Fishing for Saint-Ex

There's something down there. And it may be Antoine De Saint-Exupéry's P-38.

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Summer squalls sometimes blow up along France’s Mediterranean coast, and this one left Jean-Claude Antoine Bianco, skipper of the Horizon, a 60-foot, blue-and-white trawler, soaked. “We’d been fishing since morning about an hour east of the port and the weather had turned awful,” he recalls of that September 1998 day. “The wind and waves were tossing us around, the sky was black, and it was raining buckets. I didn’t even have my slicker on. So I decided to haul in the trawl net and head home about 2 p.m.”

Bianco, a stocky, balding 54-year-old, was in his cabin drying off from the squall when Habib Benamor, his Tunisian second mate, came in and announced that among the usual mullet, anglerfish, and squid, he had found a silver bracelet. “I put my glasses on and scratched off some of the concretion that had built up around it,” Bianco remembers. “I saw the name ‘Antoine.’ Hey, I said to myself, this guy has the same name as me. I scratched some more and saw ‘Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.’ I thought, Am I dreaming or what?

Bianco yelled excitedly to Habib, “This belonged to Saint-Ex!” But his mate just stared back; he’d never heard that name.

That made Habib a rare bird indeed. Few have not heard of the French writer-aviator whose mix of derring-do and literary stature has made him virtually a demigod in France. His novels Southern Mail, Night Flight, and Wind, Sand and Stars chronicled aviation’s heroic era, when cockpits were open and pilots delivered the mail come what may, and his nonfiction Flight to Arras was one of the first accounts of flying combat missions in World War II. His most beloved book, of course, was The Little Prince, a novel about a wistful, wise young man from another planet who wonders at the strange ways of Earthlings; it has been translated into 118 languages and dialects, from Azerbaijani to Esperanto. The 100th anniversary of Saint-Ex’s birth last year was greeted with new biographies, the renaming of the Lyon airport in his honor, a French postage stamp, a new American edition of The Little Prince—which still sells some 200,000 copies a year in the United States—and an exhibit in Paris’ hallowed Pantheon crypt, called, aptly, Celebration of a Myth.

The myth began on July 31, 1944. Saint-Ex had shortly before rejoined his old squadron, the 2/33, which had been dissolved in 1940, then reactivated in 1943. The squadron was part of the American Third Photo Group, Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Wing, under the command of Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s son. At 44, Saint-Ex was nine years over the age limit to fly the squadron’s P-38 Lightnings—the photo-reconnaissance version was the F-5B—which were among the fastest fighters of the day. But Saint-Ex made deals, pulled strings, and got the slot. He was of the old school, used to flying French aircraft of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Morane-Saulnier 317, the Simoun, the Latécoère, and the Caudron, airplanes with primitive instrumentation that pilots flew by the seat of their pants. He didn’t much like the P-38, calling it “a flying torpedo that has nothing whatever to do with flying and, with all its dials and buttons, makes its pilot a sort of chief accountant.” He was wrung out by missions at 30,000 feet in the Lightning’s unpressurized cockpit. But he loved flying with his American comrades, whose “simple and noble courage” he admired.

On July 31, the 2/33 ops officer, Lieutenant Raymond Duriez, drove Saint-Ex to the field at the Borgo air base near Bastia, on the island of Corsica, helped him into his flightsuit, and shoehorned his bulky form into the cockpit. Ground crew pulled the chocks, and at 8:45 a.m., sortie 33S176 took off for a mapping run over the Grenoble-Chambery region, east of Lyon. Allied radar at Cap Corse, on the northern tip of Corsica, followed him into southern France. He was due back at 12:30. He was never heard from again. A myth—and a mystery—were born.

Over the years, the search for traces of Saint-Ex, mostly conducted by small groups of enthusiasts, has ranged from the Alps to the Rhone Valley, the French coast around Nice-Monaco, and even Italy. One of the most determined hunts was undertaken in 1992, when Louis Roederer, a French champagne company, launched a costly two-year, publicity-grabbing expedition, engaging IFREMER, the government-supported French ocean research unit that helped find the Titanic, to use its search equipment to scour the Mediterranean floor in the area between Corsica and the French Riviera, where Saint-Ex was presumed to have crashed. But the search came up empty.

Amateur divers have looked too. In November 1996, Marcel Camilleri, owner of a diving school on the southern coast, and friend Alain Costanzo found a P-38 wreck lying on its back in 130 feet of water in La Ciotat Bay, near Marseille. Hoping that it was Saint-Ex’s Lightning, they brushed the sand off it, tamed a toothy, seven-foot conger eel domiciled in its cockpit, and set about trying to identify it.

A friend of Camilleri’s went online and found Jack Curtis, who in World War II had flown 67 missions in P-38s with the Ninth Air Force, giving close support for Patton’s Third Army. Now 80 and living in Rogers, Arkansas, Curtis, who maintains an active interest in P-38s, checked his e-mail one morning and saw a message addressed to him from France: “Hello! I’m scuba diver. I have found in Medditerrannée in France a P38 Lightning. I want know how to find the serial number and model.”

Curtis advised looking for a small embossed plate on the instrument panel, between the artificial horizon and the gyro-compass. When the friend got the number and relayed it, Curtis checked his copies of the Air Force’s Missing Air Crew Reports, phoned the U.S. Air Force’s archives at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and came up with the disappointing answer: The plane was not Saint Ex’s. Downed on January 27, 1944, it had been flown by Lieutenant Harry Greenup of the 14th Fighter Group, 15th Air Force.

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