Mystery about acclaimed pilot and novelist, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s death deepens after WW2 memorabilia collector’s son hands over photos, unseen so far, of Saint-Exupéry taken before his last flying mission.
Nearly anytime people believe that all has been said and told about a deceased celebrity, something new turns up about that person, with the potential of yielding more meaningful details about the person’s life.
The person in this case is famed aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry known initially for his contribution to the development and operation of the longest scheduled air mail service on record in the post WW1 period. Once completed, the air mail route spanned from France to Brazil, Argentina and Peru, via Spain, Morocco and Senegal. He wrote his first novels in the same period.
Later, Saint-Exupéry took part in WW2 initially by flying reconnaissance missions over German-occupied parts of northern France. That did not stop him from pursuing his boundless passion for writing novels inspired by his deep sense of humanity and sometimes too by his former work as an air mail pilot and aerodrome manager. In terms of fiction writing, he authored the widely acclaimed short novel “The Little Prince”. He also left behind volumes of personal observations of current events and letters to friends and relatives quite revealing about his times.
Briefly stated, he was a flying author, reporter, story-teller and philosopher of sorts, the inspiring figure PhD students wrote their thesis on or literary critiques turned their attention to.
After a two-year stay in New York, he joined Allies in North Africa and was eventually posted in Corsica from where he acted as a military reconnaissance pilot. He flew one such military reconnaissance mission on July 31, 1944, but failed to return to base. Accordingly, he was reported as “missing in action” as of that day.
The new twist now about Saint-Exupéry comes in the form of four new photographs of him and a log book of the P-38 he flew, all of which were kept by French collector, Raymond Duriez. Report of this discovery first came last week from the French daily “Ouest-France” and was picked up on June 15, 2010, in an article published in “Le Monde”, one of France’s major national dailies and online news sources.
What is behind the latest new twist about him? The fact is since American reporter John Phillips interviewed Saint-Exupéry in May 1944 at his military air base and took professional-quality pictures of him, the paper trail ended there chronologically speaking, except for an entry found decades later in a Luftwaffe pilot’s log book stating to have shot down a P-38 Lightening aircraft on the day and over the area Saint-Exupéry was reported to have gone missing.
Another online French daily, Liberation.fr also picked up the story on June 18, 2010, and commented on the meaning of the newly found photos. However, it further commented on a log book presumably preserved along with the photos in a small cardboard box. The log book, the veracity and authenticity of which have yet to be confirmed, contains entries stating that the P-38 Lightening flown by Saint-Exupéry and other pilots was plagued by mechanical issues and failures. Details of the mechanical problems are not publicly known yet.
If the log book entries prove accurate and authentic, they would provide yet another explanation for Saint-Exupéry’s non-return from his last recon mission. High altitude photo reconnaissance missions on a P-38 were physically and mentally demanding by several accouns. It was originally thought he, intentionally or not, allowed his P-38 to impact the Mediterranean Sea at high speed, or that he was shot down by a German combat pilot flying above him as noted in a Luftwaffe pilot’s log book found after the war.
The pilot in question, Horst Rippert, expressed sadness in 2008, at having unknowingly shot down, in July 1944, Saint-Exupéry whom he knew as an aviation writer and considered as a heroic French aviator.
However, the in-flight mechanical failure theory could shed a totally different light on the reasons for Saint-Exupéry’s fatal mission. An experienced peace-time and war-time pilot, Saint-Exupéry was only 44 years years of age on the day he vanished while flying an advanced P-38 aircraft. By the medical fitness standards of the day, he was over-aged for that type of military mission. Yet, through persistence, he obtained permission to fly a limited number of photo-reconnaissance missions. He most likely busted that limit too with his legendary eloquence and art of persuasion. There was no stopping him, so it seems.
Biographers and military historians confirm that Saint-Exupéry flew successful missions with P-38 type aircraft and that he provided Allies with relevant, if not crucial, intelligence on German positions in France.
He was too young to die and considered too old to fly but, above all, he proved himself useful to the very end. He could not live in any way other than being a novelist and a man of action, more specifically a pilot in active military duty for the benefit of France and humanity at large.