Some call it the military spouse’s worst nightmare: a car arrives with uniformed servicemembers bearing a telegram that says his or her spouse has died. Yet, what if no telegram ever arrives, but neither does the spouse? Such was the case for Peggy Harris, the widow of veteran of World War II, First Lieutenant Billie Harris, who for sixty years did not know the whereabouts of her husband. It’s a long time to not know if the person you love is alive or dead.
Billie Dowe Harris was born in Texas and married a girl from Vernon, Peggy. Six weeks later, he went to war. He wrote often to her and to other members of his family, until his letters stopped coming in 1944. Alton Harvey, a cousin, grew up hearing the stories told in those letters and developed an almost mythical admiration for Harris. He thought it was practically criminal that this story about one of his relatives didn’t have a proper ending.
First Peggy received a letter that her husband was missing. Then she received letters saying that he was alive, buried on one cemetery, buried in a different cemetery, and finally that those remains may not even be his. Peggy Harris had tried for years to discern the fate of her husband. Most recently, she wrote to her Congressman, Mac Thornberry, asking for help in finding answers to her husband’s fate. Thornberry is the vice chair of the Armed Services Committee, but his reply stated that Harris was still listed as missing in action in the National Archives. Harvey decided to take matters into his own hands.
Preparing for a long and arduous search, Harvey requested Harris’s military file. The answer was contained inside those pages. He read the various reports about Harris’s last mission and traveled to Les Ventes, France where his plane was shot down. As the plane went down, Harris was able to maintain control of the craft so it missed the small town where it surely would have crashed, devastating it. In honor of his sacrifice and concern for a town he never visited, the main street in the small town of Les Ventes bears his name.
Since discovering this, Peggy travels there every year and to his grave in the Normandy American Cemetery. Originally, the people of Les Ventes interred him in their own local cemetery, keeping flowers on his grave. Since his remains were moved, some still visit to honor his memory. Rep. Thornberry issued an apology on his Facebook page and in a personal letter to Mrs. Harris admitting that they “did not do enough,” to find her husband.
This comes after last year’s scandals involving the mishandling of soldiers’ remains from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Names and remains have been mixed-up and sometimes lost. Cremated remains of unidentified soldiers and soldiers whose families requested the military dispose of the remains were taken to a Virginia landfill. Possibly dozens of unknown soldiers were tossed out, like trash. Officials were disciplined and Mortuary Services promised to ensure this never happens again. Today, unidentified remains are buried at sea. War is chaos and with that chaos mistakes undoubtedly happen. Still that’s little consolation to those whose loved ones were simply thrown away or lost in the shuffle.
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