WILLIAM DEVOTIE BILLINGSLEY
Ensign, United States Navy Aviator
from Winona, Mississippi
April 24, 1887 - June 20, 1913
Submitted August 28, 2006 by
(click for a good story about Devotie Billingsley on website run by Dr.
(There is a lot of info on
him (Devotie Billingsley) in Naval archives, and some on
the 'net, but Dr. Cooper's site is very good. Devotie is
buried in Winona, where many of his family still live.
His father was also named William Devotie Billingsley,
and was Sheriff of Carroll County at the turn of the
century, then a banker and farmer in Winona, with a
1,000 acre farm outside of town. The family goes back a
ways in that area.
You're welcome to run his
photo, my story and a link, if you think it's
worthwhile. He was one of Carroll County's military
pioneers in aviation.- Paul Shaw)
Devotie Billingsley, a native of Winona, Mississippi, was
the first Naval aviator killed in the performance of duty.
My grandmother, Alma
Billingsley Shaw, wife of Oliver A. Shaw of Winona, lived
in Winona for the first part of her life. She had several
brothers and sisters, one of whom was Devotie. Here is what
I remember from family stories, and from Navy archives.
Shortly after graduating
from the Naval Academy, Devotie entered the new Navy flying
program and reported to the Aviation Camp in Annapolis, Md.
to train on the Navy-Wright B-2 aircraft on Dec. 2, 1912. He
was designated "Aviator No. 9." On January 6, 1913, the
aviation group went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to train with
fleet ships in scouting missions, searching for submarines,
bombing runs, aerial photography and to accustom fleet
personnel with working with aircraft. It was the first
aviation base for Naval operations with the fleet. Earlier
experiments with modifying aircraft into "hydroaeroplanes"
had been going on since early 1911; that project was now
extended to the B-2 biplane. In early spring of 1913, the
aviation group returned to Annapolis.
On June 20, 1913, Devotie
was piloting a Wright B-2 biplane with the pusher prop,
rigged with pontoons which would allow water landings. Lt.
John Towers, who had already proven himself an innovative
pioneer in early Naval aviation, was Billingsley's passenger.
The two sat at the leading edge of the wing; at that time,
there were no seatbelts in use. It would prove ironic that
the B-2 had been designed without the front canard, but was
built with a rear elevator, unlike earlier Wright biplanes.
The design was intended to give the aircraft "better
longitudinal stability." It was in a trial run, bracketed by
an aircraft in front, and one to the rear for observation
purposes. I don't know if either of the other aircraft were amphibs, or not.
The following paragraph is
taken from the Army Navy Journal dated June 28, 1913. It
agrees with the family account:
"Ensign Billingsley, in a
Wright biplane, B-2, that had been converted into a
hydroplane by the addition of pontoons, with Lieutenant
Towers as a passenger, started from the aviation camp in the
morning at about ten for Claiborne, on the eastern side of
the bay, eighteen miles from Annapolis. A Curtiss machine,
with Ensign G. DeC. Chevalier and Lieutenant I. F. Dortch,
U.S.N., also took the trip. They were followed at a distance
of several miles by a launch containing Chief Elec. B. L.
Bronson, a mechanician at the camp; F. Killian, a seaman,
and M. J. Twigg, a student of St. John's College and friend
of Ensign Billingsley."
According to Lt. Towers and
the observers on the other airplanes, the Billingsley craft
hit an air pocket and dropped abruptly, lurching forward and
down, throwing Billingsley from the wing and through the
forward supports, his body damaging the rigging to the point
that the upper wing folded down, dooming the aircraft. Lt.
Towers, also thrown from the airplane, luckily caught a
strut or cable with his arm, and clung to the now-collapsed
airplane as it plummeted toward the water, 1,600 feet below.
Devotie's father, William
Devotie Billingsley, would for years sit in his Mississippi
home and relate the details of his son's demise, telling how
Devotie's body spiraled around and around as he fell toward
the river. He would indicate the spiraling death fall with
his hand before holding his face in his hands and mourning
his great loss.
Lt. Towers rode the damaged
plane almost to the water. The plane, at first taking a
steep nose-pe, swooped to a level attitude a couple of
times as it descended, then resumed its precipitous decline.
Just before it impacted the river, the wreckage leveled out
enough for Towers to push himself clear, and fall to the
The story I heard was that
Lt. Towers impacted the water on his side, and was rescued
by onlookers. Confident that he may well die, he insisted on
giving his account of the accident before being taken for
The early aviators were
brave and daring men, and no doubt knew there were high
risks involved. The Navy, in appreciation of Devotie
Billingsley's sacrifice, named a destroyer after him. In
March, 1920, the USS Billingsley, DD-293, was commissioned.
Photograph from Navy Archives -
Photo taken about 1920.
The destroyer named after Winona native, William Devotie Billingsley,
USS Billingsley DD-293
Devotie on deck" was
taken some time between 1911 and 1913.By his dress
uniform, we know that he had received his commission as
an Ensign at the time. I don't know what ship he was on.
Devotie Billingsley as a
midshipman when he was at the Naval Academy in