Peggy and Billie Harris were married for just over six weeks when he was deployed overseas. The two didn’t have much time as newlyweds but were head over heels in love with one another. They met through his father who knew Peggy from her days as an electrical mechanic on a base. He knew as soon as he met her that she would be perfect for his son, and he was right.
Peggy said goodbye to Billie in 1943. She had no idea that his departure would leave her with such doubt, mystery and never-ending questions. When Billie didn’t return home after the war, Peggy got concerned and did whatever she could to get more information about her husband’s whereabouts. The road was not easy and was not short but Peggy ended up getting her answers, many, many years after the fact.
Peggy’s story is a touching and emotional one, proving that love endures in the most unlikely of places and that no matter the odds, it can prevail. This story of Billie and Peggy is intertwined with a small French town that wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Billie, something that Peggy didn’t even know until decades later. Billie touched the lived of thousands of people to date and Peggy is learning all too well who here husband was and how good he could be. Let us take you through this World War II era tale of love, all the way through to today.
The mother of all questions
One of the most ruthless questions you can ask yourself is – what if? There are many people worldwide who ask themselves this question every day, it’s enough to debilitate you. Now think of this question in the form of decades on decades. There was once a couple so madly in love with one another that they married quickly in order to be together forever. Then, one day, the husband was sent to fight the ultimate enemy of the world – Nazi Germany. World War II separated these lovers for far longer than anticipated.
Peggy married Billie Harris over 60 years ago. It was shortly after their wedding that Billie went off to fight in World War II. It was also the last time Peggy ever saw Billie. However, despite the many decades that have gone by, Peggy has remained faithful to Billie, never wavering from her marriage vows no matter how far away Billie was, or how lost he may have been to her. Billie didn’t run away from Peggy, what happened to him is laden with a lot more mystery and doubt.
Billie Harris was a United States Air Force pilot who flew fighter planes during World War II. His fighting location was in the European Theatre. Peggy waited for her husband to come home. When Billie didn’t come home, she decided to take her concerns to her local government representative at the time. Now, remember, there were no cell phones and few land lines back then. Peggy went on a mission to find out where her husband is, she had no idea that her path would cross with another very far away.
Piecing things together
It was only six weeks after Billie and Peggy officially married that he went off to fight the major battle that was World War II. The beauty of this couple is that they never stopped loving one another. Peggy meant every word of her vows and stuck by them through thick and thin. We cannot imagine how difficult it was for Peggy to not know what had happened to her love. In a twist of fate, however, she would get some much needed help from a distant community, help that would give her heart a break.
Peggy was born in Vernon, Texas, a small town on the border between Texas and Oklahoma. Her maiden name was Peggy Seale. Peggy was born in the 20s and was a very independent and strong-headed woman. During the years that followed her high school graduation, Peggy got a job at the Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where she worked as an electrical mechanic. Peggy was the only female employee on that base who worked as a mechanic, something that made her stand out. It was there that Billie’s father noticed her and thought her to be a perfect match for his son.
Altus Air Force Base
The Altus Air Force Base is located in Oklahoma and was initially created to train pilots who were going to be fighting in World War II. Prior to the Air Force Base we are familiar with today, Altus base was part of the United States Military – US Army Air Corps. While Altus remains a pilot training base, it has evolved a great deal and is now the host of the 97th Air Mobility Wing and houses many US war planes.
Like we mentioned earlier, it was Billie’s father who saw Peggy and thought she would be perfect for his son. Billie’s father went up to Peggy and told her to write Billie a letter. Billie was living in San Antonio, Texas at the time. Peggy decided to listen and wrote Billie a letter. Once the first letter was sent, the two became pen pals, pen pals who would fall head over heels for one another. They were writing to each other for months before actually meeting.
First comes love, then comes marriage
One Peggy and Billie met, they were inseparable. The two got engaged shortly after their first meeting and decided on marrying in Florida in 1943. Due to the fact that the couple was not wealthy, to say the least, they exchanged class rings instead of wedding bands as a symbol of their love and matrimony. Peggy, who was never a materialistic woman, was just as happy with his class ring than with a diamond band.
Gone off fighting
After just six short weeks of wedded bliss, Billie was sent off to fight in the European Theatre. Billie was a fighter pilot who had risen to be second lieutenant through his military training at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. When the couple said goodbye on that fateful day, they had no idea the ordeal they would go through. Peggy had no clue as what her future held.
Brooks Air Force Base
Speaking of Brooks Air Force Base, where Billie trained to be the fighter pilot he was, the base has a long history, one that has served the United States greatly. The base was built around the time that the US got involved in the first World War . Once its first phase had gone off without a hitch, the base evolved into a training program for fighter pilots with an emphasis on warplane technology. The base closed in 2011 and the property has since seen a hospital, charter school and part of a university on its grounds.
Last night together
The last night that Peggy and Billie were together was an interesting one. Peggy has since said that the unit, the 354th fighter group, and their wives, were taken to a hotel in Tallahassee, Florida to spend their last night together with a fun get together of everyone. Once the men departed the following morning, the women were asked not to tell anyone that they had gone until they got to their destination safely.
