Saturday, April 12, 2008

Killing Your Idol: Fate Of Little Prince Author Revealed.

While flying recon over the Mediterranean The Little Prince or, as my 7th grade French teacher Ms. Perotta would prefer me to say, Le Petit Prince author Antoine de Saint Exupéry vanished. More than a half-century later two novice history detectives appear to have solved this enduring enigma. Via The NY Times:

On July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupéry took off from the island of Corsica in a Lockheed Lightning P-38 reconnaissance plane*, one of numerous French pilots who assisted the Allied war effort. Saint-Exupéry never returned, and over the years numerous theories arose: that he had been shot down, lost control of his plane, even that he committed suicide.

The first clue surfaced in September 1998, when fishermen off this Mediterranean port city dragged up a silver bracelet with their nets. It bore the names of Saint-Exupéry and his New York publisher. Further searches by divers turned up the badly damaged remains of his plane, though the body of the pilot was never found.
In a somewhat ironic twist, the engine of a downed German fighter was discovered near the wreckage of Saint Exupéry's plane. This plane had belonged to a real-life young Prince(!):
The researchers deduced it had powered a Messerschmitt fighter plane, part of a training unit stationed in southern France from 1942 to 1944. It had been flown by Prince Alexis von Bentheim und Steinfurt, a 22-year-old who was shot down by American planes in late 1943, on his first and last solo flight. The tale might have ended there, with the death of the prince and of the Little Prince’s author. Yet Mr. von Gartzen was not content. Consulting archives and with the help of the staff of the Jägerblatt, a magazine for Luftwaffe veterans, he tracked down veterans who had flown in Prince von Bentheim’s unit, the Jagdgruppe 200. He contacted hundreds of former pilots, most now in their 80s; hundreds more had already died.

Then in July 2006, he telephoned a former pilot in Wiesbaden, Horst Rippert, explaining that he sought information about Saint-Exupéry. Without hesitating, Mr. Rippert replied, “You can stop searching. I shot down Saint-Exupéry.”

Mr. Rippert, who will be 86 in May, worked as a television sports reporter after the war. It was only days after he had shot down a P-38 with French colors near Marseille that he learned of Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance.

He was convinced he had shot him down, though he confided his conviction only to a diary. In 2003, when he learned that Saint-Exupéry’s plane had been located, his suspicion was confirmed. But still, he said nothing publicly.

Over the years, the thought that he might have killed Saint-Exupéry had troubled Mr. Rippert. As a youth in the 1930s, he had idolized the aviator-turned-author and had devoured his books, beginning with “Southern Mail,” in 1929, an adventure tale written while Saint-Exupéry was flying the Casablanca to Dakar route.
(Emphasis added).
Irony abounds. Saint-Exupéry was killed by one of his biggest fans who quietly bore this knowledge for 50+ years.

If ever there has been an example of the futility and far-reaching sadness of war, this is it.


*This article's author misses an important point in attributing Saint-Exupéry's flying style on his health problems. Recon planes typically had all of their weapons removed and replaced with camera equipment. If he were thus rendered defenseless, it would explain "the odd, evasive loops flown by Saint-Exupéry."