Marseille, Occupied France July 31, 1944

On this date in 1944 French poet, writer, and pio­neering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry vanished on a recon­nais­sance flight off the Medit­er­ranean coast near Marseille, France. Best known for his novella The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), and to a lesser extent for books about his avi­a­tion adven­tures, including Night Flight (1931) and Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), the 44-year-old Saint-Exupéry flew for Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s Armée de l’Air (Free French Air Force).

A successful commercial pilot before the German in­vasion of his country, Saint-Exupéry joined the French Air Force, flying recon­nais­sance mis­sions until France’s armis­tice with Nazi Germany in June 1940. Like de Gaulle, Saint-Exupéry fled France, the author traveling to America to per­suade the U.S. govern­ment to enter the war against Ger­many, and where he wrote pieces and lec­tured audi­ences in the U.S. and Canada in support of the French Resis­tance. It was during his 27-month stay in the States that he wrote and illus­trated the 104-page children’s classic, The Little Prince.

In the spring of 1943 Saint-Exupéry left for North Africa in an Amer­i­can mili­tary con­voy to fly with the Algiers-based Armée de l’Air. Grounded for eight months for wrecking a Lock­heed P‑38 Lightning through engine failure on his second mission in North Africa, he was reinstated to flight duty on the per­sonal inter­vention of the Deputy Com­mander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Gen. Ira Eaker.

Despite being overage for flying (he was over 40) and in poor health (he suffered from depres­sion and increas­ingly drank heavily), Saint-Exupéry flew nine missions for the Allies. His final mission was to fly his unarmed recon­nais­sance ver­sion P‑38 Lightning from the island of Cor­sica over the French Rhône Valley to collect intel­li­gence on German troop move­ments in support of opening a second French front in the south of France in mid-August 1944 (Opera­tion Dragoon). He never returned.

Word of his disappearance spread across the literary world and then into inter­na­tional head­lines. Several days following his dis­appear­ance an uniden­ti­fiable body wearing French mili­tary colors was found in a bay near the small Proven­çal port town of Carqueiranne and was buried there that Septem­ber. In 1998 a fisher­man found Saint-Exupéry’s silver identity brace­let, and two years later the partial remains of the author-pilot’s P‑38 Light­ning were found in the sea­bed near Marseille. The cause of Saint-Exupéry’s death remains unknown, though several Luftwaffe pilots have alleged they were the agents of the P‑38’s shoot-down.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944) and His “Little Prince”

 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944), Toulouse, France, 1933The Little Prince

Left: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944), French writer, poet, and pioneering avi­ator in Tou­louse, France, 1933. Saint-Exupéry was twelve when flew for the first time. In the early 1920s, while stationed in Stras­bourg with the mili­tary, Saint-Exupéry earned his flying wings and became a pilot. In 1926 he signed on as a pilot for Aéro­postale, a private air­line that flew mail from Tou­louse, France, to Dakar, Sene­gal. The next year Saint-Exupéry, in Southern Morocco, began writing his first book, a memoir called Southern Mail, which was published in 1929. In 1931 he published Night Flight, which won instant success and the pres­ti­gious Prix Femina. His next novel, Wind, Sand and Stars, was published in 1939. A great success, the book won the Académie Fran­çaise’s Grand Prix du Roman and the National Book Award in the United States.

Right: First published in the United States in French and English in early 1943, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is the tale of a small inter­plane­tary traveler and his friend­ships with a pilot, a rose, and a fox. The children’s classic has been trans­lated into more than 250 lan­guages and dia­lects—it is most widely trans­lated book in the French lan­guage—and is among the top three selling books in the world. The Little Prince has been made into movies and TV films in a number of languages as well.

Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince Read by Kenneth Branagh