"They don't forget": Normandy still honors American WWII pilot's sacrifice

(CBS News) LES VENTES, France - On this anniversary of D-day, we continue the story of one of the American soldiers who fought to liberate France from the Nazis, 1st Lt. Billie Harris. On Tuesday, the "CBS Evening News" reported on how it took Harris' widow six decades of battling bureaucracy to learn his fate.

But it turns out his death was just the beginning of an amazing tale.

It's now been 67 years since the liberation of France, but at Wednesday's D-Day ceremony in Normandy there was one woman who's still in mourning. In fact, until recently, Peggy Harris of Vernon, Texas, didn't even know her husband Billie was buried here. And certainly didn't know the story of what he means to Les Ventes, France.

Billie was a fighter pilot, shot down and killed in July of 1944 over Nazi-occupied northern France. But because of a series of snafus, miscues and miscommunications, that information never got to his wife. As far as she knew, Bill was just missing.

She waited, she said, "All of my life."

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Peggy never remarried, never moved on, and might never have known the whole story if a relative hadn't looked into his military records a few years ago. The surprise wasn't so much that he died -- Peggy had come to assume that -- it was what happened after.

In the tiny Normandy town of Les Ventes, the main road is actually called Place Billie D. Harris. It's the same road townspeople have been marching down three times a year for the last 60 -- in part to commemorate his sacrifice.

To understand what Billie means to the these people, you need only hear the mayor read his name on the monument, her voice quivering. And by extension, that admiration now goes to his wife.

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Since learning her husband crashed near here, Peggy has been making an annual pilgrimage. She visits the nearby woods where the plane went down -- escorted by 91-year-old Guy Surleau, the only witness still living.

He was able to maintain control of the plane, despite his condition, and avoid the village, Guy said.

A hero in death, at first they buried Billie in their local cemetery and covered his grave with flowers -- knee deep. Even after his body was moved to the American cemetery at Normandy, the town continued to take flowers to his grave, assuming he had no living relatives to do so.

"How can I not be grateful and hold these people very dear," Peggy said.

The people of Les Ventes say they just wish they could have done more.

If only I was able to help, Guy said.

You did, Peggy told him.

"I like to think that he was still conscious enough to know that a friend stood by him," Peggy said, sobbing, beside Guy in the forest. "And that this man is that friend."

Her gratitude is matched only by theirs.

In Les Ventes, the American sacrifice is still very much treasured and honored.

"We don't forget," the mayor said, and Peggy echoed her words.

"They don't forget."

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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