On July 31, 1944, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went MIA
In The Legend of Little Eagle, a novel with an important background on aviation and WW2, I tried to tell in a faithful way, based on different historical accounts, how the disappearance of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was felt by his comrades pilots and others on the airfield of Borgo, in Corsica.
My hero is First Lieutenant John Philip Garreau, a USAAF Fighter pilot who had been tranferred to Borgo from England in June, after D-Day. A few weeks later, he can’t believe his eyes when he sees Saint-Exupéry landing there on his P-38 Lightning. Saint-Ex, his hero, a pionneer of transatlantic flights with the Aerospatiale. A famous writer too, author of Night Flight, Flight to Arras and The Little Prince, three titles that Johnny had read at home.
Garreau soon meets with the legendary aviator, has lunch with him in the coastal village of Miono, where the two of them have a harrowing conversation about the so mysterious death of the Little Prince. By the end of my novel, the narrator, Hélène Marchal, will find out why this 18 year old pilot, so fearless in combat, was secretly so afraid of death, and so eager to know if there was hope in the fate of the Little Prince.
“Tonio,” insisted Johnny feverishly, “the Little Prince is crying, he’s afraid. The snake bites him. In fact, the Little Prince lets the snake bite him, as if he wanted to commit suicide. A yellow flash of lightning strikes his ankle. He falls gently to the ground, the way a tree does. He’s dead! And his body disappears! How can we be sure he went back to his planet, the way the pilot says he did, how can we believe he is actually alive and that he might come back someday? »
Extracts from the chapter titled July 31, beginning with this entry in the log of Harold Holding, Johnny Garreau best friend in the 52nd Fighter Group:
Four hour patrol this morning, Algiers-Tunis-Tangiers, where a lot of Allied ships have gathered in preparation for the invasion of Provence. Apparently the Huns don’t have very many fighters left in the south of France, as we already noticed in this sector, because we didn’t see a single one all day. Johnny on the other hand shot down a Heinkel 111 bomber, the terror of maritime convoys. But we were in for a nasty surprise when we got back to base.
A few minutes after landing their Mustangs, the pilots of the 52nd noticed a peculiar atmosphere on the base; everything seemed strangely calm and silent. A mournful atmosphere. They found out soon enough: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had left just before them that same morning—mission 133 S 176, to photograph a sector to the east of Lyon—and he should have been back by early afternoon. But he wasn’t there and he wouldn’t return. They figured that his plane would have run out of fuel already a while ago. In the hours that followed, no pilots came forward to say they’d seen him, and there was no news of any eventual landing on another base, no mention of a trace of his Lightning on the radar. Some speculated that he might have had a mechanical failure and crash- landed somewhere. Or that he had had a problem with his oxygen inhaler, a fairly frequent occurrence on the P-38s, and had passed out at high altitude. Or maybe a German fighter plane had gotten him. Gene Meredith yesterday. Saint-Exupéry today…
When it was time for the evening meal, all the pilots and mechanics gathered at the end of the runway and waited, waited for the Lightning with registration number 223. Their shadows got longer, night fell, hope waned, and silence was now heavy with certainty. “At around ten o’clock in the evening,” one of the men said later, “we headed slowly to the mess. We found our dinner still on the table, cold. We sat down and began to eat in silence.”
This was corroborated by Harold Holding, who added:
Johnny didn’t come in to eat and stayed by himself on the airfield. I got up at around two o’clock in the morning to go and get him. He was pale and didn’t say a word. We are all devastated by what has happened to Saint-Exupéry, but he seems more affected than anyone. I’ve been thinking about his questions to Tonio about the death of the Little Prince.
The next morning, a story was going around the base. In January, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had been invited to a reception at an embassy in Algiers. After the meal he performed one of his dazzling card tricks for his hosts, the way he often did, then he suddenly stopped, and in a steady voice he declared: “This morning I went to see a clairvoyant. Visibly, she didn’t recognize the insignia on my uniform and took me for a sailor, because she told me I would die soon beneath the waves.”
No one said a thing. In Borgo, Johnny felt his blood run cold when he heard this story, as it seemed to be a confirmation of his fears. Tonio had wanted to be a pilot during the victory, yes, but his words to Harold and Johnny about victory had a double meaning: “I hope you will be there for it” could imply that the two young pilots might be killed before then. But Johnny, in light of his subsequent remarks to Harold, must have been convinced that Saint-Exupéry had had a premonition of his own death, no matter what it might be. A bit like his disconcerting Little Prince. And the words from Flight to Arras which he always forced himself to ignore, because they troubled him so much, came back to Johnny with all the power of truth: War is not the acceptance of risk […] It is, now and again, for the combatant, the acceptance, pure and simple, of death.
A death one serves. Or that one chooses.
The Legend of Little Eagle