William “Billy” Fiske was born over one hundred years ago in Brooklyn, New York on June 4, 1911. The son of a banking mogul, William Fiske II and his wife Beulah, Fiske attended school in Chicago before heading to France where in 1924 he discovered the sport of bobsled.
Fiske courageous spirit and devil-may-care attitude soon led him to became the unbeaten champion of the St. Moritz, Switzerland Cresta run. Because of his natural athletic talent, at the age of 16 Fiske competed in the 1928 Olympic Games alongside four other Americans (Geoffrey Mason, Nion Tucker, Clifford Grey and Richard Parke) who answered his ad in a French newspaper. These adventurers finished first in the first (and last) five-man bobsled competition, making Fiske the youngest gold medalist in the Winter Olympic history until 1992 when Toni Nieminen won two golds for Ski Jumping at the 1992 Albertville, France Games. Nieminen was also 16 when he won gold, but took the "youngest" title from Fiske by one day.
After the '28 Games were over, the young Billy attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1928 where he followed in his father's footsteps and studied Economics and History. After graduation Fiske went to work at the London office of well-known New York bankers Dillon, Reed & Co.
Taking a break from the tedious office job, Fiske donned the USA uniform again to compete at the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York where he was given the honour of carrying the flag for the United States at the Opening Ceremony (where then-Governor and future-President Franklin D. Roosevelt presided). Fiske and his teammates (Clifford Grey, Eddie Eagan, and Jay O'Brien) repeated gold, cementing their status as World Champions. Billy was invited to compete again in the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games in Germany, but declined (some say it was because he strongly disagreed with Germany's pre-World War II aggressions).
In his spare time, Billy completed the Le Mans 24-hour auto race when he was only 19 and earned the unofficial title "The King of Speed". On 8 September 1938, Fiske married Rose Bingham, Countess of Warwick (he was a gentleman after all), in Maidenhead.
By this time, Fiske had established himself as a man of honor and integrity. Despite the assumption that he was a spoiled rich kid, Fiske believed that commitment to an ideal was the foundation of success. And Billy Fiske was committed to freedom.
Because of his ideals, in August of 1939, two years before America entered World War II, Billy Fiske left his job and boarded the S.S. Aquitania bound for England. Pretending to be a Canadian citizen (the induction officer didn't try very hard to verify it) Fisk joined the British Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on March 23, 1940.
Billy began flight training at the No. 10 Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Yatesbury, Wiltshire, before moving to RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, for Advanced Flying Training. When he was officially inducted to fly Fiske excitedly wrote in his diary, "I believe I can lay claim to being the first U.S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities."
After he received his wings, Fiske was assigned to the 601 "Millionaires" Squadron, a group of mostly-wealthy American volunteers. The original squadron officers were picked by Lord Edward Grosvenor who tested potential recruits by plying them with alcohol to see if they would behave inappropriately. Most of the squadron's pilots had little regard for the rigid discipline of the regular service; they lined their uniforms with bright red silk and wore blue ties rather than the regulation black. They played polo on brand-new Brough Superior motor cycles, drove fast sports cars (the squadron car park was said to resemble a Concours d'Elegance) and most of the pilots owned their own private aircraft. Makes you wonder what the prim and proper British thought of the group!
Pledging his life and loyalty to world freedom, Fiske fought with honor in the Battle of Britain where he defended the people of England from the German air force. He flew a British Hurricane, code number P3358, with incredible skill, winning distinction amongst the RAF as one of the most skilled pilots in the air. After nearly a year of combat, however, in August of 1940 the 29 year old Fiske gave the ultimate sacrifice. After battling a squadron of German bombers (the RAF destroyed 8 and damaged 15), Fiske’s aircraft was shot through the fuel tank and began to burn. Although his hands and feet were badly burned, Fiske refused to bail out and landed his damaged aircraft. After the medics helped him from the burning airplane the fuel tank exploded. 48 hours later Billy Fiske died from his wounds on August 17, 1940 at the Royal West Sussex Hospital, Chichester. Fiske was officially the American to die in aerial combat in World War II.
Fiske's Flight Commander, Sir Archibald Hope, later said:
"Unquestionably Billy Fiske was the best pilot I've ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was. He picked up so fast it wasn't true. He'd flown a bit before, but he was a natural as a fighter pilot. He was also terribly nice and extraordinarily modest, and fitted into the squadron very well."
England honored, and continues to honor, this young American who had come to their aid. Fiske was buried in the St Mary and St Blaise churchyard in Boxgrove, Sussex with an inscription on his gravestone that laconically reads: He died for England.
On 4 July 1941, a plaque was unveiled in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, London. The inscription reads: An American citizen who died that England might live. The plaque was unveiled by Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air. He said at the ceremony:
"Here was a young man for whom life held much. Under no kind of compulsion he came to fight for Britain. He came and he fought and he died."
A memorial stained glass window was dedicated to Billy on 17 September 2008 at Boxgrove Priory and during the dedication service a number of former colleagues of Fiske attended and his green Bentley was on display. Fiske is also listed on the Battle of Britain Monument in London and the Battle of Britain Memorial in Capel-le-Ferne.
Billy Fiske believed in commitment. In fact, he was so committed to doing what he believed in that he defied strict neutrality laws by flying in the Royal Air Force—thereby risking loss of his American citizenship and imprisonment if he dared return home. His discipline and dedication to a cause he believed in won him two gold medals and the honor and gratitude of two countries. May we so commit ourselves to our own personal causes and dreams. May we so conduct ourselves that Billy Fiske can always smile down on our efforts with pride.
How committed are you to your ideals?