Fishing for Saint-Ex
There's something down there. And it may be Antoine De Saint-Exupéry's P-38.
- By Joseph Harriss
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 2 of 4)
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.
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.)