped bodies—or body parts—in wool Army blankets and mail bags, cinched tight with belts, and placed them aside.
Standing above all this mess, investigator for the Civil Aeronautics Board investigator Warren Carey took photographs and sketched a rough map of the crash site. A small, somber X marked the location of remains.
At first, the recovery volunteers didn’t think they’d find Mrs. Gable. The remains of victims had been shredded, torn apart, and strewn across the entire field of wreckage. Some even hung from the surrounding pine trees. Discovering which belong to Carole and which belong to one of the other passengers (3 crew, 15 soldiers, Carole’s mother, press agent, and a military wife) was almost impossible. They were cold, bone-weary, and the thin air sapped what energy they had left.
Despite these conditions, soon after the volunteers began gathering and bagging remains, Eddie Mannix himself showed up at the wreckage site. If anyone could recognize Carole, it was Eddie. Gable would trust his word.
A Vegas store owner and some soldiers had succeeded in shifting a hunk of the TWA-3’s wing that had settled near the cliff. Beneath it were three bodies. They were badly broken and burned but mostly intact. One was a man and the other two, women.
Third degree burns from the fuel fire had made the bodies unrecognizable apart from their general figures. One of the women, the one with the most delicate figure, rested face down in the snow. This body had no left arm and its head (HER head) had nearly been sheared off in the crash. A volunteer put out one gloved hand and gently turned the body over. The woman’s face was as unrecognizable as the rest of her body, but there was a half-burnt envelope beneath the body. It was a personal schedule of Lombard’s War Bonds appearances.
Eddie Mannix tromped over and saw the envelope. He looked down at the mangled corpse. His eyes traveled from foot to face and then rested on the blackened skull. The hair had burnt away, but a single patch had somehow been protected from the fire. One curled lock of familiar blond hair.
Eddie Mannix nodded. It was Carole.
The men wrapped her in several Army blankets and mail bags cinched with belts. They knew bringing her back down the mountain was out of the question. Dangers aside, if her body got loose and somehow tumbled away. Worse yet, if she fell away and the blankets unwrapped around her…
Instead, they dragged her up the mountain, to a winding path on the other side of the cliff face. Nearby donkeys were brought to meet the volunteers there, and these beasts would plod along a narrow, dangerous path down the mountain.
The men transported her with as much dignity as could be allowed at 8,000 feet, but the archival footage is difficult for almost anyone to watch. The blankets hid her body from view, but there’s no mistaking the bent legs and elbows of the pugilistic posture, common among burn victims and caused by the shrinking of muscle during heat. Lombard’s swaddled body bounced this way and that through the snow and plowing through small crests. Ropes pulled from above and men pushed from below, finally reaching the awaiting donkeys.
Despite this, one fact does demonstrate the reverence on-site personnel and reporters gave to Carole Lombard: no one photographed her naked, burnt body. They had plenty of chances to do so, and could have turned a tidy profit on it, but they waited until the blankets gave her a measure of privacy before taking photos. It’s a simple but touching act of kindness.
When Mannix returned to Gable at the end of the day with news of Carole’s recovery and return, he handed a ruby clip to Gable. He hadn’t been able to find the wedding ring in the shattered wreckage, but this small clip was familiar to both men as a favorite bit of jewelry she often wore. Gable held the singed and bent memento and said nothing. This stoic silence would become his default reaction for several days.
Later, Gable would refuse to see her remains himself, wanting to remember her as she had been, not as a beaten and burnt corpse.
Strings from coast-to-coast had been pulled to recover Carole’s body so quickly. Dozens of men had risked their lives bringing her down, but none of it gave Gable any relief. For the rest of his life, her death would haunt him. He knew, beyond any doubt, that his own philandering—specifically an affair with Lana Turner—had prodded Carole’s need to return home so quickly.
The guilt would follow him like poison. He drinking continued and worsened. At first, the middle-aged Gable fled into the US war service to become an officer in the US Army Air Force. He kept making money for MGM and remarried twice, but the crash (and his constant drinking) would age him rapidly. He died in 1960 at the age of 59, the popular but heartbroken King of Hollywood.
He was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park next to his wife, Carole Lombard Gable.
Browse THIS well-organized and comprehensive collection of Mount Potosi site photos from Jim Boone’s (Ph.D. in Ecology) website Birdandhike.com (a fascinating site for anyone interested in birding or hiking).