Loose lips sink ships
The reason the military asked the women not to tell anyone that they had left had to do with the fact that there were spies everywhere. During World War II, the phrase ‘loose lips sink ships’ came about, and for good reason. There were German and Japanese spies all over the place and if they got to intel that a fighter group had deployed, they would have struck against them.
One of the last correspondences between Peggy and Billie came when he sent her a message telling her that he arrived in Europe safely. Once Peggy stopped hearing from Billie, and her concern grew, she took her issue to the authorities. In a ridiculous turn of events, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, which was stationed in France, told Peggy that Billie was back in the United States.
Supreme Allied Commanders
“During World War II, the Allied leaders appointed Supreme Allied Commanders to manage the multi-nation, multi-discipline fighting forces for a particular theatre of war. These Supreme Allied Commanders were given operational control over all air, land, and sea units in that theatre. In other cases, senior commanders were given the title Commander-in-Chief.” These were the men who were in charge of telling Peggy that her husband wasn’t even in Europe anymore.
Back in the US?
Needless to say, both Peggy and Billie’s parents were surprised to hear that Billie was back in the United States as no one ever announced this fact to them. They were concerned that Billie was lying in a hospital room being processed and not remembering a thing since they heard of many soldiers who returned home with no recollection of their lives prior to the war. The administration at the time told them that Billie was being processed.
Red Cross denial
At this point, World War II had officially ended. Peggy was waiting to hear from Billie or see him walk up the driveway any day. In order to make some sense of what was going on, Peggy went to the International Red Cross to go over their Prisoners of War and casualty of war list. Billie was not on either one. When Peggy asked them for help, they refused to help her find her husband.
Once she was turned away from the Red Cross, Peggy went elsewhere to get information about her love. Once she started digging she came across a report that shattered her reality – Billie was dead. However, before she could lose it entirely, she found another report stating that he was missing in action. She would continue to find conflicting reports for a while and didn’t know what to believe. She chose to believe that he was alive, though.
Even Congressman Mac Thornberry, the Texas representative in Washington, said that Billie was missing and not dead. However, no one ended up looking into his disappearance carefully. Because the representatives didn’t think it was worth their time to investigate, it was Billie’s cousin, Alton Harvey, who found the files about Billie that were written by the military. For some reason, there was a French woman who asked for Billie’s file too. Representative Thornberry would go on to apologize for being negligent with the case.
Billie’s cousin, Alton, decided to go to the National Archives himself to find the records that refer to his cousin. He thought it would take months to get answers when in fact it would take just a few minutes. As soon as he gave Billie’s name to the secretary, she came back with Billie’s record. The record showed very clearly – Harris Billie D, killed in action. Alton was perplexed as to why the congressman didn’t find the file and give Peggy the information. It ended up being discovered that the congressman never even looked.
Second lieutenant Billie Harris was a decorated war hero for his efforts during World War II. Along with his squadron, he was stationed in Southeast England at a British Royal Air Force base. Billie flew the P-51 Mustang. His missions were to accompany other planes on their mission to bomb Nazi occupied lands throughout the continent. For his efforts, Billie was awarded two Air Medals, 11 Oak Leaf Clusters, and one Distinguished Flying Cross.
The plane that Billie so expertly flew was the P-51 Mustang, as we mentioned previously. The plane was known for being a hard-working piece of machinery that served the US during both World War II and the Korean War. Not only is the plane very fast, but it is also very powerful. There were only 15,000 of these planes made at the time, as they were expertly put together and were the top of the line at the time. If you are a plane fanatic and want your very own P-51 Mustang, you can get one for a mere $1.8 million.
The story of Billie, as it was told, was that while on a routine flight to help other planes bomb Nazi occupied territory in France, Billie’s plane was shot down. The plane was just over the town of Les Ventes, France. Billie died as a result of the crash. However, the townspeople of the small town that he was over have honored his heroism ever since. It was from that town that the French woman who wanted his files came from.
Saving to the very end
Billie’s crash trajectory would have had him land in the middle of the town square. The people watching could clearly see Billie revert the plane towards the nearby woods in order to make sure that he would be the only casualty of this crash. His plane was carrying bombs in addition to the gallons of fuel it needed in order to stay airborne. All of this would have made for quite the explosion. Billie saved the lives on the many men and women who were in the town square area at the time, and they all knew it.
The town was about to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation from the Nazi regime when the decided that they wanted to get to know the pilot who saved their families so many years ago. The woman from the town who was doing the research into Billie’s life was Valerie Quesnal. Valerie was the one who was looking into his files in the archive at the same time as his cousin. When they revisited the information and looked deeper into Billie’s life, they thought he was Canadian initially but later discovered he was American.
The people of the town knew that Billie had another choice but chose to save them than himself. There was a way for Billie to get out of the plane if he would have crashed in the town square. By shifting course towards the woods, Billie eliminated his chance of escape and survival and saved the town at the cost of his own life. The townspeople knew that he had saved them.
