I came across an article the other day that shocked me and disgusted me all at the same time. While feeling the ire boil as I read, I was brought to tears by the time I finished. It is the story of Lt. Billie D. Harris.
Peggy & Bille D. Harris
When Peggy Seale and Billy D. Harris got married on September 22nd 1943, they were like most young couples of that time; young, full of hope and madly in love. The 2nd Lt. and his bride were confident in their future as they said their vows but had no idea just how different their future would be.
Planning on a weeks leave for their honeymoon, their plans were cut short when a troop ship full of pilots was torpedoed. Billie Harris’ group was tapped to take their place. He was assigned to the 355th fighter squadron / 354th fighter group and was based in England. He began fly bomber support. After the invasion of Normandy, they were hitting ground targets. Lt. Harris would earn 2 air medals with 11 oak leaf clusters as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross. By July of 1944 he had flown 60-100 missions. Because he had flown so many missions, he was eligible to be sent home. He wrote his bride telling her he had been assigned a spot on a troop ship and should be home shortly. He was then advised that the wounded had priority and he would have to wait for another ship. The date of the letter was July 8th, 1944.
In late July, Peggy received a telegram dated July 7th that Billie was listed as Missing in action. It was the first mistake in a long list of mistakes that would be part of Peggy’s life for the next 62 years. “After I got over the shock I went to the telegraph office and told them there had been a mistake,” She said. “I told them I had a letter dated July 8th so he couldn’t have gone missing on July 7th. I didn’t know if the telegraph operator had made a mistake or if it was a mistake by the War Department.” She subsequently received a second telegram correcting the date to July 17th, 1944.
“I was working at the air base while Billie was over seas. I was taking an instrument panel from an airplane of a pilot had been killed,” Peggy began. “There was blood on the gauges. I couldn’t do it anymore after that, so I went up to Colorado with friends for a while.” Later, an official Military release was sent from Supreme Headquarters Allied France (SHEAF) asserting that Lt. Harris had returned to the United States on leave but none of the family had heard from him. Not convinced that her husband was in the United States, and with no further information, Peggy appealed to the Red Cross. “I was told not to be concerned, that no doubt he was being “processed” probably at some military hospital,” She recalled. Lt. Harris’ wife and family were hopeful that was the case. “Billie’s parents and I chose to believe he was in the states and in a hospital, maybe not knowing who he was, perhaps he had lost his memory, we had heard of cases like that.”
Lt. Billie D. Harris
By March of 1945, Peggy had heard no new information so she contacted the Red Cross and asked if Military hospitals could be contacted. The Red Cross told Mrs. Harris that it was too expensive to launch a search, in fact they were sure Lt. Harris would soon turn up. After that, Peggy Harris contacted Congressman Ed Gossett in Washington D.C. who in turn sent information to the International Red Cross and gave them the information on Lt. Billie D. Harris. Thereafter began a series of conflicting reports, including notification that he was missing in action, then killed in action, then missing in action again. It seemed that no one could agree on what happened to Lt. Harris, in fact it seemed that no one knew.
In 1948, Peggy Harris got a government form asking her to indicate where she wanted Lt. Harris’ remains interred. ” I really didn’t believe they were talking about Billie because we still didn’t know where he was,” she said. On the advice of a lawyer, Peggy signed the form and that eventually allowed her to receive Military benefits. Peggy did not, however, believe her husband was dead.
Congressman Mac Thornberry
Until their death in the 80’s, Billie’s parents held out hope that their son was still alive. In fact, the story could have ended then if not for Billie’s cousin who became intrigued with the story. Alton Harvey was born after Billie died but had heard the story all of his life and wanted to know what had happened. During his extensive research, Peggy also continued to seek information too. She sent a letter in 2005 to congressman Mac Thornberry, who was also Vice-Chair of the Senate Arms committee. He said Bille D. Harris was still listed as Missing In Action in the national Archives. Turns out, Thornberry never looked himself. Some underpaid inter or staffer was probably tapped with the job and didn’t think it important so didn’t even look. Billie’s cousin did a simple search of the archives and Billie indeed was found to be Killed in Action and was buried at the American cemetery in Normandy.
