July 17, 1944
Peggy and 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris (USAF) were married six weeks prior to his deployment in WWII. Billie, a fighter pilot, would fly his last mission on July 17, 1944 over Nazi-occupied northern France. With his plane shot down, he crashed into the woods near a small town in Normandy and did not survive.
Peggy, however, would receive no telegram or a knock on the door, nothing definitive to explain what had happened to her husband during his WWII service. Initially he was reported missing, then alive and coming home, followed by a letter stating he was killed and buried in one cemetery, and then buried in another. “Perhaps those weren’t his remains at all” would soon follow.
For Peggy, it was extremely frustrating and painful as she continued to wait for answers. Months turned into years and years into decades. She wrote repeatedly to her Congressman for answers and the last response in 2005, from the Vice-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stated Billie was still listed as “missing in action according to the National Archives,” although their records actually reflect “KIA.”
In the repeated absence of answers denied for decades, Billie’s cousin, Alton Harvey, felt closure was owed Peggy at long last and requested Billie’s service records. In those would be revealed the long awaited history regarding the events and resting place of 1st Lt Billie Harris. He was buried at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, in the WWII Cemetery and Memorial honoring American troops who died in Europe. That, however, is not how they first discovered their long-awaited answers and not where the story ends.
After requesting Billie’s service records in 2005, they were told a woman in France had also placed a request. Puzzled, Peggy and Alton contacted her and were informed, by a French citizen 61 years following the death of her husband, that 1st Lt. Harris was buried in Normandy.
Peggy was told the small Normandy town of Les Ventes had named their main road “Place Billie D. Harris” where townspeople have marched every year since 1944 to honor in part his sacrifice. It had been witnessed on that fateful day of Billie’s last mission that he had veered his downed plane into the woods and avoided crashing into the town itself. Out of great respect and gratitude, he was initially buried in their cemetery with honor, prior to his later removal to the American cemetery in Normandy.
Overwhelmed by this news, Peggy was invited to attend a commemoration in honor of her husband by the townspeople. Welcomed with open arms and gratitude, Peggy finally received details forever sought and needed, and the opportunity to at long last view her husband’s grave.
Villagers march along the Place Billie D. Harris 3 times a year, in part for commemoration for Billie’s sacrifice, and still place flowers on his grave to this day. The admiration for her husband is now extended to Peggy and she makes an annual pilgrimage, even visiting the forest of her husband’s crash with the sole remaining witness of that day.
Peggy and Billie’s love story began in 1942. Peggy Harris, a native of Vernon, Texas, was working as an electrical instrument mechanic at Altus Air Force Base. She loved poetry and the opera and would initially hear from 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris, a native of Altus, Oklahoma, via letters sent through his father (her boss and apparent matchmaker). Although she tried to discourage Billie, their letter campaign commenced and continued until finally meeting at a hanger at Altus AFB, they quickly became inseparable.
Although their life together was brief, Peggy would remain forever devoted to her husband and a life-long widow. “Billie was married to me all of his life, and I choose to be married to him for all of mine.”
Since learning of her husband’s burial at Normandy, Peggy sends flowers to adorn his grave ten times a year which includes anniversaries, his birthday, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Christmas, among others. The staff at the American Cemetery believe she is the last surviving WWII widow visiting her husband’s grave, which has been a comfort denied her for a lifetime.
With Deep Respect and Gratitude
For Your Service and Sacrifice
Reblogged this on Dave Loves History.
“Lord Give Me Strength”
Thank you for posting this. I came across his grave while visiting the American cemetery in Normandy. I saw the picture of his widow below with so many flowers and commented that she reminded me of so many widows I’ve seen in section 60 at Arlington.
Now I know her story.
Thank you Phil for letting me know you visited Billie’s grave, I certainly appreciate making a connection in history for others to know the story of our soldiers buried at Normandy and overseas.
It was certainly a bittersweet experience for Peggy to finally discover her husband’s grave but finally gave her ease and the opportunity to visit him. So many died too young.
You are doing a great service for those who gave their lives for our country.
Thank you, Joyce. It’s an honor to reveal their service and sacrifice.
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