The story of the vanishing husband

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What if the person you love and who loves you back is captured in war, missing in action, and you have no idea whether or not they are even alive? Do you move on with your life and try to find new love? Or do you wait and hope your love comes back to you? The following is the story of a woman whose love went off to battle and never returned. For sixty years, she had no idea what happened to him. But when she found him, her heart melted all over again.


What if?

Imagine you are a young couple in love. You have just gotten married, and you are on top of the world with the love of your life – your soulmate. But then, your soulmate needs to leave to go off and fight the most evil empire the world has ever seen – the Nazis. How would you feel? And is it better having him come back a changed man from the one you loved, or better to have him die a war hero? What if there was something in between?

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The disappearing

It has been more than 60 years since Peggy Harris married her husband Billie, and approximately that long since she has seen or heard from him. However, despite the lack of contact, Peggy remained faithful to Billie all of her life, and has always considered herself married to Billie. No, this is not a case of a man getting cold feet and running, but a case of something much more deep and mysterious.

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Fate takes its turn

Peggy’s husband was a pilot in the United States Air Force during World War II who fought in the European theatre. When her husband did not return home, and due to the fact that there were very few phones and no cell phones at the time, Peggy began to get worried. So she elicited the help of her local government representative. However, little did Peggy know that her fate was tied to a place an ocean away.

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Fighting tyranny

Just six weeks after Billie and Peggy tied the knot, Billie went off to defend the free world from Nazi oppression. However, Billie and Peggy never stopped loving each other, and they always stayed true to their vows. It must have been difficult having no idea what happened to her husband. However, with the help of one far off community, Peggy was finally able to piece her heart back together once again.

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The only female mechanic

Peggy Harris, born Peggy Seale, originally hailed from Vernon, Texas located right on the Texas-Oklahoma border. Born in the 1920s, by the time Peggy was 18 she was working at the Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, employed there as an electrical mechanic for various instruments. She happened to be the only woman working as a mechanic on the entire base, and she caught the eye of Billie’s father, who thought she would be perfect for his son.

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Altus Air Force Base

Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma was originally built in order to train pilots heading out into the World War II meat grinder. In fact, before there was an air force, the United States Military had what was called the US Army Air Corps. Altus is still a pilot training base, but is now host to the 97th Air Mobility Wing and comprises of C-17 Globemaster II’s as well as KC-135 Stratotankers. The base is strategically located in the center of the country, enabling it to transport equipment or refuel planes going anywhere at a moment’s notice.

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The courtship begins

Billie’s father was an assistant supervisor who specialized in propeller maintenance. He told Peggy to write a letter to his son who was living in San Antonio, Texas at the time. She took a chance and wrote, and the two at first became pen pals, and then eventually fell in love with each other. Their courtship lasted several months before the two were finally able to meet each other in person.

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The one

They met each other in person and knew that they had each found the one. Peggy and Billie would go on to get engaged, and then the two had a destination wedding in Florida in 1943. However, the couple were extremely poor and did not even have enough money for a wedding ring. So instead, Billie and Peggy exchanged high school class ring as a wedding band. To Peggy the ring was just a symbol, and she was happy to have it.

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Off to war

And yet, despite only being together for six very short weeks, the two newlyweds would have to split up from one another. Billie had just completed his fighter pilot’s training course at the United States Army Air Corps which was in Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Billie had risen to the rank of second lieutenant and was sent off to go and fight against the Nazis in the European Theatre.

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Historic Brooks Air Force Base

Despite the fact that Brooks Air Force Base closed down at the beginning of the decade, the base has a very long and storied history. It was first built at the beginning of the United States’s entry into World War I in order to train pilots to bomb German trenches. It then evolved to become a fighter pilot’s school as warplane technology improved. Since the base has closed a charter school, hospital, and Texas A&M satellite campus have opened up.

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Sworn to secrecy

Peggy told her story to a website which was created in order to memorialize Billie’s unit, the 354th fighter group. She says that Billie’s group was taken to Tallahassee, Florida, and all of the wives were taken to a huge hotel for one last night with their husbands. She then says that the men were called up and taken, but they were told not to say anything about their husbands being sent away until they received word that their husbands had arrived safely.

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Loose lips

We all know the phrase “loose lips sink ships,” but what does this actually mean? And why did it matter? Well, during World War II the United States was crawling with German and Japanese spies (and our spies were all over Germany). So, because it was impossible to know who was a spy out to attack US servicemen before they reach the front, the US government told Americans to not talk about troop deployments until their loved ones had crossed the ocean.

The last correspondence

While the ship that was carrying Lieutenant Billie Harris indeed arrived safely in Europe, the message of her husband’s safe arrival would be one of the last correspondences that Peggy would have with him. After he went silent, Peggy tried and tried again to get any sort of information from the authorities. But, after a while, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force which was located in France said that Billie was back in the United States.