Now you might think the story ends there. It doesn’t. This was the part that brought me to tears. Billie’s cousin found out that some files were being made available of pilots who were buried in France. When he called the Department of the Army to see the file, he was told that it would be a while due to limited staff. However a phone call shortly thereafter told him that a woman in France had asked to have the file pulled 6 months earlier and it was available.
[The woman was Valerie Quesnel of Les Ventes, France. Quesnel was a board member of the little french town, which in 2004 wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the French liberation. It was during these preparations that the complete story of Lt. Bille D. Harris came to light. Representatives from the French Embassy in Canada were invited to attend the ceremony, which paid tribute at a war memorial to citizens who had been killed in an air raid on the town in 1944, to those who had fought in the French resistance, and to a pilot whose plane had been shot down in the nearby woods – a Canadian named Lt. Billie D’Harris. However, an article detailing the 2004 ceremony caught the attention of a Mr. Huard, president of the Normandy Association for the Remembrance of the Liberation. Huard wrote to the town council that he believed the pilot in question was not Canadian, but an American. It was also noted that the pilot’s body had been moved from the town in 1946, although a large marker remained there, and Lt. Harris had been temporarily buried in another cemetery, he was later permanently transferred to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer.
Quesnel made a trip to the cemetery and confirmed the information. It was then that she began her research through the Department of the Army in Alexandria, Va. In September 2005, Quesnel received over 200 pages of information concerning Harris. It was about this time that Harvey’s research had led him to the same department, and he also was able to obtain the information.
Harvey and his wife drove from Austin, where they currently reside, to Harris’ home in Vernon to personally present her with the documentation and perhaps the last piece of a puzzle that had gone unsolved for over 60 years. Among the information was the name and address of Quesnel. Harris immediately wrote a letter expressing her appreciation to the small town of Les Ventes for their original burying of her husband there and the subsequent years of tribute they had paid to his honor. Thereafter a correspondence began between the two women, and Harris was able to finally learn what had happened on that July day in 1944.
Through records, documentation and eye-witness accounts, Harris learned that on July 17, 1944 around 7 p.m., Harris’ plane had crashed in the forest outside the small village of Les Ventes, France, about 90 miles northwest of Paris. The plane did not burn, and French resistance members were the first to get to the aircraft and discovered the pilot had not survived. The men removed his handgun and code book. They quickly left, however, when they heard Germans approaching the crash site. “Because his flight jacket bore the letters Billie D Harris, it was assumed it was D’Harris,” Harris said. “They thought from that he was Canadian.”
Among documents Harris received was a letter written on July 20, 1944 by the town’s mayor, a “Mr. Desfriches,” in which he stated that the Germans had removed an identification tag with the pilot’s name, identification number and his mother’s name and address, and a glass medallion containing a four-leaf clover. Found on the pilot was a ring with a “kitten” on it, bearing the inscription PLS, and Vernon HS 1941. This ring was actually Harris’ high school ring, placed on her husband’s finger on their wedding day in 1943 because she couldn’t afford to purchase a wedding band. The ring has subsequently vanished.
According to the mayor’s letter, the ring was kept by the mayor to be returned to the family along with two photographs also found, but somehow the ring disappeared while in U.S. military custody, Harris reported.
Peggy Harris & Guy Surleau. The first to find Harris after his plane crashed.
The townspeople retrieved the pilot’s body from the plane wreckage, and it was wrapped in a sheet given by a “Mrs. Frichot” and placed in an oak coffin. It was the buried at the cemetery at 9 a.m., July 19, 1944 in the presence of about 70 people. The coffin was covered with summer flowers brought by the townspeople from their own homes and gardens. The cemetery also contained the graves of others considered to be “heroes” by the villagers, including those who had died assisting the French freedom fighters. In fact, each year since the country’s liberation, the people of the village had several times a year paid tribute to those buried in the cemetery, including the pilot that had thought of as Canadian. Even after his body was removed in 1946 by the U.S. Army and moved to a temporary cemetery in Blosville, France, where he was listed as an “unknown,” the townspeople continued to include him in their tribute.
“It was as if they adopted him as their own,” Harris said.
Peggy Harris and her nephew Jim Maloney
Original grave marker at Les Ventes
In 1947, Lt. Harris’ body was taken to a casketing point in Cherbourg where he was still listed as “unknown.” In September 1948, he was interred in Normandy American Cemetery as Billie D. Harris. The stark white stone cross bears his group and squadron numbers and “Oklahoma.”
