Tuesday, January 8, 2002
Fiske was an American and Bristish hero
By Jeff Merron and Eric Neel
Special to ESPN.com
At the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., hometown hero Billy Fiske was one of the first to arrive -- he carried the flag for the U.S. team in the opening ceremonies -- and he was also among the last to leave.
Fiske was the driver of the four-man bobsled, an Olympic veteran who already had won a gold medal as leader of the five-man bobsled at the St. Mortiz Games in 1928. Because of bad weather that plagued the Games, the bobsled wouldn't be contested until after the closing ceremonies.
The 1932 four-man bobsled team was one of the most interesting in Olympic history. There was Fiske, whose victory as a 16-year-old made him the youngest Winter Olympic gold medalist until the 1992 Games. There was Eddie Eagan, who was the 1920 light-heavyweight boxing champ at the 1920 Summer Olympics. There was Clifford Grey, a successful pop songwriter (among his 3,000 or so song credits are "Dream Lover" and "Paris Stay the Same" from the1929 film, "The Love Parade"), And there was Jay O'Brien, who at 48 would become the oldest male gold medalist in Winter Olympic history.
The course at Lake Placid was a long and dangerous 1.5 miles, but Fiske's team had the fastest times in three of four runs, and won the gold by more than two seconds ahead of another U.S. team. The third-place German squad finished more than six seconds behind.
Fiske had won his second gold medal, and, at 20, seemed to have a long, prosperous sporting career ahead of him. He continued racing, winning the Grand National championship in 1936 and 1938, but refused to participate in the 1936 Winter Games. He told a friend that he didn't participate in the Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, because of his disdain for Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and their anti-Semitic policies.
In September 1939, Fiske, a live-life-to-the-fullest daredevil, decided to fly for Britain's Royal Air Force. England had declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, and Fiske became the first American pilot to fly for the RAF (there would eventually be three squadrons of Americans in the RAF).
At 12:25 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1940, Fiske took off in his Hurricane fighter plane in an effort to defend the Tangmere aerodrome from an attack by German dive-bombers. His squadron succeeded in driving the Germans away, but Fiske's plane was damaged. His plane glided to a belly landing and caught fire. Fiske suffered severe burns and died two days later.
He was the first American pilot to die in World War II, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. A plaque at his gravesite reads: "To Pilot Officer William Mead Lindsley Fiske III, an American citizen who died that England may live."
Information from published reports was used in compiling this story