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Lt. Billie D Harris

July 6, 2012

We put a lot of time and research into this week’s American Hero. The unfortunate side to that is his story has been told in numerous media outlets, as of late, and it was difficult to produce much more than the remarkable story from the 354th Pioneer Mustang Fighter Group. To visit this story, please visit this link: http://www.354thpmfg.com/BillieDHarris_part1.html. This is a story we’ve been glued to since it broke and is definitely moving.

When Billie Dowe Harris and Peggy Seale married on Sept. 22, 1943, they were like most young couples of that time – young, in love and full of hope. Despite the fact that the United States was fully involved in World War II, and lives were being changed daily, the 2nd Lt. and his bride were full of confidence in the future as they said their vows. Little did they realize how very different that future would be.

“We actually met through the mail,” Peggy Harris recalled. She was working as an electronic instrument mechanic at Altus Air Force Base at the time. A daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.P. Seale of Vernon, Harris commuted each day to her job in Altus where she spent her time climbing in and out of airplanes, checking and replacing instruments.

“Billie’s father and I both worked at the base, and he kept telling me about his son, who was stationed in San Antonio. He wanted us to meet,” Harris said. A son of Virgil and Nell Harris, Billie D. Harris was an Army Air Corp flying cadet at Brooks Air Field in San Antonio where he was undergoing flight training. He and Peggy Seale corresponded for several months, and shortly after meeting, the handsome lieutenant proposed to the pretty Texas girl. He was 21 and she was 18. The couple was married in Florida where Lt. Harris had been sent to undergo advanced training prior to being shipped overseas.

“I didn’t even have money to buy him a wedding ring,” Harris said. “I used my Vernon High School class ring instead, and he wore it as his wedding ring.” Although the couple was expecting to have two weeks leave for their honeymoon, their time was cut short when a troop ship of pilots was torpedoed in the Atlantic.

Lt. Harris’ group was tapped to take their place. “His group was all taken to Tallahassee, and the wives were taken there to a huge hotel. When the men were called up, the wives were told to go home and not tell anyone that their husbands had been sent overseas until they had arrived there safely.” It was October 1943, and unbeknownst to Harris, it would be the last time she would see her husband.

Lt. Harris was assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron/354th Fighter Group, stationed in southeast England. During the next few months, he would fly bomber support missions into Germany in the P-51 Mustang. After the invasion of Normandy, France, the attacks changed to ground targets with Lt. Harris flying multiple daily missions across the English Channel. During this time, he would earn two Air Medals with 11 oak leaf clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. “He told me very little about what he was doing,” Harris said. “There was a lot of censoring of the mail, but I knew he was flying missions.”

By July 1944, Lt. Harris had completed over 60 to 100 missions and was eligible to be sent home. “He wrote to me that he would soon be home. In fact, he had been assigned a place on a returning troop ship only to learn that wounded had priority, and he would have to wait for another ship. I thought it was only a matter of time until he would be able to come home.” The date was July 8, 1944.

In late July, Harris received a telegram stating that her husband was “missing in action” as of July 7, 1944. The telegram would be the first mistake in a long series of errors that would interweave itself into Harris’ 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,” Harris said. “I told them I had a handwritten letter dated July 8, so he couldn’t have been missing on July 7. I didn’t know if the telegraph operator had made a mistake or if it was a mistake at the war department.” Harris subsequently received a second telegram correcting the missing in action date to July 17, 1944.

She was in Colorado at the time, having been convinced by friends that she needed to get away from her job and take a rest. “I was working at the air base while Billie was overseas, and one day, I was taking an instrument panel out of an airplane in which someone had been killed. There was dried blood still on the panel. I just couldn’t do it anymore after that, so I went up to Colorado for a while.”

Later, an official military release was sent to Harris from Supreme Headquarters in 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 on his whereabouts, Harris appealed to the Red Cross for assistance. “I was told not to be concerned, that no doubt he was being ‘processed,’ possibly at some military hospital,” Harris recalled. Lt. Harris’ wife and family were hopeful that would be the case. “Billie’s parents and I choose to believe that he was back in the United States. We were hoping that he was in a hospital somewhere, and maybe just didn’t know who he was or had lost his memory. We had heard of cases like that.”

By March 1945, when no further word came concerning Lt. Harris, his wife again went to the Red Cross and asked if the military hospitals could be contacted. “I was told it was too expensive to launch a search, and they were sure Lt. Harris would soon appear.” Harris next contacted Congressman Ed Gossett in Washington D.C., who in turn sent the information to the International Red Cross in Switzerland. Thereafter began a long series of conflicting reports, including notification that Lt. Harris was missing in action, then killed in action, then again missing in action. It appeared no one could agree on what had happened to the young pilot. In fact, no one seemed to know what had happened.

In 1948, Harris received a government form requesting her to indicate where Lt. Harris’ remains should be interred. “I really didn’t believe they were talking about Billie because we still didn’t know where he was,” she said. In fact, Lt. Harris’ father had been told by a friend in California that he was certain he had spotted the young airmen on an elevator in California.

“Mr. Harris quit his job and went there in hopes that he would find his son. Our thought was maybe he was out there somewhere and had lost his memory.” However, on advice of a lawyer, Harris signed the papers from the military, and this eventually allowed her to receive military benefits, something she had not been able to do until that time. She did not, however, believe that her husband was dead.

“Until his parents died in the 1980’s, they also continued to have hope that their son was alive,” Harris said. And the story might have ended there with Harris never knowing what had happened were it not for a cousin of Lt. Harris who had become intrigued with the situation.