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Supreme Allied Commanders

Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force was the headquarters of the Allied forces in Europe in World War II. However, when the United States first entered the war, the Headquarters wasn’t even in a position to deal with Europe, as it was almost entirely controlled by the Nazis. Instead, the Headquarters was interested in kicking the Nazis out of Africa, mainly Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and even Egypt.

ca. 1944 --- General Dwight D. Eisenhower is shown with his staff. Left to right, seated: Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder, General Eisenhower and General Sir Bernard Montgomery. Left to right, standing: Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory and Lieutenant General W. Bedell Smith. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Is he home?

Peggy said in an interview that she was told that there was no reason for her to be concerned over her husband’s lack of notification of his arrival back in the United States. She was told that he was simply being processed. Peggy and Billie’s parents thought that he was maybe lying in some hospital somewhere in America, and that he just had lost his memory, as both she and the family were aware of people who had lost their memory in the war.

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No help from the Red Cross

Peggy Harris was patiently waiting for any word from Billie. After all, the war had ended and Billie still had not returned home to his love. Out of concern and a sense of duty, Peggy went to the International Red Cross to see if Billie had turned up on any casualty or Prisoner of War lists. The Red Cross was extremely unhelpful, even straight out refusing to launch an investigation to find Peggy’s husband.

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Dead or missing?

Peggy then tried elsewhere to get information about her lost husband. She came across a report which broke her heart. It said that her dearly beloved had been killed in action. But then she came across another report which raised her spirits and said that her husband was missing in action, giving her the hope that he was still alive. Then reports he was dead. And another that he was missing. Even Congressman Mac Thornberry, Peggy’s representative in Washington, said he was missing.

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Government failings

However, it seems that the Representative of the Texas 13th congressional district either did not have time or did not care to actually look into the case. Had he had the will or the time, he would have sent staff researchers to the National Archives. Instead, it was Billie’s cousin Alton Harvey who discovered the Department of Army files on his brother. Interestingly, a French woman also requested the files. Rep. Thornberry has since apologized for neglecting the case.

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The easiest missing persons case ever

When Alton went to the National Archives to search for information on his cousin, he assumed that it would take months of detective work to find him and his records. However, he just needed to wait mere minutes while the secretary went into the back and fished out Billie’s records. And there it was; Billie Harris – killed in action. Alton wondered why the congressman was unable to find this file. It turns out the congressman had never even looked into the case.

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Decorated hero

The Department of Army files on Lieutenant Billie Harris stated that he, along with his 354th fighter squadron, had been posted to a British Royal Air Force base in the Southeast of England. He was a P-51 Mustang pilot who was flying escort missions for allied bombers going to bomb anyone and anything in Nazi occupied territory. He was an outstanding flyer, earning two Air Medals, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and 11 oak leaf clusters.

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The P-51

Billie’s plane, the P-51 Mustang, was the main workhorse of the United States Army Air Corps in World War II and even in the Korean War. This plane was fast and packed quite a punch, and was great for chasing Nazi birds away from our bombers. With 15,000 of these planes made, there are still plenty around today, and for a measly $1.8 million, you too can own and even fly your very own.

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Shot down

Billie was a brave pilot and continued to escort bombers on their way to bomb towns and villages in Nazi Occupied France. It was on one such mission that his plane was shot down by enemy fire over the woods close to the tiny village of Les Ventes, France. He died in the crash, and the members of this tiny hamlet 80 miles outside of Paris had been honoring Billie ever since. In fact, the French woman who was asking about Billie came from the town.

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Saving the town

In fact, people were able to clearly see the pilot as he was going down, and were watching as the plane seemed to be aiming straight at the town’s main square full of people. It would have been a tragedy, with a crash with the force of a bomb killing not only Billie but countless towns people as well. But they saw Billie bank to the side and steer his falling plane to the uninhabited woods away from the village.

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Canadian?

It came to light that the name of the woman was Valerie Quesnal, and her hometown of Les Ventes had been gearing up for the 60th anniversary celebrations of liberation from Nazi rule. As part of this, the town wanted to know more about the man whom they claimed saved their town. They at first believed that he was a Canadian pilot, but had come to learn that Billie was, in fact, American.

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Saved the town

There was good reason that the town had always celebrated their hero pilot’s memory. As Billie’s plane was falling out of the sky after presumably being hit by Nazi anti-aircraft weapons, according to eyewitnesses, Billie did actually have a chance to save himself and ditch his aircraft unharmed. However, his plane was on a collision course with the town’s main square. Instead of having his plane crash and kill innocents while he lived, Billie aimed the plane for the woods, dying in the process.

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Les Ventes’s adopted son

The villagers of Les Ventes were so grateful to Billie that they unofficially adopted him as one of their own. Due to the fact that he gave his life (and his plane) to save the town, they actually named their main road after him. Everyone in the town knows who Billie is and the story of his final moments on earth. It is incredible that Billie was revered in one town, while in another town a half a world away, no one knew what had happened to him.

