Essex Memorial Spitfire Priscilla A Fierce Tribute To WWII Airmen

The Essex Memorial Spitfire, a tribute to Windsor Essex area World War Two air force vets, was erected in September only a couple of months before Remembrance Day 2014.

Record crowds joined Remembrance Day ceremonies across Canada this year reflecting the tragic losses of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent recently. At the Town of Essex Cenotaph a large crowd gathered, with extra security, to pay tribute as two Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunks did a fly by overhead.

“Essex was well attended with lots of Police. We also had 2 DHC Chipmunks fly over as well. Glad it was a nice day,” says Suzanne Allison.

Following the ceremony people gathered at the Essex Royal Canadian Legion where, located right behind it, stands the recently erected Essex Memorial Spitfire.

The Essex Memorial Spitfire monument featuring a replica of local Ace Fighter Pilot Jerry Billings’ WWII Spitfire pays tribute to about 400 second world war Royal Canadian Air Force and British Royal Air Force Veterans from Windsor Essex.

The Spitfire is a full scale replica Mark IX identical in every detail to the RCAF 401 Squadron YOD ML135 Billings flew into the Normandy D-Day Battle in 1944. Essex Memorial Spitfire Committee co-chair Mike Beale explains, “the Spitfire is identical in every detail to the one Jerry flew, including the black and white D-Day invasion stripes on the wings and the light green number on the side of the plane (Jerry’s call sign). You can only see the the last one or two numbers on the wing because the black and white stripes are painted over the rest of the serial number, exactly the way it was on D-Day June 6th. The Spitfire replica is entirely accurate.”

The Spitfire was mounted at Heritage Park (soon to be renamed Spitfire Park) in Essex after being paraded through town on September 15, 2014. On Sunday September 21, 2014 a dedication ceremony was held at the monument.

The replica Spitfire was built in England by GB Replicas, shipped to Toronto, and Chrysler Canada generously delivered it from there by truck to Essex.

After arriving in Essex the Spitfire was revealed for the first time to the media and Essex Town Counsel at Essex Memorial Arena on Sept 4, 2014.

Bob Swaddling, Spitfire historian, and long time friend of the Billings family is responsible for getting the memorial off the ground. A mural dedicated to Jerry Billings painted on the wall of a Canadian Tire store in Essex was destroyed when the building was torn down. “I did a speech in 2013 in front of Essex Town Council and said it was a shame that Essex doesn’t put Jerry Billings’ Mural back up. Better yet let’s get a full scale Spitfire and put it up in a park”, says Swaddling.

After that speech The Essex Memorial Spitfire committee formed as a sub committee of the Southern Ontario Military Muster. This team of dedicated individuals vigorously worked to get the project completed.

Jerry Billings is now 93 years old and lives in a Windsor retirement home. The committee wanted to make the memorial a reality so Billings would be around to see it for himself.

The committee and everyone involved worked quickly and “here we are today,” says Swaddling at the media event proudly gesturing towards the stunning Spitfire sitting in the middle of Essex Memorial Arena. Humbly he refuses to take credit stating, “we had all the right people, at the right time, at the right place, and it snowballed” states, Swaddling.

The monument now erected and the dedication ceremony are a fitting tribute to Billings.

Swaddling says, “they say never say never but you’ll NEVER see anyone fly a Spitfire like Jerry ever again.”

“Jerry is such a skilled pilot, the man is a ballerina in the air, nobody flew a Spitfire like Jerry”, says committee member Joe Gibson. According to Gibson, “Alex Henshaw, the Chief Spitfire test pilot during the war, basically said Jerry was the best demonstration Spitfire pilot he has ever seen.”

Gibson was honoured to fly with Billings here in Essex. During takeoff (from Jerry’s home/farm) Billings purposefully waited until arriving at the end of the runway, terrifying Gibson, before pulling off the runway. “He (Jerry) pulls off the runway and banks the left wing tip into the wheat,” says Gibson, “I didn’t know what was going on, Jerry scared the heck out of me, so I grabbed the cross bar while I was watching the ground. He then leveled the plane and as I looked up there was his barn right in front of us. Jerry did it on purpose and knew exactly what he was doing.” After pulling up over the barn the pair proceeded to about 5000 feet. Jerry then said, “Joe to our left you’ll see Lake St. Clair, to our rear is the Detroit River, over here is Lake Erie, and now we’re going to do a loop.” Gibson explains, “this airplane was a 1946 Aeronca Champ with a 65 horsepower engine with tandem seating and wooden spars. This airplane was not designed for aerobatics. We proceeded to dive to 120 knots and executed a loop, well more like an egg shaped loop. We didn’t experience any heavy Gs, and the plane didn’t know it was doing a loop because we had a very skilled pilot, Jerry Billings.”

Essex Councillor Randy Voakes played a role in getting help from Chrysler Canada and donations from Unifor Locals 444 and 200 toward the Essex Memorial Spitfire project. Unfortunately, about a week prior to the media reveal Voakes’ 30 year old daughter, Priscilla Campbell, suddenly passed away from heart failure. Campbell was an artist and activist suffering from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from an early age. Campbell was only 4’10” but her size could not contain her spirit. Campbell’s left arm bore a tattoo that read, “although she be but little, she is fierce.” Fittingly The Essex Memorial Spitfire Committee decided to name their fierce little Spitfire “Pricilla” as a tribute to Campbell and her family.

Erik Billings, Jerry’s son, was pleased with the crowd that attended the Essex Memorial Spitfire dedication ceremony. “If it wasn’t for the guys of my dad’s generation there would be different flags flying on our flag poles, this memorial is for the air crews and ground crews, everybody who served,” says Erik.

91 year old Jack Malone and his wife Hazil Malone traveled from London, Ontario to attended the dedication ceremony. Jack is a retired RCAF squadron leader and Spitfire pilot who served during the Second World War.

Malone is one of few WWII Spitfire pilots still among us.

“The ceremony was very good and I’m glad we came,” says Malone, “I wanted to see Jerry and I thought the dedication would be a good time to do it. There’s not many of us left, there is Jerry and Tom Wheeler who lives in B.C.”

After the ceremony Malone visited his 93 year old friend, Jerry Billings, in a long term care facility in Windsor.

Jerry Billings was unable to attend the dedication ceremony because of health reasons. However, Billings watched the entire event live over Skype. “He was tickled,” says Erik, “he was able to see the entire thing and he was very impressed. He is still with us and that’s a good sign,” says Erik.

A few days after the dedication ceremony, when there wasn’t a crowd, Jerry Billings did get to visit the Essex Memorial Spitfire in person. Paramedics volunteered to transport him there. Jerry enjoyed the monument with family and close friends.

Jerry Billings served two tours during WWII registering over 250 combat missions, being shot down and evading capture several times, including during the infamous D-Day invasion/battle. After the war Jerry continued to serve in the RCAF until 1964. Overall, he spent almost 53 years performing spectacular Spitfire flight displays and maneuvers for crowds all across North America.

The Essex Memorial Spitfire and monument symbolizes a tribute to not only Jerry Billings but all RAF/RCAF WWII Vets from the Windsor Essex area. “It’s not just about Jerry and the Spitfire,” says Geoff Bottoms, founder and president of The Southern Ontario Military Muster. Bottoms goes on to explain, ” There are actually three WWII Spitfire Aces from Essex County and if we had the money we would have put up three Spitfires in a row. In Essex the smartest thing to do was dedicate the Spitfire to Jerry but it represents all Essex County airmen as reminder of the sacrifices they made for our country.”