“When I received the information and files from Alton, I immediately wrote to Mrs. Quesnel to thank her for the kindness of the townspeople,” Harris said. In her letter, Harris wrote: “I was overwhelmed by the caring kindness of your townspeople and wonder if any of them are yet alive. I want to thank them for their tender care…I learned at last that caring hands took him from the wreckage.”
As the women began to correspond and other town officials became aware of the situation, an invitation was issued to Harris from the current mayor, Christine Fessard, to visit Les Ventes. Meanwhile Harris’ story was reported in a French magazine and on French radio, requesting anyone with additional information to come forward.
With an emotional heart, Harris accepted the invitation to go to France, and on April 6, accompanied by Alton and Gaye Harvey, landed at Charles DeGalle Airport in Paris.
The next morning, the group was met by Valerie Quesnel, who drove them to Les Ventes. Peggy Harris met some of the people who were there the day Billie crashed.
On Sunday, April 9, some 300 people gathered at a monument at the city hall, where Lt. Harris’ name is listed among those martyred during the war. Mayor Fessard read aloud the names inscribed there. The group then made its way to the village cemetery for a ceremony similar to those that had been performed three times a year for over 60 years on May 8, victory in Europe; Aug. 22, the day Les Ventes was liberated, and Nov. 11, the end of the war. A number of local as well as national dignitaries spoke, and an Englishman named Bob Goodall, who lived in the town, served as interpreter. Harris was presented with a large bouquet, which she placed on the grave site in an emotional moment.
Back at city hall, displays had been set up for public viewing, which included pictures and memorabilia from the era and also pictures that Harris had provided. An eight-course catered luncheon was held in Harris’ honor after which she made a speech thanking the people. In her words, Harris told those present how the actions of the townspeople so many years ago “quiets and comforts my heart.”
The next day, Harris and the Harveys, accompanied by Madame Quesnel, visited the Normandy cemetery. There they were greeted by Supt. Daniel Neece and his wife, Yolanda. Neece told Harris she was the first widow to visit the World War II cemetery in the past five years.
Harris visited the Normandy cemetery several times over the next few days. On one visit, she and Harvey were granted permission to sprinkle soil from Lt. Harris’ parents’ graves in Altus on their son’s gravesite. She also has made arrangements for flowers to be placed on Lt. Harris’ grave several times a year, including Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas and on July 17, the date of the plane crash; Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day, and Oct. 14, his birthday.]
Now that I have given you the story of 2nd Lt. Bille Dowe Harris, I can start to rant in my usual fashion. I’m sure I will draw some fire from some uninformed, government cheerleader but too bad. Being a veteran myself, I found myself wondering how we could do something like this. I realize up until the 90’s and even later our technology and record keeping wasn’t as high-tech as it is now, but is that really any excuse? To me, he was a hero of the French Liberation; a true hero. Where I have the problem is that our bureaucrats only care about themselves. Peggy Harris was lied to and met nothing but B.S. from everyone to include the American Red Cross to Washington D.C. Apparently no one thought finding out the disposition of this Airman was of any importance. Peggy Harris desperately wished she knew where her husband was but no one seemed to know or even care. It was only after Billie’s cousin Alton Harvey began researching did anything get discovered.
I believe that we should be ashamed as a country that we would act that way towards one of our own. When asked for help even Congressman Mac Thornberry blew it off. WTF! I’m sure if Mrs. Harris was asking that douche bag to do research to find himself a pay raise, he would have jumped on it like a fat kid on a cup cake. It makes me wonder how many other American troops listed as M.I.A. are actually laid to rest or have some other disposition, but the family doesn’t know because the “Government” lost track or whatever the excuse is this week.
Billie D. Harris Place
Where I became incensed with this article was the fact that a foreign country honored and took care of an American Airman better than his own country. He is honored 3 times a year and up to 2005, Peggy Harris had no idea where Bille was. We had no clue where he was and this small French town treated an AMERICAN as one of their own. They even named a street after him and hold their parades on it EVERY year. If we are not going to take care of our veterans, let’s not send them off to war. Sheesh, and they call ME crazy.