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Beginning of a friendship

When Les Ventes Councilwoman Valerie Quesnel was looking for information on the downed fighter who saved her town she had no idea that it would lead her to meeting the hero’s wife. A few weeks after Quesnel was looking into Billie Harris’s records, Harris’s cousin came searching and discovered that Quesnel was also looking at the files. He found her information and gave it to Peggy. Peggy wrote to Quesnel to thank her, and that kicked off a lifelong friendship.

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The landing site

Peggy goes back to the town approximately every year where she is treated like a queen. There is currently one last man who remembers watching Billie’s last moments alive as he steered his plane clear of the town. They walk to the spot where Billie’s plane crashed together and, with tears in his eyes, recalls how Billie saved the small village in his final seconds.

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First found by the partisans

A trove of documents were uncovered in the town relating to Billie. It turns out that French resistance fighters were able to beat the Nazis to the crash site, and discovered that despite the plane not burning, the pilot, Billie, was dead. They saw that is said “Billie D Harris” on his jacket and assumed it said Billie D’Harris, which sounded like a French Canadian name to them. The partisans took his handgun and codebook and, upon hearing the Nazis approaching, fled into the woods.

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Faithful to the end

When Billie’s body and wreckage was found by the Nazis they discovered a lot of items on his body. According to records kept by the mayor of Les Ventes at the time, Mr. Desfriches, the Nazis found Billie’s ID tag which had his ID number, name, and home address, along with a four leaf clover encased in glass. They also found him wearing a ring with a kitten on it. That was Peggy’s high school ring that she gave Billie on their wedding day.

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Heaps of flowers

When Billie’s remains were officially interred, they were buried in the village cemetery at Les Ventes in the war heroes section. A giant iron cross dominated his grave, and people from all around came to his funeral. The villagers were in fact so grateful that they even put a pile of flowers over two feet tall on his grave. There are very few people in this world who would be able to elicit that kind of a send off.

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Normandy

Billie’s remains, which were interred in the town’s cemetery, have since been moved to a new plot in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It is one of the most decorated graves in the entirety of the cemetery, and Peggy even comes back to France from her small town in Texas to pay her respects to her long lost husband. She also goes to the woods where her husband’s plane fell out of the sky.

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Marching in his honor

The village marches to commemorate Billie and their other fallen comrades who took up the fight against the Nazis three times every year. They first march on May 8th to commemorate the Allied victory in Europe and absolute surrender of the Nazis, they march on August 22nd, which is the day that the town was liberated by the Allies from the hands of the Germans, and they march again on November 11th.

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Visiting her husband

Now that Peggy knows where her husband’s grave is, she visits constantly, and will even leave flowers on his grave in the American Cemetery in Normandy. Due to the internet, she is able to ship flowers out to the grave. She sends them about 10 times a year. She sends them for his birthday, Valentines Day, Memorial Day, their wedding anniversary, Christmas, and other important days of the year. It is the grave with the most decorations on it in the entire cemetery.

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Going on CBS

Back in 2012, CBS News decided to run a segment on Peggy and her family on their famous On The Road program with Steve Hartman. In this two part story, Hartman goes to the family while still in Texas and interviews them about their incredible story. The second part of the segment, broadcasted the next day, shows Peggy in France at the village that her husband saved. The story ran to commemorate 70 years since the D-Day landings.

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Comments

The CBS story itself is on YouTube, and of course, the video is exploding with comments. Many of the people who watched the story were moved to tears by the beauty of a woman remaining so faithful to her husband. However, not all were as supportive as they were incredulous at the fact that Peggy did not move on. Still others were even angrier at the congressman who failed in his duties and who essentially brushed Peggy off.

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A congressman’s apology

Congressman Mac Thornberry, who represents Peggy’s district in Washington, DC finally decided to apologize for not looking into the matter of the status of her husband only following a report on the issue by CBS Nightly News. When the congressman did finally apologize, he just sent her off a quick message on social media. No phone call, no letter, just a quick little apology on social media. It’s not like she waited her entire life to find out about her husband…

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Reporting the full story?

Meanwhile, after CBS News ran a segment on Peggy and her missing husband and the news agency contacted the office of Texas 13th District Representative Mac Thornberry, the congressman sent a written statement to the station. In it, the congressman asserted that no comment was made to CBS about the inquiry as all constituent inquiries are kept confidential. The office then goes on to allege that Thornberry’s office sent a message to this effect to CBS, but that the station chose to hide it.

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Posthumous award

A few years ago Peggy was invited to a ceremony at Vernon High School in her hometown of Vernon, TX. It was there that the Honor Guard from Altus Air Force Base, the Altus Blue Knights, held a flag folding ceremony in honor of her fallen husband. The ceremony was conducted by Col. Ted Detwiler, who is the commander of the 97th Operations Group which is based out of Altus.

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True closure

While nothing can make up for the lifetime of pain, hope, and uncertainty Peggy felt over those six long decades, Peggy feels that she has both answers, and most importantly, closure. It is incredible that Peggy Harris truly devoted her life to a man not knowing if she would ever see him again. But perhaps that is love – that magical emotion which enables you to do the craziest of things.

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