LAST SUMMER IN ALTUS
It was the spring of 1941 and the only son of Virgil and Nell Harris, Billie Dowe, had just graduated from Altus High School. War was raging in Europe but that was a long way from southwest Oklahoma and the Harris family. Within a year their lives would change forever.
The Japanese attacked in December that year and by the following summer Billie was an Army Air Corp flying cadet. He was sent to San Antonio, Texas for flight training. In 1943, after earning his second lieutenant commission and his pilot wings, he was posted in Florida for advance flight training.
During this time he returned home to Altus and married his sweetheart Peggy Seale of Vernon, Texas. The newlywed's time together was cut short when a troop ship full of trained aircrew members was sunk by a U-boat in the Atlantic and Billie's flight training in Florida was curtailed to rush his class of desperately needed new pilots to England in October of 1943.
He was assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron stationed at Greenham Common Air Base in southeast England. He qualified in the P-51 Mustang, which was one of the newest fighters in the inventory in 1943, and started flying bomber support missions into the heart of Germany. In April of 1944 the 355th moved to Boxted, England and continued escorting raids into Germany.
But the mission changed for the 355th with the invasion of Normandy, France. The fighters were now attacking ground targets, such as railroads and army convoys. Now First Lieutenant Harris was flying multiple daily strafing missions across the English Channel to support the Allied move off the beaches of Normandy. On 18 June 1944, the 355th moved to Cricqueville, France and set up flying operations from a dirt runway in the French countryside.
Billie had flown his required missions and was supposed to be on a ship home to the States, but with all the wounded there was little room to spare for a healthy fighter pilot. So he stayed in France and kept flying the low level strafing runs.
He had to shift from the P51 in the middle of air battlefield and start flying the P-47 Thunderbolt. Who knows if this played a part in Billie's July 17, 1944 mission. Of the 100 planes that went out that day, his P-47 never returned to base. Peggy Harris was notified that Billie was missing in action.
The Army did not know what had happened to the aircraft. No one in the US or Allied military saw the plane crash. The Germans saw the plane go down and so did the local French. The P-47 fighter set down in the woods outside of Lesventes, France, about 90 miles southwest of Paris. It landed in trees and was cushioned on impact, so the fighter did not break-up or catch on fire.
French resistance members were the first to get to the aircraft and discovered that Billie Harris was dead. They removed his handgun and codebooks and then left the area because the Germans were approaching. All the Germans took was the parachute. The residents of Lesventes recovered the body and buried Billie in the town cemetery.
Because his name was Billie D. Harris the locals assumed his name was Billie D'Harris, and since that sounded French they assumed that Billie must be Canadian. Because of this, they honored his grave until 2005 with a Canadian Flag.
The remains were moved to an American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer France in 1946. The problem was that the Army knew where Billie was, but Peggy was never advised. It took the work of Billie's cousin Alton Harvey formally of Altus to start the serious search for what had happened to 1st Lt. Harris.
In April of 2006 Alton Harvey and his wife escorted Peggy Harris to the village of Lesventes to see the original grave site of Billie and to meet some of the folks who buried him as war was destroying that same village. They then traveled to Normandy to see Billie's final gravesite among all the white crosses looking out over the beaches so many had died on.
Peggy was the first W.W.II widow to visit a grave at that cemetery in the past five years. We are running out of time to remember our fallen W.W.II veterans. If you know a veteran, help to document their personal history. Alton Harvey, you have uncovered the history, please write the book. We must all remember.
Copyright 2006 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.