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
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.
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.
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.”
On May 12, 2000, Vanrell officially declared his find to the Maritime Affairs Office in Marseille, which duly forwarded the report to the local Department of Subaquatic and Underwater Archaeological Research, a branch of the Ministry of Culture. Initially, the culture ministry planned to hire Vanrell, Delauze, and others to undertake a 10-day study of the site: mapping, photographing, filming, and raising parts for examination. “We were ready to go,” recounts Delauze, “but suddenly the culture ministry said they’d had a call from the prime minister’s office: ‘Don’t touch it.’ ”
“For us at the culture ministry, this is not a scientific priority, and it would be very expensive,” Grenier de Monner says today. “And if we did excavate it, that could lead to requests by families who lost members during the war for us to do costly excavation of other wrecks. We don’t want to encourage that.”
Philippe Castellano is optimistic about breaking through the bureaucratic inertia. “This has now gone too far for anybody to stop it,” he says. But the ministry of culture’s Grenier de Monner disagrees: “Unless there’s a surprising, high-level political decision,” he says, “I don’t believe this excavation is going to happen.”
The simple quest for historical truth has produced a very complex French affaire. At stake is the future of the myth of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—and the possibility of ever learning what really happened to him.