Woman discovers WWII pilot husband is praised as hero by French village 67 years after his death
Losing a loved one to war, as many did during the Second World War, is a terrible thing. But what's far worse is living in uncertainty, not knowing exactly what happened.
Six weeks after Peggy and Billie Harris, of Vernon, Texas, got married, he was shipped off to war, never to return. The First Lieutenant was one of the American soldiers who fought to liberate France from the Nazis, but after his disappearance his wife was given no clue as to what had happened.
It turns out that the fighter pilot was shot down and killed during his final mission on July 7, 1944 over Nazi-occupied northern France, but she didn't know this until 67 years later.
Due to a bureaucratic nightmare, this information never reached her. She spent years sending letters to her congressman with no success. At one point, she was told he was alive. Then she was told he was buried at one cemetery. Then she was told that those remains may not be him at all. In 2005, her congressman told her he was "still listed as 'missing in action' in the National Archives."
Regardless, Peggy decided not to remarry.
"Billie was married to me all of his life," she told CBS Evening News. "And I choose to be married to him all of my life."
However, 67 years after he disappeared, her cousin went through the official channels to request his military record to find out the truth once and for all. It turned out that he was listed as "killed in action," and there were no records of her congressman even looking into her husband's fate.
When she was asked how she felt about this fact, she said we all "have to learn to be forgiving".
But Peggy still had some things to learn. While Billie meant a lot to her, she had no idea that he also meant a lot to the town of Les Ventes, France, where his plane was shot down. In this small town, the main road is called Place Billie D. Harris, in honor of his actions. And three times a year for the last six decades, the townsfolk have been walking down to his grave to lay flowers and commemorate his sacrifice.
"When people speak of closure, they are people that haven't experienced anything like this," Peggy said.
They buried Billie in their local cemetery and covered the grave with flowers. Eventually his body was moved to the American cemetery at Normandy, but the residents still left flowers on his grave to pay their respects. Since learning this, Peggy has been making an annual pilgrimage to the nearby woods where the plane went down, escorted by the last living witness of Billie's crash.
According to the 91-year-old Guy Surleau, "Billie was able to maintain control of the plane despite his condition, and avoid the village."
"How can I not be grateful and hold these people very dear," Peggy said, after meeting the town and hearing them speak of her husband with such respect. However, Guy still wishes he could have done more.
"If only I was able to help", Guy said, according to CBS News.
"You did", Peggy told him.
"I like to think that he was still conscious enough to know that a friend stood by him," Peggy said, sobbing, as she stood beside Guy in the forest. "And that this man is that friend."
"We don't forget," the mayor told her, and Peggy echoed her words, "They don't forget."
As well as her annual pilgrimage, Peggy sends flowers to his grave in the American cemetery 10 times a year to keep the grave in full bloom. Thankfully, she finally learned of Billie's fate, and was able to share her grief with the town of Les Ventes.