When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, both Clark and Carole felt they must do something for their country. At Carole's urging, Clark was elected President of the Hollywood Victory Committee. One of his first duties was to set up war bond rallies. He didn't like the idea of traveling to his hometown in Ohio (he despised crowds) but Carole jumped at the chance to visit Indianapolis. Clark had to report to the set to film Somewhere I'll Find You, so he couldn't go with her. In his place he sent his friend and MGM publicity man, Otto Winkler and Carole's mother Bessie volunteered to join them.
Jean Garceau recalled that Carole looked particularly sad when she was leaving the ranch. She gave Jean a big hug and said, "Take care of Pa for me." and gave her several little notes, one for each day she would be gone, to give Clark. Clark was absent when the three boarded the train at Union Station on January 12, 1942, some say because of an argument they had had the previous evening when she had warned him of cheating on her while she was gone. Carole arrived in Indianapolis on January 15 and regaled the crowd with a patriotic speech. She stationed herself in the statehouse, signing autographs and chatting with anyone who bought war bonds. One asked, "Where's Clark?" She quipped, "At home. One of us has to work!" The Treasury Department had given her a quota of $500,000 of war bonds to sell. At the end of the day she had sold $2,017,513.
The trio was supposed to leave by train on the morning of January 16, make two more stops in Kansas City and Albuquerque, and arrive in Los Angeles on January 21. Carole suddenly decided that she couldn't continue the tour and that she wanted to get home as soon as possible. Her mother had never flown before and was terrified. An avid believer in numerology, she was especially frightened after realizing that the flight was TWA #3, the plane was a DC-3, they were traveling in a party of three and that Carole was 33 years old. Three was very unlucky. Carole laughed off her mother's protests and agreed to a coin toss. Carole won and they boarded the flight that very evening. At a fuel stop in Albuquerque, the pilot asked Carole, Bessie and Otto if they would mind relinquishing their seats to three servicemen and catch a flight the next day. Uncharacteristically, Carole refused; she was too anxious to get home. They were due to arrive in Los Angeles at 8:45am
Clark had missed Carole terribly and made sure the house was in perfect order. He planned a surprise party for the returning trio and had the house decorated in red, white and blue streamers and balloons. He knew that the airport would be swarmed with press for her arrival, so he chose to stay home and wait for his wife. He received a phone call from MGM executive Eddie Mannix, around the time the plane should have landed. He told Clark that Carole's plane had gone down outside of Las Vegas. Nobody knew the condition of the plane or the passengers, but he had already chartered a plane and suggested they get to Las Vegas immediately. Clark, Eddie, Otto's wife Jill and Carole's brother Stuart boarded the plane to Las Vegas just an hour later. When they arrived, a rescue team was already headed up Mount Potosi (or Table Rock Mountain, as locals called it) and all they could do was wait for word. Clark insisted on going up the mountain, he could see the burning wreckage and was anxious. Eddie, knowing better, dissuaded him. Eddie joined the rescue party for the fifteen hour trek and later said what he saw in the blood splattered snow "was something that has always haunted me." He sent Clark a telegram as soon as he could, "No survivors. All killed instantly." Eddie saw what was left of Carole's body, decapitated, a charred script near her hand. He brought back a piece of one of Carole's ruby clips that Clark had given her just that past Christmas, and a long lock of her blonde hair. Clark held out the hope that her wedding band would be found, even offering a reward, but it never was. A devastated Clark headed back to Los Angeles with the bodies of his wife, his mother-in-law and his friend. He bought three crypts at Forest Lawn in Glendale in the Grand Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Trust: one for Bessie, one for Carole and one for himself. A small funeral was held for Carole and her mother on January 21. Clark sat in the front pew and spoke to no one. Carole had requested in her will that she be buried in a white dress by fashion designer Irene. The dress was laid on top of what was left of her body in the coffin.
After the funeral, Clark returned home to their beloved ranch for the first time since Carole's death. Jean Garceau gave Clark the last note from the ones Carole had left for him. She didn't know what the note said, but upon reading it, Clark broke down and sobbed. Jean recalled, "Up until then, Clark had borne himself with fortitude and courage, had been stronger than any of us throughout the entire ordeal. After he calmed down, he was again in perfect control, his grief masked. He asked no sympathy, wanted none, was unapproachable."
Elaine Barrymore (wife of John) perhaps said it best, "Clark adored her. She was the light in his eyes. He admitted to me that he had always loved the company of ladies and he knew he had a reputation of being a ladies man, but with her it was different. He really was in love. To have her taken from him was like someone ripped out his soul. I saw him periodically for years afterward. The light in his eyes was gone. Even when he smiled. That light never returned."
Wives: Carole Lombard