Bill Fiske’s Sacrifice

By Andrew Court

It’s July 1940, and No. 601 Squadron RAF is dashing across the English Channel to confront the German Lufthwaffe.

At the helm of a Hawker Hurricane is Chicago-born banking heir Bill Fiske. The United States isn’t yet in the war but this hasn’t stopped Fiske, who pretended to be a Canadian to join up. The battle is raging and his squadron, cheekily dubbed “The Millionaires,” has destroyed eight German dive-bombing Stukas.

The Nazis, however, fire back. Fiske takes a bullet through the gas tank, setting his airplane aflame. He’s able to nurse the Hurricane home without bailing out but is badly burnt. Over the next several days doctors try to save him but eventually he gives in to surgical shock. At the age of only 29, Fiske is laid to rest in English soil with both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped across his coffin. The war is in its beginnings, but Bill’s incredible life story is at an end.

Before joining the RAF, Fiske wrote: “I’m probably twice as scared as the next man, but if anything happens to me I at least feel I have done the right thing in spite of the worry to my family—which I certainly couldn’t feel if I was to sit in New York making dough.”

We are approaching Memorial Day, and while Fiske was technically fighting for the British, it’s safe to say he had all of our freedoms in mind. This was clearly a choice of free will, no one forced him to leave neutral U.S. shores to throw his lot in with the UK on the brink of defeat. The most amazing part, however, is the life he gave up to do what he felt as right.

William Meade Lindley Fiske III was born in Chicago on June 4, 1911, the son of a successful international banker whose family could trace their American roots back to the Mayflower. When Bill was 13 his family moved to France and he eventually made his way to Cambridge to study economics. From this point he became a confirmed Anglophile, an aspect of his character which would drive the course of his life.

I first encountered Bill Fiske as a footnote in my previous Field Ethos piece about the Cresta Run. Fiske was a Cresta champion known around town in St. Moritz for jumping from The Badrutt Palace Hotel bar’s chandelier. The celebration was well deserved as he became the youngest Winter Olympic gold medalist for driving the five man bobsled. His record, set in 1928, came at just 16 and would stand for64 years.

His desire for speed also bled into a love of fast cars, specifically a 4.5 liter drop-top Bentley. Fiske took part in rallies and competitions across the European continent, racing the 24 hours of Le Mans when he was just 19. Later he decided to up his game with a Blower Bentley, which he raced at an average of 121.4 miles per hour around Brooklands’ high banked circuit.

Back in America Fiske was inspired by his time as a winter athlete to develop a decrepit Colorado mining town as a ski resort. The town, which you may have heard of, is called Aspen.

In the 1930s Aspen was a far cry from the champagne-popping luxury excess of the present day. The mining operation was well past its prime and the town was at risk of being abandoned. Fiske, however, saw something that reminded him of the Alps. In the United States at this time, cross-country skiing was all the rage and even ski jumping was having a moment, but because mechanical lifts had yet to reach America downhill hadn’t taken off.

Fiske and his business partners were undeterred, and in the Fall of 1936 began construction of the Highland Bavarian Lodge about five miles south of town. To get around the lack of lifts they attached rowboats to old mining equipment to pull people uphill. They recruited Europeans to plan runs and organize local ski clubs.

Patience, to be fair, wasn’t one of Bill Fiske’s best qualities and seeing that Aspen would take years to develop he returned to New York to work in the family banking firm. His feet, however, got itchy and by 1938 he was back for the winter season, sledding the Cresta Run in St. Moritz. This time he formed connections that would go beyond partying and sports records. Fiske would meet his British wife and a group of athletes who would become his comrades in the Millionaires’ squadron.

This would set up his heroic and tragic final act as an RAF pilot.

We tend to write off trust fund kids, and justifiably so—a lot of them are selfish lazy assholes. But Bill Fiske proves that the opposite can also be true. He moved through life with focus and passion. Yes, Bill did have his fun but he also showed us how to make sacrifices for our nobler natures.

From the FE Films Archive

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