A WWII Widow Found Her Husband’s Normandy Resting Place 60 Years After He Vanished

It took more than six decades for Peggy Harris to learn the truth about her missing husband, but she never once wavered in her commitment to him. “Billie was married to me all of his life,” she told CBS News in 2012. “And I choose to be married to him all of my life.”

In fact, it took years of bureaucratic confusion before the facts concerning Billie’s disappearance came to light. Moreover, when they did – no thanks to a local congressman – Peggy found herself bound to a destination on the other side of the world. Billie’s fate, it transpired, was inextricably tied to far-off lands.

Indeed, Billie and Peggy’s story illustrates how love can forge an unbreakable bond which transcends time and space. They were separated just six weeks after taking their marriage vows. Yet their rare and remarkable story is so entwined with the history of one community that it will certainly outlive them both.

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Peggy Seale was born in Vernon, Texas, in the 1920s. When she met Billie Harris at the age of 18, she was working at the Altus Oklahoma Air Force Base as an electrical instrument mechanic. In fact, she was the only female mechanic on the base. And it was through Billie’s father, an assistant supervisor in the propeller department, that they first met.

Speaking to a website dedicated to the memory of the U.S. Air Force’s 354th Fighter Group, Peggy recalled how Billie’s dad was eager for them to get acquainted. “He kept telling me about his son, who was stationed in San Antonio,” she said. “He wanted us to meet.” In fact, Billie was then based at Brooks Air Field, where he was training as an Army Air Corp flying cadet.

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Since Billie was living some distance away, the pair “met” through the mail in the first instance. Indeed, they wrote letters and corresponded for several months. Their acquaintance developed into a friendship, and soon the pair were romantically involved. To use the old-fashioned parlance of the day, they started courting.

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Courtship led to engagement, and Peggy Seale then married Billie Harris in Florida on September 22, 1943. They were poor – so poor, in fact, that Peggy didn’t have enough money to buy Billie a wedding ring. Instead, she gave him her Vernon High School class ring. But money hardly matters when you’re young and in love.

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The couple then hoped to take their honeymoon during a fortnight-long leave period, but this was not to be. After a ship carrying American pilots was destroyed in a torpedo attack, Billie – now a fully trained second lieutenant – was called to serve in World War II. The couple had been wed for just six weeks when they were forced to separate.

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Of course, the specter of World War II had loomed over their relationship from the outset. Since 1939, in fact, armed conflict had spread around the world, pitting the Allied forces of the United Kingdom, China and the Soviet Union against the Axis forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. For its part, the United States had joined the Allies in 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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By 1943 there were signs that the Allies might just prevail. In Italy, Mussolini had been forced from power. In North Africa, British and American troops had routed Axis occupiers. In Russia, the Soviet Union had emerged victorious in the Battle of Stalingrad. And an Allied land invasion of Europe – the so-called D-Day landings – was poised to take place the following year. It was at this crucial juncture that Billie was posted overseas.

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Peggy later recalled this time to the 354th Fighter Group website. “[Billie’s] group was all taken to Tallahassee, and the wives were taken there to a huge hotel,” she said. “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.”

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Lieutenant Billie Harris did arrive safely in Europe – but Peggy would tragically never see him again. What’s more, the reason why it took so long for the truth about his fate to later emerge is that the authorities committed a series of errors. For starters, a telegram was dispatched to Peggy claiming that her husband was “missing in action.”

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At this point, Peggy was living in Colorado, unable to work at the airbase. She told the 354th Fighter Group website, “I was working at the airbase 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.”

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However, some time after she received the telegram, she received different information from the U.S. Supreme Headquarters in Allied France (SHEAF). Billie Harris, claimed the military release, was on leave and had gone back to the United States. Neither Peggy nor anyone in Billie’s family had received word from the man himself, but the news gave them hope. False hope, as it turned out.

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“I was told not to be concerned, that no doubt he was being ‘processed,’” Peggy recalled. “Billie’s parents and I chose 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.”

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But Billie, it turned out, had never actually gone home at all. And so in March 1945 Peggy started making inquiries with the International Red Cross. This group, however, refused to launch an official search – but it wasn’t long before new details began emerging. Unfortunately, the information was often contradictory.

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Billie was missing in action, said one report. A subsequent account claimed that he’d been killed. The next report again stated that he was missing. Yet another said that he was dead. And what’s more, this went on for decades. Indeed, even as late as 2005, Peggy’s congressman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, incorrectly asserted that Billie was missing in action.

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However, it appears that Rep. Thornberry didn’t even conduct a basic search of the National Archives. He did eventually apologize for “mishandling” the case. Instead, it was Billie’s cousin, Alton Harvey, who finally uncovered the truth when he accessed some files held by the Department of the Army. What’s more, it turned out that a Frenchwoman had requested the exact same files just six months earlier.

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According to the files, Lieutenant Billie Harris had been posted to southeast England, where he was assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron. Operating a P-51 Mustang, he flew daily missions across the English Channel and supported Allied bombers on their raids. His service led to him being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals with 11 oak leaf clusters.

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Moreover, Billie had completed nearly a hundred missions as of July 1944, entitling him to return home. He wrote to Peggy to tell her the good news. However, as fate would have it, his assigned ship didn’t have the capacity for him due to a high number of wounded troops. Consequently, Billie and Peggy’s reunion would have to wait. Meanwhile, Billie continued flying missions.

