Farewell to a Freedom Fighter

Lessons from a WWII combat veteran.

Last week my uncle James Richard Billingsley passed away at his home in Vancouver at the age of 94. He was one of dwindling number of World War II veterans who actually fought in combat against the German National Socialist regime. That victory enabled millions in the West to live in peace and freedom for decades. So let me tell you something about this man.

His father Lorne Henry Billingsley, my grandfather, shipped out with the first Canadian contingent for World War I and was one of the first victims of German mustard gas attack, what we now call chemical weapons. Millions perished in that conflict, but Lorne Billingsley made it back. James Richard Billingsley was the second of his eight children, raised in Saskatchewan in difficult conditions to say the least. Through the Depression of the 1930s, the family pulled together and prevailed.

James Billingsley enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan but in the spring of 1942 he left his studies to enlist in the Canadian Army, then fully engaged in Europe against the Nazis. He served with the Eighth Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment, an outfit assembled in Europe and heavy on troops from the Canadian prairies. They saw plenty of action and witnessed Nazi atrocities.

On April 12, 1945, troops of the Eighth Canadian Reconnaissance “B” squadron liberated Camp Westerbork in Holland, a Nazi transit station for Jews being shipped to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. The Canadians liberated 876 inmates and their actions surely saved many other lives.

James Billingsley’s major engagements included the battles of Groningen and Oldenburg, on the enemy’s home turf. The Nazis were throwing everything they had against the Canadians, and James Billingsley was twice wounded in action, once by a German sniper. Army brass wanted to steer him into intelligence work but he returned to his regiment and fought on, rising to the rank of Captain.

He was a true combat veteran and, as it happens, the last Canadian Prime Minister to do anything comparable was Lester Pearson, who took office in 1963. Pierre Trudeau, elected in 1968, was an officer cadet during World War II, but he never served. Few WW11 combat veterans cared much for the man. 

Prime Ministers Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper rendered no military service of any kind. Neither did current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Trudeau fils is not exactly a fan of Canada’s military. On the other hand, like his father, he was quite fond of Sado-Stalinist dictator Fidel Castro, whose troops were the Soviets’ foreign legion in Africa.

One also thinks of former Defense Minister John McCallum, who did not know the difference between Vimy Ridge, a WWI battle, and Vichy, seat of the French government that collaborated with the Nazis during WWII.

As it happens, Lorne Henry Billingsley was with the Canadian forces at Vimy Ridge. His son James Richard Billingsley fought the Nazis all over Europe and his brother Kenneth Billingsley, my father, served in the Canadian Merchant Navy. Despite constant danger from German submarines, they got the Allied troops the supplies they needed.

They fought on the beaches, they fought in the skies, they fought on the landing grounds. They fought the Nazi menace and rid the earth of its shadow. Even so, James Billingsley never forgot the lessons he learned fighting Hitler’s National Socialist forces. 

Years later, a letter from a socialist provincial government demanded “You shall appear” at a certain building on some trivial matter related to automobile insurance. 

“I shall not be appearing,” was his immediate response and he made good on it. He had earned the right to push back, and he did.

“Even if you don’t have any bread,” he once told me, “you should know what side you like it buttered on.” James Billingsley knew what side he liked it buttered on, the side of freedom. He earned a geology degree from the University of British Columbia and his long career in the mining industry contributed to the prosperity of the province and nation.

Those in power today are not worthy to carry his shoes, but maybe leaders in the West can learn a thing or two from this hero. James Richard Billingsley knew that freedom was not free, and that freedom was always in peril. Like fellow Canadian John McCrae, he would say “take up our quarrel with the foe.” He passes the torch, so be careful not to drop it.

As all but the willfully blind can recognize, the foes of freedom are everywhere on the march. Unlike the Nazis and Soviets, they infiltrate operatives to kill innocent civilians and claim divine sanction for their deadly actions.

Fear not their threats. Fight them on the beaches. Fight them in the streets. Fight them in the media. Never retreat and never surrender. Your children and grandchildren will thank you for it.