Born in Vernon, Texas, a small town on the border with Oklahoma, in the 1920’s, Peggy Seale was the only female mechanic, working at the Altus Oklahoma Air Force Base when she met the man who would eventually become her husband, Billie Harris. She was only 18 when they first met through Billie’s Father who also happened to be one of Peggy’s supervisors.
Even though Billie lived some distance away the two started corresponding through letters on a regular basis, they quickly developed a friendship and not long after they become romantically involved and started courting.
The courtship subsequently turned into an engagement. The pair was so poor that Peggy couldn’t even purchase a wedding ring for her husband to be. Instead, she gave him her Vernon High School Class Ring. Despite their lack of money, they were in young and in love. They were married in Florida on September 22, 1943.
But, the fairy tale period soon ended. After just six weeks of wedded bliss Billie, who had completed his US Army Air Corps Training at Brooks Field in San Antonio and was now a second lieutenant, was called up to serve in World War Two.
Peggy recalls going to Tallahassee with all the rest of the 354th Fighter Group and their wives. She stayed in a hotel with the rest of the wives and when their husbands were called up, the women were given instructions not to tell anyone their husbands had been sent overseas till they arrived there safely.
Lieutenant Billie Harris did, in fact, arrive safely in Europe but would never be seen again by his beloved wife. Due to authorities who committed a series of errors, including the Military’s Supreme Allied Headquarters in allied France informing Peggy her husband had returned home, it took decades for the truth of what happened to Harris to emerge and for Peggy to get some closure.
At first Peggy and family assumed Billie was just in a hospital in the states somewhere and couldn’t remember who he was or had lost his memory. They were told not worry and that he was no doubt being “processed”.
By March 1945 Billie had not returned home or been heard from. Peggy began to worry and started inquiries with the International Red Cross looking for answers. No official investigation was ever launched but new information did start to roll in, however, it was often contradictory. Some reports said he was missing in action, others said he was dead. This went on for decades, in fact even as late as 2005 Peggy’s congressman, Rep. Thornberry asserted that Billie Harris was missing in action.
Despite those claims, Thornberry never conducted a search through the National Archives. Billies Cousin Alton Harvey eventually was able to access some files held by the Department of the Army, and it turned out a Frenchwomen had requested the same files six months earlier.
According to the files, Billie Harris had been posted in Southeast England where he was assigned to 355th Fighter Squadron. In a P-51 Mustang, he flew missions to support allied bombers on raids and across the English Channel. His service earned him two air medals with 11 oak leaf clusters and a distinguished flying cross.
By July 1944 Billie had completed nearly a hundred missions entitling him to return home. After writing to Peggy to share the good news their reunion was forced to wait as the ship taking him home didn’t have enough space due to a large number of injured who needed to return first.
While still in Europe Billie continued to fly missions and sadly his plane was shot down over some woods near Les Ventes, France. He died in the crash, however, the town continues to honor his memory and is home to the Frenchwomen who had requested access to Billie’s files from the army in 2004.
The women’s name was Valerie Quesnal and she was looking for information about Harris for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Les Ventes. For years, the town assumed that the brave fighter pilot had been a Canadian but they learned that it was Billie Harris, an American. Normandy still celebrates not only Harris, but all the brave men who fought. To the town, he is a hero who gave his own life to divert his plane from the populated areas of the town as it was going down. He saved many lives with his courageous and selfless act.
Today, Billie’s remains have been moved to a grave in Normandy American Cemetary and Memorial. According to CBS, it’s the most decorated grave in all of Normandy. Peggy Seale regularly visits and makes pilgrimages to the woods where her husbands plane went down all those years ago.