They married on Sept. 22, 1943
Six short weeks later he left to fight for freedom during World War II.
“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.'”
Peggy Harris never saw her husband again. His last mission was flown July 17, 1944. The young newlywed was shot down over the small town of Les Ventes. But that wasn’t the end of the story, nor was it the end of his contribution to the lives of others. But the young wife knew nothing of what became of her husband until more than 60 years later.
“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.”
The next thing Peggy received was a telegram telling her that her husband was missing in action as of July 7, 1944. She disputed the date, because Harris had written her a letter dated July 8. The date was later amended to July 17, but questions still remained. Through the years, Peggy received many reports in answer to her letters requesting information about her husband. Missing?Deceased? No, just missing? Well, maybe they just didn’t seem to know what became of Lt. Billie D. Harris. No one had the answers she sought. But still she wrote – letter after letter seeking the answers she knew were out there somewhere.
What did happen to Lt. Billie D. Harris?
All his life, Alton Harvey had heard stories of his cousin, Billie D. Harris. The story was that Harris had married a girl from Vernon, OK and then went off to war, never to return. Harris had written home often enough to leave a written legacy that made him a legend in his cousin’s eyes. In stories retold by an uncle, Harvey knew his cousin had been a hero.
In 2005, Harvey began to sort out the information available in an attempt to find out exactly what had happened to his long lost cousin. He knew that Harris’ widow, Peggy Harris, had never remarried and that she never really received an answer about her husband from the Army.
Harvey discovered that Harris was actually buried in the military cemetery in Normandy, France, and had been there since 1948. Curious about the four years between his last mission and his final resting in Normandy, Harvey dug deeper. He contacted the Army and received a file of paperwork about an inch and a half thick. It contained information in French, German, and English, and chronicled the events beginning July 17, 1944.
After being shot down, the mortally wounded pilot fought his damaged airplane’s controls and managed to steer his plane away from the tiny town of Les Ventes, saving countless lives that may have been lost with the crash. He managed to crash his plane into the nearby wooded area.
“Billie D. Harris’s fighter plane was shot down while flying above Les Ventes. Despite his mortal injuries and the plane’s damaged condition, Billie was able to maintain control of the aircraft just long enough to avoid crashing into the village. This act of bravery was so heartfelt among the town that even after 60 years, Billie D. Harris is a true hero to them – so much so that the Mayor of town gets choked up just mentioning his name.”
A young freedom fighter, Guy Surleau of Everux, was among a group of young men that ran to the aircraft only to discover that the pilot had not survived. They thought they heard the approach of German soldiers and ran for cover. The townsfolk never forgot that sacrifice of that American pilot. They later recovered articles from the aircraft that identified the pilot as Billie D. Harris. Creeping around behind the backs of the German soldiers occupying their tiny town they quietly buried the brave flyer in the local cemetery with an oak casket and a mound of flowers 2 feet tall.
A town in France celebrates an American hero
Three times a year since that fateful day, the people of Les Ventes have remembered that pilot and the others that died to save them from German occupation. They gather May 8 to celebrate the victory in Europe; Aug. 22 to celebrate the day Les Ventes was liberated; and each Nov. 11, to commemorate the end of the war. They march down a street named Place Billie D. Harris, named after the pilot they never met in person.
After more than 60 years of patience and the helpful investigation of cousin Alton Harvey and Valerie Quesnel, a city commissioner in the small town of Les Ventes, Peggy Harris finally knows what happened to her husband. She has been to the small town of Les Ventes several times since her first visit in 2006. She met the only living witness to the air fight, Guy Surleau, no longer a young freedom fighter, but a 91-year-old man with a still vivid memory of that day. She visits her husband’s gravesite in Normandy annually and is the only WWII widow to visit the cemetery in the last many years. She has arranged for flowers to be placed on Harris’ grave site several times a year, making his the most well-decorated grave site in the entire cemetery.
“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.”
Billie Harris was a hero. Peggy Harris always knew that. Alton Harvey was always told that. The people of Les Ventes always celebrated that. And now you know that.
Photos courtesy of 354th Pioneer Mustang Fighter Group and Valerie Quesnel
Marty Townsend is an activist at heart. A lifelong writer, she concentrates her journalistic efforts on human interest, liberal politics, Michigan, educational and environmental issues. She is an active volunteer with the PTA, currently serving as?President of her local District PTA Council. She also stays busy volunteering as a youth softball coach for the summer league in her community and participates in Relay for Life. Marty frequently sports a near-shaved head?as a way to?support of all women experiencing hair loss for any reason. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.
edited by tw