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Tragically, Billy’s plane was then shot down over some woods near the town of Les Ventes in northern France. He died in the crash, but the town has been honoring his memory ever since. Indeed, Les Ventes was the hometown of the Frenchwoman who had requested files on Billie in 2004.

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The Frenchwoman’s name was Valerie Quesnel. As a local councilor, she had been seeking information about Billie for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Les Ventes. For years, the town had believed that the brave fighter pilot they had once buried in their cemetery was a Canadian called Lt. Billie D’Harris.

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Under the impression that Billie had been Canadian, the council invited French diplomats in Canada to attend their 2004 remembrance ceremony. However, when René Huard, the president of the Normandy Association for the Remembrance of Aerial, read an article about the event, he suspected that Billie had, in fact, been American. He immediately contacted the council.

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Alerted to the error, Quesnel then began conducting research into Billie. She eventually contacted the U.S. Department of the Army, and they gave her a cache of documents that ran to 200 pages. Six months later, the same documents were obtained by Peggy’s cousin, Harvey. And they contained a wealth of detail about Billie, his service and, ultimately, his death.

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Unbeknownst to Peggy, her husband had managed to avert a catastrophe by crashing his damaged plane away from the town’s populated areas. He could have ejected and saved his own life, but he chose not to. His extraordinary courage and selflessness saved many lives. And his sacrifice has never been forgotten by Les Ventes.

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Among the cache of documents was a letter from Monsieur Desfriches, then the mayor of Les Ventes. Dated July 20, 1944, the letter described how the Germans had taken a tag from the pilot which bore his name, ID number and parental address. The letter also described a “kitten” ring inscribed with the words “Vernon HS” and “PLS.”

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This ring, in fact, was the high school band that Peggy had given to Billie on the day of their wedding. Apparently, the mayor kept it and tried to send it back to the family, along with two photographs retrieved from the crash site. Sadly, however, the ring vanished after being received by the U.S. military.

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Nonetheless, the files brought long overdue closure to Peggy, who had been pining for her lost husband for more than six decades. Among the documents were the contact details of Quesnel, who she immediately reached out to. Grateful to the people of Les Ventes, Peggy thanked them for their kindness.

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In a letter to the town, Peggy 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.” So began a correspondence that eventually led to Peggy visiting France with Alton and Gaye Harvey.

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After arriving at Charles Gaulle Airport in Paris, Peggy and her party were met by Quesnal, who drove them to Les Ventes. The party lodged in a local house, well-stocked with food and decorated in French and American flags. On each day, Peggy and her family received an invitation to dine at the home of a different councilor.

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During her stay, Peggy also visited the forest where her husband’s plane had crashed. She was accompanied by 91-year-old Guy Surleau, the sole living witness to the event. According to Surleau – who was at that time a young fighter in the French resistance – Billie had managed to steer his plane clear of the village despite sustaining significant damage.

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In fact, Billie’s plane crashed in the woods at around 7 P.M. on July 17, 1944. And prior to the arrival of German troops, Surleau and his comrades were the first on the scene. They saw that Billie had not made it. But his flight jacket, they observed, bore the words “Billie D. Harris,” which they read as “Billie D’Harris.” This led to the incorrect assumption that he was Canadian.

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Standing next to Peggy in the woods, Surleau wished that he had been able to help in some way. Peggy replied that he had. According to CBS News, she told him, “I like to think that [Billie] was still conscious enough to know that a friend stood by him. And that this man is that friend.”

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Billie’s body was later pulled from the wreck by the residents of Les Ventes. He was cloaked in a sheet donated by one Madame Frichot – whose son Peggy met in person – and interred in a flower-festooned coffin made of oak. Then, on July 19, 1944, he was buried in a cemetery alongside other war heroes. Around 70 people were in attendance.

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One of them, Madame Lorieux, also contacted Peggy during her visit. She passed her some photos of the grave – taken on the day of the funeral – which showed it steeped in floral tributes. She also gifted images of the pallbearers, as well as some other pictures of Les Ventes on the day it was freed from German occupation.

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Peggy then joined around 300 individuals at a war memorial at Les Ventes city hall. Here, the names of war heroes and martyrs are inscribed in stone. Mayor Fessard solemnly recited them. Then, the party moved to the town cemetery in order to participate in a ceremony honoring the war dead.

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In fact, the ceremony echoed a ritual that had been conducted three times annually since France’s liberation 60 years ago. In Les Ventes, the first day of remembrance is May 8 – the day of Allied victory in Europe. The second is August 22, which is the day of Les Ventes’ liberation. The third is November 11, which represents the close of World War II.

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Speaking to CBS, Peggy expressed her heartfelt gratitude. “How can I not be grateful and hold these people very dear?” she said. Indeed, the feeling is apparently mutual. For not only have the citizens of Les Ventes remembered and honored Billie for more than 60 years, they even named a road after him – “Place Billie D. Harris.”

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Today, Billie’s remains have been moved to a grave in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It is, according to CBS News, “the most decorated grave in all of Normandy.” Indeed, Peggy periodically visits the cemetery and is thought to be the last widow who still does so. She also makes pilgrimages to the woods where Billie’s plane crashed.

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Nothing can ever make up for six decades of uncertainty, but at least Peggy now has some answers. “When people speak of closure, they are people who have never experienced anything like this,” she said. Indeed, her loyalty and devotion over the years have perhaps been as heroic as the actions of the man she continues to love.

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