France and its Little Prince

Wreckage from Saint-Exupéry's 1944 plane crash has been identified, but the writer's life is still shrouded in mystery.

The mystery of the death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who celebrated the mysteries of life so charmingly in "The Little Prince," remains intact.

Or nearly. French researchers are due to announce Friday that 60 years after the philosopher-pilot crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, they have found, and identified beyond a doubt, the remains of Saint-Exupéry's Lockheed P-38.

But why he crashed, and how, whether he was shot down, lost control of his plane, or, as some historians have suggested, committed suicide, will, perhaps fittingly, never be known. As the Fox tells the Little Prince: "One can see clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye."

"Saint-Ex," as the pioneer aviator is known in France, remains one of the country's best-loved heroes, and his famous book one of its most popular children's classics. The adventurous romance of his life, and the unanswered questions surrounding his wartime death, have made generations of French children - and their parents - dream.

Saint-Exupéry first flew when he was 12, just four years after the Wright brothers launched flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and he made his name flying the mail from France across the Sahara to Senegal, and later throughout South America.

He recounted his adventures, in such books as "Wind, Sand and Stars," with a mixture of daredevil antics, a profound love of life, and a search for meaning that captured the imagination of his generation.

Revered by some for his military bravery - he was well over-age when he volunteered to fly reconnaissance missions with an American P-38 squadron during World War II - he has inspired others by the courage he showed in such a simple endeavor as delivering the mail.

He imbued that task with broader philosophical significance. "Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures - in this century, as in others, our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together," he wrote in "Wind, Sand and Stars."

As Allied troops prepared to invade the south of France, Saint-Exupéry took off from an airfield in Sardinia on the morning of July 31, 1944, to photograph German troop positions in the French Alps. He never returned to base.

For more than half a century, that was all that was known. And then one day in 1998 a fisherman trawling near the port of Marseille found in his net a silver bracelet engraved with the name Consuelo - Saint-Exupéry's wife's name.

The news reminded Marseille dive-shop owner Luc Vanrell that he had seen pieces of an old airplane at the bottom of the sea near where the bracelet had come up. Two years later, after much searching, he found a piece of metal stamped with a manufacturer's serial number, 2734 L.

The piece of metal, it turned out, was part of a turbocharger from a Lockheed Lightning P-38, the sort of plane that Saint-Ex had been flying on his last sortie. Last fall, Mr. Vanrell won government permission to salvage more of the plane, and brought up nearly two dozen bits and pieces - enough to identify the aircraft as a second-generation P-38, modified for reconnaissance, exactly the model Saint-Exupéry had been flying.

A few weeks ago, a team of enthusiasts under the guidance of Patrick Grandjean, a French Ministry of Culture marine archaeologist, found definitive proof in US Air Force and Lockheed archives: a technical drawing of Saint-Exupéry's plane, with the serial number of its turbocharger: 2734 L. "There is no arguing with that," says Mr. Grandjean. "We can be perfectly certain."

Certain of the twisted piece of metal's provenance, perhaps, but of little else. No bullet holes have been found in the wreckage to suggest that Saint-Exupéry was shot down, but then only a few fragments of the plane have surfaced.

Did the engine malfunction? "The plane hit the sea very violently, to judge by the way the metal is twisted," says Vanrell. "It doesn't look like a failed emergency landing on water. One might guess that it fell vertically from a great height."

But Vanrell and his fellow researchers can only guess. "He dropped out of the glorious sky," says Grandjean. "We can say nothing more."

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