By mid-January 1942, America had been fighting World War II for just over a month and had already suffered the loss of thousands of men during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of these casualties were unknown outside of their units and families.
It was a far different story when America lost it first woman in the conflict. Her name was Carole Lombard, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and the wife of superstar Clark Gable.
Lombard, one of the most gifted screwball-comediennes at the time of her death, was born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Indiana. Young Carole moved to Los Angeles with her mother when she was six after her parents divorced. She began her acting career in silent films at the age of 12 after a director spotted her playing baseball. She would retain a tomboyish personality spiced with bawdy humor that contrasted sharply with her classic beauty.
She co-starred with future husband Clark Gable on the set of No Man of Her Own in 1932 and saw her career take off in 1934’s Twentieth Century. She was nominated for an Oscar two years later for her role in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey in which she co-starred with her ex-husband William Powell (awkward!).
Later successes included Made For Each Other, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and To Be Or Not To Be, which was released after her death.
Lombard began an affair with Gable while he was still married to Rhea Langham. Louise B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was able to land Gable for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind by giving him a contract that would pay him enough money to divorce Langham and wed Lombard. The couple was married during a break in filming in Kingman, Arizona, with Otto Winkler, Gable’s press agent, in attendance. They lived together on a ranch in Encino for the next three years.
In 1942, Lombard, accompanied by Winkler and her mother, flew to Indiana on a mission to sell bonds for the war effort. The trip was very successful, with Lombard selling over $2 million worth of bonds in a single day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, the plane they were in crashed into Mt. Potosi near Las Vegas, killing all 22 people on-board.
A grief-stricken Gable, who was rumored to have been engaged in an affair with Lana Turner at the time of Lombard’s death, flew to the crash site. He purchased three adjoining crypts in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery for the couple and Lombard’s mother, where all three are now interrred.
Lombard’s final film To Be Or Not To Be (1942) was in post-production at the time of her death. After the crash, the producers cut out a line of dialogue in which her character rhetorically asks, “What could happen in a plane?”
Lombard was posthumously honored by the U.S. government with the launch of a Liberty Ship SS Carole Lombard, and with the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war.
The question arises: Was Lombard really the first American woman to die as a result of World War II?
Most certainly not. There were previous civilian female casualties at Pearl Harbor, but like their male counterparts, they were unknown to the general public. As a well-known personality, Lombard’s death was used by the media and the War Department to personalize the conflict, and to strengthen America’s resolve.