The carnage and chaos of World War II meant that all too many people lost their loved ones. Perhaps the most unfortunate were those who didn’t even know if their relatives were alive or dead. But, incredibly, one woman had to wait all of six decades to find out exactly what had happened to her long-lost husband.
Peggy Seale happened on the man who was to become her husband, Lieutenant Billie D. Harris, in rather a strange way. “We actually met through the mail,” Peggy remembered in an interview with the 354th Fighter Group website. Peggy worked as an electrical mechanic at Altus Air Force Base, not far from her hometown of Vernon, Texas.
One of her colleagues was Billie Harris’ father, and more than once he made mention of his son. At the time, Billie was doing his pilot training at Brooks Air Field in San Antonio, Texas. Peggy and Billie started writing to each other and after a few months they met up.
Perhaps because it was wartime, the young couple didn’t waste any time and were married soon after that meeting, on September 22, 1943. They wed in Florida when Peggy was just 18 and Billie 21. Peggy recalled, “I didn’t even have money to buy him a wedding ring. I used my Vernon High School class ring instead, and he wore it as his wedding ring.”
The young couple had hoped for a fortnight’s honeymoon but the war got in the way. Billie and the rest of his unit were unexpectedly called to Tallahassee, while Peggy and the other wives were put up in a hotel in the city. Then, in October 1943, Lieutenant Harris was sent overseas. The young newlyweds had been together for just six weeks as man and wife.
Harris joined his new unit, the 354th Fighter Group, which was stationed at an airfield in the southeast of England. There, he was to pilot the legendary U.S. fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang. His job was to provide protection to bombers as they flew missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
D-Day, the massive amphibious invasion of Europe that would ultimately end in Hitler’s squalid suicide in a Berlin bunker, kicked off on June 6, 1944. This meant that Billie was now regularly in the thick of combat action, providing air support to ground troops as they fought their way across Europe.
Peggy remembered, “He told me very little about what he was doing. There was a lot of censoring of the mail, but I knew he was flying missions.” Indeed he was, and during this time Lieutenant Harris was honored with two Air Medals with 11 oak leaf clusters and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
By July 1944 Harris had flown – and survived – more than 60 missions, which meant he was entitled to go back to the States. He wrote to Peggy, telling her that they would soon be together again. But wounded soldiers got priority, so Billie’s reserved place on a troop ship was taken by another. The couple would just have to wait a little longer for their reunion.
But now fate played a cruel trick. Towards the end of July a telegram came stating that Billie had been missing in action since July 7. Peggy was grief-stricken, but through her shock she noticed a curious anomaly. How could Billie have been missing since July 7 when she’d had a letter from him dated July 8? Ominously, this was the first in a series of administrative errors that would mark the next 60 years of Peggy’s life.
“After I got over the shock, I went to the telegraph office and told them there had been a mistake,” Peggy remembered. That prompted the arrival of a second telegram saying that Billie had gone missing on July 17, 1944. The anguish was just as sharp, but at least things now made sense.
Then there was another strange incident. The military authorities at the Supreme Headquarters in Allied France (SHEAF) informed Peggy that Billie was actually on leave in the States. As no one had heard from Billie, this seemed quite implausible. Peggy now turned to the Red Cross for help.
“I was told not to be concerned, that no doubt he was being ‘processed,’ possibly at some military hospital,” Peggy said, remembering what the Red Cross had told her. “Billie’s parents and I chose to believe that he was back in the United States.” But these hopes were to be dashed by a slew of contradictory information. Her husband, Peggy was told, was missing in action, then killed in action, then missing in action again. Nobody seemed to know the facts.
Oddly, in 1948 the authorities asked Peggy to let them know where Billie should be buried. But they still couldn’t tell her what had actually happened to him and where his remains were. Still then clinging on to the hope that Billie might be alive, Peggy recalled, “Our thought was maybe he was out there somewhere and had lost his memory.”
The years went by and still Peggy was no nearer finding out what had happened to her husband. However, she never forgot him and never remarried. But then a cousin of Billie’s, Alton Harvey, who was actually born after Billie went missing, decided to take up the case. Harvey approached the Department of the Army with a request for Billie’s files. He was told that the files did exist, but staff shortages meant it was tricky to get hold of them.
But then Harvey got another message from the authorities. Someone else, a woman from France, had asked for Billie’s records six months earlier. This meant that the files were in fact readily accessible. But who was the mystery woman from France?
It turned out that she was Valerie Quesnel from the village of Les Ventes in Normandy, France. And now the whole story came out. Lieutenant Harris’ plane had come down in some woods near Les Ventes. However, instead of bailing out of his stricken aircraft, Billie had piloted it away from the village, doubtless saving many lives.
As a result, local villagers had been honoring this pilot as a great hero – there is even a square in the village named after him. However, for many years locals had in fact believed him to be Canadian. It was only during the village’s celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of France’s liberation from the Nazis that the truth behind Billie’s nationality came out.
Billie had originally been buried in the village cemetery in an oak casket bedecked with flowers. Eventually, in 1948, the body was moved to the Normandy American Cemetery. And the villagers invited Peggy to Les Ventes where she met 91-year-old Guy Surleau, the last person alive who remembered her husband’s plane coming down.
At last Peggy Harris knew the truth about her brave fighter pilot husband. After their marriage of six weeks, it had taken six decades for her to find out what her husband’s fate had been. In a letter to Mme Quesnel, Peggy wrote of the people of Les Ventes, “I want to thank them for their tender care… I learned at last that caring hands took him from the wreckage.”