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 3 of 4)
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.
Not if the family has anything to say about it. “That plane is a sepulchre that must be respected,” says d’Agay. “It’s such a beautiful myth, disappearing over the ocean the way the Little Prince disappeared from the earth. Those divers are just trying to make money from selling photos.”
In discussing the family’s position, one French official, who asked not to be identified, wonders: “Are they acting solely in the interest of his memory, or for more financial reasons?” The descendants hold rights to royalties from all of Saint-Ex’s books, and also sell Little Prince products ranging from pens and watches to stuffed animals and cosmetics. If the mystery of Saint-Ex’s fate is solved, would product revenues be affected? “That’s the stupidest idea in the world,” responds d’Agay. “I don’t need to protect revenues from a book that’s sold 50 million copies.”
Apparently, the family has the ear of the authorities. According to Philippe Grenier de Monner, assistant director for archaeology at the Ministry of Culture: “The defense ministry is against [a salvage attempt], partly because the descendants of Saint-Exupéry are.” The defense ministry itself will only say: “This is considered to be a private affair.”
Almost no other government office will allow its spokepeople to speak on the record. And this being France, there are lots of offices involved. Locally there are the Maritime Affairs Office and the Department of Subaquatic and Underwater Archaeological Research; in Toulon there is the Maritime Prefecture. The final authorities are the ministries of culture and defense in Paris. One official at Underwater Research says, “I can’t tell you what the government’s position is on this because it hasn’t declared one yet, and I think it’ll be quite a while before it does. It’s all very Latin.”