“Billie’s cousin, Alton Harvey, had heard the story of Billie all of his life. He was born after Billie died. He wanted to know what really happened, and after he retired, he began searching for the truth.” During his extensive research over the past few years, Harvey found that some pilots had been buried in France, and he discovered that files were now being made available from the Department of the Army. Initially, however, he was told it would be difficult to access the files because of limited staff. A few days after his inquiry, however, he received a call from Washington D.C., informing him that a Frenchwoman had also been inquiring about the same files some six months earlier. The files had been pulled and were available.

The Frenchwoman, it turns out, was Valerie Quesnel of Les Ventes, France. Quesnel was a board member of the little French town, which in 2004 decided to observe the 60th anniversary of the French liberation. It was during these preparations that the complete story regarding Lt. Harris would come 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 Aerial. 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 had been temporarily buried in another cemetery, then 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.

In 2004, when the small French village of Les Ventes held a ceremony to observe the 60th anniversary of the French liberation, city councilwoman Valerie Quesnel learned that a gravesite in the town cemetery, which was said to have been the original burial location of a Canadian pilot shot down by the Germans during World War II, was actually that of an American fighter pilot from Altus, Okla., named Lt. Billie Dowe Harris.

Quesnel also learned that the pilot’s body had been moved from the town in 1946, although a large marker remained there, and he had been temporarily buried in another cemetery, and then later permanently transferred to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer.

Quesnel made a trip to the Normandy cemetery and confirmed the information. She then began research through the Department of the Army in Alexandria, Va.

In September 2005, Quesnel received over 200 pages of information concerning Lt. Harris. It was about this time that Alton Harvey, a cousin of Lt. Harris who had been doing research on his fate for a number of years, contacted the same department, and also was able to obtain the information.

In October 2005, Harvey and his wife, Gaye, drove from Austin, where they currently reside, to Harris’ home in Vernon to personally present her with the documentation and perhaps the last pieces 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 the 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, documentations 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 southwest 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 codebook. 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 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.

“He wore it as his wedding ring,” Harris explained. “I didn’t have money when we married to buy him a ring.” 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.

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.

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. On the way, they passed through the town of Vernon, France, a coincidence not lost on the travelers. In fact, on their return trip, they would spend a night at a hotel in the town.

In Les Ventes, the group was provided with a house in which to stay, where a hot meal was waiting upon their arrival. American and French flags had been placed by the front door. The kitchen was stocked, and each day, the group was invited to a home of a different councilman for lunch and dinner. “It was just overwhelming, the way in which we were treated,” Harris said.

On a trip to the nearby forest, Harris was at last able to see the site where her husband’s plane had crashed. There she met Guy Surleau of Everux. “He had been a young freedom fighter, and he had actually seen Billie’s plane crash,” Harris said. “He told me he had run up to the plane, saw the pilot was dead and had run back into the forest because he thought the Germans were coming.”

Harris also met B. Frichot, the son of the woman who had given the sheet for Lt. Harris’ burial. “He told me it was only after he read the magazine article that he found out about his mother’s involvement. She had never spoken about it.”

Harris also met a Madame Lorieux, who had heard about Harris through the radio broadcast, and wanted her to know she had been present on the day Lt. Harris was buried in Les Ventes. She gave Harris some small black and white photographs taken on the day showing the burial site piled high with flowers. Harris also received pictures of six young men who had served as pallbearers, and Surleau was able to identify them for Harris. Madame Lorieux also gave Harris a number of other photographs showing Les Ventes and the residents on the day it was liberated.

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 gravesite 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.”

Certificates and proclamations from the Oklahoma Governor’s office, the State of Oklahoma and the City of Altus were presented to Madame Quesnal and others of the city.

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.

“It was very emotional for me,” Harris said.

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.

Harris never remarried. Billie, she said, was the most unusual person she ever knew. She recalled writing poetry in the letters she sent to him while he was overseas. Among the articles she received her after Lt. Harris was originally declared missing in action was a page of poetry in his own handwriting, including the lines by a British Canadian poet, Bliss Carmon: “Lord of the far horizons, give us eyes to see, over the edge of the sundown, the beauty that is to be.”

“We never talked about ‘what if,’” Harris said. “We had friends who got killed. We knew it was possible, but we never wanted to think about it. In his last letter, he was optimistic. He thought he was coming home soon.”

During the ensuing years, Harris lived for a while in Boulder, Colo., where she worked for a mining company, a mineralogist, a surveyor’s office, a savings and loan and the Boulder County Civil Defense as well as the Boulder Valley School District. She also wrote for several publications. She returned to Vernon, and in 1980 she graduated from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls with a major in humanities and a minor in philosophy. She was librarian at Vernon College for a number of years.

As Harris reflected on the past months, she feels overwhelmingly grateful to the people of the small French village who adopted her husband without knowing anything about him, other than he was a young man fighting for freedom. “He is a hero to the people of Les Ventes,” Harris said. “He represents all the young men who gave their lives.” In fact, during the brief time he was in service, Lt. Harris was awarded two Air Medals with 11 Oak Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

Harris finds comfort in words penned in a memory book presented to her in Les Ventes and translated recently by Susan Coker and Mary Neuberger with Kent Butler doing the calligraphy. Many attending the luncheon wrote thanking Harris for her husband’s sacrifice, including these words signed by C. Hardouin:

“I was seven years old in 1944. I was there to see the air battles. I now know everything that this young American’s sacrifice stands for, and I also understand in some small measure all the suffering endured by his young wife.”

The last months have been an emotional experience for Harris, who had preferred to bear her grief in private these past 62 years.

“I don’t want to say this has been closure, because I don’t like that word,” Harris said. “I guess the best way to describe it is ‘relief’ to finally know the entire story, to be able to bring it all together, and to know what really happened.”

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