What really happened to famous author and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII while flying a reconnaissance mission for Allied Forces?
“It is here that the little prince appeared on Earth, and disappeared. If you should come upon this spot, please do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then, if a little man appears…send me word that he has come back.” – The Little Prince, 1943
Born June 29, 1900, in Lyons, France, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for his writings, some of which took on aviation subjects, such as Wind, Sand and Stars, and others, like The Little Prince, that were whimsical and lyrical.
But Saint-Ex, as his friends called him, was also an accomplished aviator, flying for many years as a commercial pilot, pioneering airmail routes throughout Europe, Africa and South America. When war broke out in 1939, he joined the French Air Force and flew reconnaissance missions until France’s coercive armistice with Germany in 1940. After several years in the United States, he eventually rejoined the war as a pilot despite being eight years past the cutoff age.
In 1943, he was assigned to fly unarmed P-38 Lockheed Lightnings with his former unit. The P-38 was a far more sophisticated aircraft than what he was accustomed to flying, however, and he crashed on his second mission following an engine failure. The incident resulted in an eight-month grounding. During his hiatus, French General Charles de Gaulle slandered his name, accusing Saint-Ex of supporting the Nazis. Already suffering bouts of depression as a result of health issues, he sunk deeper into despair with the accusation. His mental and physical health, further compromised by copious amounts of alcohol, deteriorated significantly over the months, yet he was somehow still cleared back to service. On July 31, 1944, at 8:45 a.m., on what was to be the last of his missions, Saint-Ex took off from Corsica, never to be seen again.
What happened to the famous, literary-minded pilot? For decades, it was a complete mystery. The controversy persists to this day.
With the world at war and Saint-Ex flying about in the hot zones, many believed that when he failed to return, it was because he had been shot down. Just eight days prior, while collecting intelligence on German troops, he encountered a fleet of hostile aircraft. While that particular fleet opted not to fire on him, it’s entirely possible that on July 31 he encountered those who chose otherwise.
Lost Control Of The Aircraft
Saint-Ex had an undeniable passion for flying, but he also had a reputation as an undisciplined pilot who read books while flying and had little patience for aircraft complexities. At the time of his disappearance, he had already been involved in several major crashes. One crash, in 1935, left him stranded and near death in the Libyan Desert for four days. He had also made the mistake of accidentally flying to 10,000 meters (nearly 32,000 feet) instead of 10,000 feet without an oxygen mask. He became hypoxic and blacked out in flight. Given his crash history, his distaste for complex aircraft, and his failing mental and physical health, many believed it was likely he lost control somewhere over the sea and was swallowed into the waters below.
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Unwilling to learn English, Saint-Ex isolated himself when he came to the United States in 1940. One friend reported that when they attempted to visit, they found him holed up in a dark room, withdrawn and depressed. It was during this time that Saint-Ex wrote The Little Prince, a delightful, if somewhat sad, tale about an intergalactic traveling prince who in the end mysteriously disappears. Many felt the book was ominously foretelling and speculated that it was intentionally so. According to the German pilots who encountered Saint-Ex eight days prior to his disappearance, he never altered his course upon spotting them. Instead, they claim, he continued straight toward them, seemingly lacking any fear of being shot down, perhaps even inviting it to happen. The day he vanished, his mission was slated to be the last he would fly in the war. Maybe he thought meeting his demise by enemy fire would be a fitting and heroic ending to his personal story. The world would never be wiser that he wrote the ending himself.
In 1998, a fisherman off the coast of Marseille noticed an interesting trinket in one of his nets, a silver ID bracelet bearing the name of Saint-Exupéry. The discovery captured the world’s attention but especially that of an elderly German man, Horst Rippert. When Saint-Ex’s aircraft, confirmed by the serial number (2743L), was later recovered nearby, the older man’s heart sank. According to Rippert, on July 31, 1944, he shot down a P-38 near the location the wreckage was found. Having always idolized Saint-Ex, calling him his favorite author, Rippert buried his secret in shame for more than half a century. Yet investigators found no traces of bullet holes in the recovered aircraft pieces and nothing else to back the German’s claim. All they could determine was that the aircraft entered the water vertically around 500 mph.
“My rose is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass…the one I sheltered behind a screen…the one for whom I killed the caterpillars…the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
Just as the Little Prince adored his rose, the world adored Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The many years and significant effort put into unlocking the truth about his disappearance is testament to that. No matter what happened that day, his legacy will always be one of honor and inspiration.