Les Ventes’s honor
Many small towns have Main Road as, well, literally the main road in town. The town of Les Ventes changed the name of their main road to Billie’s name in honor of the man who sacrificed his life for theirs. The whole of the town, then and now, know who Billie Harris is and what he did for the people of the town. They wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. The population of this French town knew what had happened to him, but in another town across the globe, Peggy was still wondering.
A beautiful friendship
At the time that Valerie was looking for more information about Billie, she discovered what he left behind when he left for war – Peggy. Valerie was looking for information about Billie around the same time that his cousin was looking into information as to what had happened to him according to records. This combination of events lead to Billie’s cousin giving Peggy Valerie’s information. Peggy wrote Valerie a thank you note for her efforts. The correspondence between the two women lead to a beautiful friendship.
Every year since meeting Valerie and hearing the story of her husband, Peggy goes to that little town in France. Every time she is there she is treated like royalty as she is thought to be the wife of a hero, which she is. There is one member of the townspeople who recalls what had happened that fateful day so many decades prior. On one of Peggy’s visits, they took her to the crash site and told her what they saw. With awe and gratitude towards Billie, even today.
When Billie crashed into the woods, his plane was not on fire yet but Billie was already deceased. Before the Nazis could get to him, a group of French resistance fighters got to Billie. They thought he was a French Canadian as they connected the D in his middle name with Harris, and thought his last name was D’Harris, a French name. Either way, they took his gun and codebook to make sure that the Nazis would not get any intel they could use against them.
The high school ring
When the Nazis found Billie’s body in the plane, they found a lot of things that he had with him. The town kept records at the time, a Mr. Desfriches was the man in charge. He wrote town that the Nazis found Billie’s dog tags that contained his name, address, and ID number. They also found a four lead clover that was encased in a piece of glass. Lastly, he was found wearing Peggy’s high school ring that she gave him as his wedding band.
Funeral and burial
When Billie’s remains were brought into the town, he was buried in the war hero section of the cemetery. His sendoff was quite a sight. The village men and women placed a very large iron cross on his grave, as well as mountains of flowers that were placed there throughout his funeral. There was not a dry eye in the house and a heart not moved by what Billie did for them.
Billie’s remains did not end up staying in the small cemetery in Les Ventes. His remains were moved to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The cemetery is one of the most well-kept and honored cemeteries around. Peggy visits her Billie there as much as she can so she can honor his memory and think of the husband she had for such a short while but impacted so many.
Three times every year, the men and women of the town of Les Ventes march in honor of the brave soldiers and men who fought to keep them safe during World War II. The first march is on the 8th of May, the second march is on the 22nd of August, and the third one is on the 11th of November. Each march has is own meaning but all are for the fallen and commemoration of the Second World War.
Now that Peggy isn’t wondering what happened to her husband anymore, and knows where he is, she visits his grave as frequently as she can. Those who take care of the American Cemetery in Normandy say that his grave is the one that is decorated with flowers the most out of all of the grave stones. Peggy sends Billie flowers at least 10 times a year, commemorating special occasions and holidays. Whether she does it for him or for her is not important, the fact that her love endured is what is.
With a story such as Peggy and Billie’s, it’s no surprise that American television wanted to feature their tale to the American public. In 2012, CBS News ran a segment about Billie and Peggy on their show On The Road. The host of the show, Steve Hartman, went to Peggy and Billie’s family in Texas in order to interview them for the segment. The segment also followed Peggy on one of her many trips to France.
When something is shown to the public, there is always bound to be many comments. Most of the people who saw the segment about the Harris’s were moved to tears. Peggy’s love and devotion to her husband is something no one sees anymore today. However, there were also those who questioned by Peggy couldn’t move on and how unhealthy it was for her to cling to her hope for the rest of her life.
Remember how we told you the Peggy’s representative in Washington, Mac Thornberry, didn’t end up doing anything regarding the investigation of Billie’s disappearance? Well, he issued an official apology where he said, “…a personal apology for the mishandling of this sensitive matter and for any distress she has suffered as a result.” Some consider this too little too late, most people didn’t think him sincere and were furthermore insulted on Peggy’s behalf.
CBS vs. Thornberry
There was a mess between CBS News and the office of congressman Thornberry. One alleges that they sent information to the other while the other one denies everything. Thornberry said that any information he got from Peggy and about Billie was considered classified when in fact he didn’t end up looking into anything and was caught in a lie. The back and forth between the news outlet and the government office continued on for a while.
Many years after Billie was a part of Altus Air Force base and had fallen in World War II, Peggy was invited to receive a posthumous honor on behalf of her husband. The commander of the 97th Operations Group honored Billie for his service and gave Peggy a folded flag as a token of their gratitude for his service. Although it has been many years, this honor was a touching one.
Peggy never got to see Billie again, but until the moment she knew for certain that he had passed, and even afterwards, she was a devoted loving wife. Knowing that Billie is gone has given her closure in a way, removing the hope but also the doubt. The love she feels for Billie has sustained her throughout her own life, something as rare as can be these days.