Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

I often select a book based on its subject matter or story. That is what led me to Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. I absolutely love Audrey Hepburn, so I read Dutch Girl. While reading Dutch Girl, I fell in love with the way her story was being told. As a former history teacher, I began to see World War II in a whole new light. Her story was told in such a way that I could sense the fear she must have felt as a child under Nazi occupation. The author took me there. He showed me the places and the people in a way I had never experienced with any other book.

The way my love for Audrey Hepburn led me to Dutch Girl, my love for the way her story was told led me to seek out the author. I knew that if he had written a biography about someone, I wanted to read it. In turn, Robert Matzen, author of Dutch Girl, led me to Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.

When I first started reading Fireball, I knew nothing about Carole Lombard. Fireball changed that. Yes, the book is about Flight 3, a flight that crashed into a mountain and claimed the life of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the time. However, Robert Matzen gives the reader so much more than that.

Through Fireball, I not only got to know Carole Lombard, but I also got to know the people closest to her. I learned about a horrible accident when she was a teenager that could have easily ended her career if not for her mother’s insisting that a plastic surgeon be brought in to stitch the lacerations on young Carole’s face, even though plastic surgery was a new field.

I learned about Elizabeth Peters. This was a strong, determined woman who knew her daughter would be a star. She gave her daughter strength, confidence, and opportunity, and was a powerful force behind transitioning Jane Peters into the woman everyone else would come to know as Carole Lombard. Theirs was a bond that would never be broken.

Fireball is a story that draws the reader in. The reader feels so much like a part of the story, that it’s as if s/he knew the passengers and crew of Flight 3 personally. Robert Matzen introduces the reader to not only a glamorous movie star and her famous husband, but also the pilot and co-pilot. He talks about the air hostess who loved her job and often sent post cards home to her parents. The reader learns about the young lieutenant whose widow would “never remarry.” There were also all the young men who were part of the Army Air Corps. Civilians were bumped from the flight so these young pilots could get back to California faster.

 By the time of the crash, the reader is invested in the lives of the passengers and crews and feels the grief of their loss. My heart ached for the men who climbed Potosi Mountain in hopes of finding survivors only to be met with what was left of the charred remains and personal belongings scattered across the crash site. I cried for the young soldier who knelt beside what was left of his fiancé’s body and wept in agony.

Fireball is not just Carole Lombard’s story. Robert Matzen honors everyone who perished when Flight 3 crashed into Potosi Mountain shortly after taking off from Las Vegas. He shows how all these lives were brought together on that fateful day. He described what was found when rescuers arrived at the crash site. He even climbed Potosi Mountain, taking the same route as the rescue party, and viewed what is left of the Flight 3 crash site.

Robert Matzen once stated, “I in many ways continue to be haunted by the mountain and the people I met there.” After many nights of lying awake unable to think of anything but January 16, 1942, and the days that followed, I now understand how his life was forever changed by all he read, the people he met and stories he heard, and the places he visited, especially Potosi Mountain, the mountain that claimed the lives of Carole Lumbard, her mother, and 20 others who never made it home.