Fishing for Saint-Ex

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

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Saint-Ex hunters are not easily discouraged. Philippe Castellano, a 42-year-old hospital technician from Cannes, probably knows more about World War II air combat over the south of France than almost anyone else in the world. He spent 15 years compiling a list of all 38 U.S. Army Air Force airplanes downed in the region, and has visited U.S. Air Force records centers at Maxwell and at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. At the latter, he acquired a copy of what he calls “the Bible”: the official 1,500-page record of every American aircraft lost, everywhere in the world, day by day, during World War II.

“I started looking for Saint-Ex in 1994,” he says. “A fisherman told me about a wreck he had trawled across in La Ciotat Bay. I’d been diving around here for 20 years, but that was the first time I actually looked for a wreck. After three years, I found a P-38 in 95 feet of water—a mass of wings, booms, tail fins, wheels, and cables, all mixed up. For a while I was sure I’d found Saint-Ex’s plane.” To help with the identification, he called on Pierre Becker, a fellow airplane hunter and the head of Géocéan Solmarine, a French underwater engineering firm. The two found the contract number on one of the wreck’s tail booms, and when they looked it up, they learned that the aircraft was a “J” fighter, not an F-5B. It had been flown by Lieutenant James Riley, who had been shot down on the same day as Harry Greenup, his wingman. Escorting a bombing raid by the 15th Air Force, they had been jumped by German Me 109s and Fw 190s.

Then came the 1998 discovery of the bracelet. Jean-Claude Bianco took the bracelet to Henri-Germain Delauze, who has been France’s Mr. Underwater Research and Engineering for 30 years. Delauze is the founder of Marseille-based Comex, one of the world’s leading deep-water search-and-exploration firms. He has no doubts that the bracelet is the real thing. “I’ve brought up enough silver pieces of eight from sunken sailing ships to know how saltwater corrodes silver,” he says. “That bracelet is authentic.”

Spending $200,000 of his own money, Delauze immediately launched a three-week secret search of the area with his sophisticated research ship, Minibex, using side-scanning sonar, a mini-sub, and a remote-controlled robot explorer. “My idea was to find the wreckage quickly, then announce that we had found both the bracelet and the plane,” he says. “I told Jean-Claude, ‘Then we’ll go and have some champagne with President Chirac.’ But all I found was a German Junkers 88 bomber.”

During Delauze’s search, word of Bianco’s find leaked out. The Office of Maritime Affairs in Marseille, acting under a law covering archaeological sites of historical interest, ordered Delauze to cease his search and told Bianco to turn over the bracelet. Because Saint-Ex had been an air force officer, the bracelet first went to the French air force, which tossed the hot potato to France’s aerospace museum, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget airport. The museum, in turn, tossed it to the Louvre museum’s Center for Research and Restoration, which normally authenticates and restores art for the nation’s museums. It did a quick exam under a microscope and reported that it could not say one way or the other whether the bracelet was in fact authentic.

The bracelet is now in the hands of the descendants. They have had it analyzed two more times, but they are keeping the results secret. Family representative Frédéric d’Agay, a nephew of Saint-Ex, says: “This whole affair of the bracelet has been surrounded by mystery, and we would like to clear it up. Saint-Exupéry was not known to have one [a bracelet like the one found], so we wonder what’s going on.” (In Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, author Stacy Schiff reports that  the aviator did own a gold one.)

Some believe the bracelet might have belonged not to Saint-Ex but to his wife, Consuelo. That would account for her name being engraved in parentheses. They also say it is too small to fit the wrist of a hefty man like Antoine. Still, the distinction may prove a minor one. “I think Saint-Ex might have carried [Consuelo’s bracelet] with him as a sort of keepsake, in a bag or pocket or even hanging on his instrument panel,” says Castellano.

Now, with the discovery out in the open, other divers were inspired. One was Luc Vanrell, the owner of a diving equipment shop in Marseille. Son of one of France’s diving pioneers in the 1940s, he had for years searched for an airplane wreck his father had mentioned. “Years went by and I was getting nowhere,” he recalls. “But then Bianco found the bracelet. I noticed that the area he had trawled was right where I had spotted some aircraft debris. Since most of the planes sunk around here are German, I assumed it was a Messerschmitt, Junkers, or Heinkel. But now I began to think I was on to something.”

Vanrell started spending time with aviation buffs like Castellano and putting together documentation on U.S. aircraft that flew during World War II. Knowing where the bracelet was discovered, Vanrell trawled over an area a mile long and 400 yards wide, and he dove to depths of 180 to 250 feet, where divers can stay only 15 minutes. The site is part of an area that has been trawled by fishermen for years, so the remains on the floor there are from all kinds of aircraft. Having discovered the invaluable Jack Curtis on the Internet, Vanrell turned to him for advice on identifying some of the parts he found. By last May he had located—mixed in with pieces of a Messerschmitt 109—a tail boom fragment with an oval air intake particular to the F-5B’s turbo supercharger, a Lightning wheel, and a left landing gear. Significantly, the fulcrum attached to the side strut was rectilinear—a design characteristic particular to the late P-38s and the F-5B and different from the cylindrical fulcrum used on earlier Lightnings.

Vanrell sent Castellano an e-mail asking innocently whether any modifications had been made to P-38 landing gears. “I knew then that he’d found it,” says Castellano with a grin. “I told him straight, ‘If you’ve found a P-38 landing gear with a rectangular fulcrum, it can only be Saint-Ex’s plane.” Only four P-38 photo-reconnaissance craft had been downed in the Mediterranean, and the other three have been found. “All we need to locate is the serial number, 42-68223, and I’m sure we will,” says Castellano’s fellow searcher, Pierre Becker.

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