A year ago, a military historian wandering through Mount Pleasant Cemetery would have been hard-pressed to locate the final resting place of Canada’s most decorated war hero.
That changed on Sept. 22, when dignitaries and citizens gathered at the midtown cemetery to unveil a monument in honour of William George Barker, VC.
The tribute, a bronze propeller rising from a stone block, was long overdue for the First World War Victoria Cross recipient, family and historians say.
Considered an icon at the time of his death in 1930 for the air battles he waged as a flying ace, Barker’s state funeral was the largest in Toronto’s history, attracting politicians, military personnel and a 2,000-man honour guard.
“And then the door slammed on him,” said grandson Ian Mackenzie the evening before the unveiling.
After the funeral, Barker was laid to rest in his in-laws’ crypt. But with a name different than his own — Smith — adorning it and with no public monument or plaque, he vanished from the public consciousness, Mackenzie said.
“So we’re correcting shall we say, an injustice to his name that’s lasted for 81 years,” he said.
Mackenzie, who helped design the monument with his two brothers Alec and David, credits author Wayne Ralph, and John Wright, senior vice-president at Ipsos-Reid, for the recognition his grandfather is receiving.
According to Mackenzie, Ralph had been conducting research for a book he was writing on wartime heroes when he went in search of Barker’s resting place. Mackenzie said he was astonished there was no on-site indication that Barker was indeed resting there.
“And part of (what) the book is asking is, ‘how could this possibly have happened?’ ”
Ralph no doubt chose a compelling subject for the book, titled William Barker, VC: the Life, Death and Legend of Canada’s Most Decorated War Hero.
Barker was born in 1894 in Dauphin, Man. On Dec. 1, 1914, he enlisted with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles Regiment and trained as a machine-gunner. Eventually, he joined the Royal Flying Corps. In the ensuing years, he earned multiple decorations for shooting down enemy aircraft in a myriad of combat operations.
Credited with a total of 53 aerial victories during WWI, Barker won the Victoria Cross for an October 1918 air battle that saw him single-handedly combat multiple German aircraft. Barker was severely injured in that battle, but successfully crash-landed the plane.
After the war, Barker would go on to found a Toronto-based air charter and aircraft maintenance firm with fellow Victoria Cross recipient William Avery (Billy) Bishop. The venture was short-lived, but Barker would continue to work in civil and military aviation. In 1927, Toronto Maple Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe named Barker the first president of the hockey club.
According to Ralph’s book, Barker may have even been immortalized in a character from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, though in it he was portrayed in a distinctly negative light. In the book the character Barker was referred to as a “bloody murderous bastard.”
In an online biography of Barker, Ralph wrote Barker’s character was “in keeping with the tradition of the larger-than-life hero”.
In early 1930, Barker was killed when he lost control of a plane during a demonstration at an air station in Ottawa. His state funeral was held in March of 1930.
Mackenzie says his grandfather will now receive the recognition he deserves.
“In my opinion his greatest achievement was the fact that he was from very humble farming frontier stock from Manitoba … he grew up in a log cabin and entered the Great War as a simple soldier,” Mackenzie said.
Barker lived in several homes in Toronto, but according to Mackenzie, all but one — on Alexandra Boulevard in Lawrence Park — has been torn down or replaced. He was married to Jean Kilbourn Smith, with whom he had one daughter.
Wright, who took a huge interest in Barker’s story, is credited with getting the monument built, and was the master of ceremonies at the unveiling. A new bronze insignia is now affixed to the Smith crypt door, with a description of Barker as the “most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations.”
—With files from Francis Crescia
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