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A Wartime Mystery Solved: ‘I Shot Down Saint-Exupéry’

When Antoine de Saint- Exupéry took off from Corsica on July 31, 1944, in an American-made P-38 reconnaissance plane, he was known for many things: as the author of The Little Prince; as an aviation pioneer; and as a French hero who returned to the war voluntarily to fly, at forty-four, for the Free French after fleeing the German invasion in 1940. That day, though, when he did not return from his mission, his legend was suddenly clouded by the unknown. Had he crashed? Was he shot down? Had he committed suicide? Neither his body nor his plane could be found.

Now two French authors claim to have solved the mystery. In Saint-Exupéry: The Final Secret, published in France last spring, Luc Vanrell, a marine archaeologist, and Jacques Pradel, a journalist, tell the story of a ten-year investigation that led to what they believe is the true story of Saint-Ex’s disappearance.

The search began in 1998, when fishermen off the coast of Marseille pulled up a bracelet with the famous writer’s name on it. Vanrell dived the site a few years later and found the remains of a P-38 nearby. In 2003, a salvage team recovered a piece of the plane with a serial number that confirmed the aircraft was indeed Saint-Ex’s.

But why had he crashed? Vanrell and an archaeologist colleague, Lino von Gartzen, were determined to find the answer. There had been no record of enemy aircraft action in the area, but when they discovered the wreckage of a German fighter in the water nearby, the two men began asking veterans of the group it hailed from— Jagdgruppe 200, which had been based near Marseille during the war—what they knew. In July 2006, Gartzen placed a call to a former fighter pilot named Horst Rippert, a retired TV sports reporter living in Germany. Rippert didn’t even pause when Gartzen told him what he was looking for. “You can stop searching,” Rippert, now eighty-six, said. “I shot down Saint-Exupéry.”

Flight logs that might have confirmed his account were destroyed in the war, but the pilot’s story appears to be credible. Rippert told the two archaeologists that he had learned about Saint-Ex’s disappearance on the radio several days after he had shot down a P-38 off Marseille. Rippert remembered the encounter, he said, because of the strange, evasive loops the pilot had tried to make, and was crushed when he realized what he had done. “In our youth, at school, we had all read him. We loved his books,” Rippert explained to the French magazine Le Figaro. “If I had known, I would not have opened fire. Not on him!”

Rippert confided in his diary that he thought he had killed Saint-Ex, but he kept his fears to himself for more than sixty years. After the article in Le Figaro appeared, he stopped speaking with the media. The mystery of Saint-Ex may be solved, but the weight of regret apparently still lingers.

The ‘Bevin Boys’ Honored for Their Wartime Service in Britain’s Coal Mines

They were the men who kept the home fires burning—literally—in Britain during World War II. The so-called “Bevin Boys,” a group of nearly fifty thousand draftees who were diverted from military service to work in the coal mines, have received official recognition for a job well done. In separate ceremonies last spring, two groups of several dozen aging Bevin Boys were awarded commemorative medals for their service. The first group was given their awards personally by British prime minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street.

The concept of the Bevin Boys was dreamed up by Ernest Bevin, the British minister of labor during the war, who watched with concern as more than thirty-five thousand men left the coal mines to join the armed services in the war’s first few years. By 1943, the mines were experiencing a labor shortage, and the country’s munitions factories and power stations suddenly found themselves facing an energy crisis. Bevin’s solution was to divert 10 percent of the men being called up to serve in the armed forces to the mines instead. Their work wasn’t glamorous, nor without physical risk, but the Bevin Boys did their duty, spending the last years of the war underground. “I was called up in 1945 and did three years,” one Bevin Boy, Adrian Hartley, eighty-one, told the Yorkshire Evening Post during the award ceremony. “Of course both my granddads were killed in the mines, but at least there was nobody shooting at me in the pit.”

Former Japanese American Internees Fight to Preserve Internment Camps

Betty Abe was fifteen years old when she heard the news, playing with her sisters in the cantaloupe crates on her family’s farm outside Los Angeles. “My dad had predicted maybe six months before that war was going to start,” remembers Abe, now eighty-two. On the morning of December 7, 1941, her family’s worst fears were realized. She and her sisters climbed out of the crates, went into their house, and asked the same question on the minds of many Americans: “What is Pearl Harbor?”

For Abe, whose parents hailed from Japan, playtime was over. In her community, and elsewhere on the west coast, Japanese Americans were accused of disloyalty. The following summer the government turned on them too, shipping nearly one hundred twenty thousand people, most of them born in the United States, to ten internment camps scattered across the west. Betty Abe would spend the rest of her high school years living behind barbed wire.

When the war ended the Abes, like the rest of the internees, were told to leave the camps. The camps themselves—small cities of tarpaper barracks and wooden mess halls—were dismantled. By 1947, they had nearly vanished.

Only recently have former internees begun making a concerted effort to preserve not just their stories of internment, but the camps themselves. In 1992, Manzanar—the camp in southern California that housed the Abe family— became the first to be named a national historic site. Several others have been given honorary designations as national historic landmarks. In 2006, President Bush signed a bill authorizing up to $38 million for a new grant program devoted to the camps’ preservation, the first federal effort to preserve the entire camp system. Two years later, though, the funds have yet to be appropriated.

Local groups around each of the camps, meanwhile, are fighting to protect what’s left. At most of them, a few outbuildings and concrete foundations are all that remain. “It takes a while for people to figure out these places are historic, which is a shame,” says Jeff Burton, a park service archaeologist who began studying the camps in the 1990s.

The few relics that have survived the last sixty years include, remarkably, the jail at Tule Lake, a camp in northern California where internees considered disloyal were sent. Pat Shiono, who chairs the camp’s preservation committee, has been visiting the site (much of which is now used as a highway maintenance yard) for more than a decade. “We’ve been going there every year watching the jail sort of melting away,” she says. The building has been vandalized; rain and wind have worn it down. “It was an abandoned shack and I don’t think anybody understood what it was,” she says. “We keep thinking, ‘Oh my God, in another ten to twenty years, it won’t be here.’” Working with the state transportation agency that owns the land, Shiono’s group recently had a fence built around the jail and a shelter put over it.

Other camps, too, are beginning to emerge from years of neglect. In the 1990s, a preservation group near Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming was able to restore the camp’s “honor roll,” a large panel in the center of the site that includes the name of every person in the camp who served in the military during the war. At the Topaz internment camp in Utah, which sat on nineteen thousand acres during World War II, a preservation committee has raised enough funds to buy up more than six hundred acres of the site. The group is trying to raise $3.5 million to build an interpretive center there as well. “It’s not huge money, but it’s huge for us,” says Jane Beckwith, the group’s president. Beckwith recognizes that she and her fellow preservationists face an uphill battle: not only are the camps on forgotten land far from urban centers, but they don’t represent one of the country’s prouder moments. “This isn’t very happy history,” says Beckwith. “I’ve often thought some night I should go out and plant some dinosaur footprints, then unearth them the next day. I think we’d have money much more quickly.”

“I think it’s a good idea for people to [preserve the camps] now,” Betty Abe says, while she and other internees are still able to contribute. When her family was told to leave the camps in 1945, the authorities handed each internee $25 and a one-way ticket to anywhere in the country. The camps—what’s left of them—will require more help than that.


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.