WWI flying ace honoured 81 years after death

Eight decades after his death, Canada's most decorated war hero was recognized with the unveiling of a monument at a Toronto cemetery on Thursday.

William Barker downed 50 aircraft, earned Victoria Cross

Canadian Lt.-Col. William Barker, Canada's most decorated war hero, is shown in a 1918 file photo. A newly-commissioned monument and door plaque will be unveiled for Barker in Toronto on Thursday. (National Archives of Canada)

A bugler sounded the Last Post and two vintage planes and a CF-18 fighter flew overhead as a monument was dedicated to Canada's most decorated war hero Thursday.

Hundreds of people gathered at a cemetery in midtown Toronto to salute Lt.-Col. William Barker more than 80 years after his death.

It was an honour that had long eluded the First World War flying ace, who died at age 35.

A Royal Canadian Air Force honour guard stood at attention as Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley and air force commander Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps joined seven of Barker's descendants near the podium.

They spoke of the daring exploits of Barker, who downed 50 enemy aircraft during the war and was involved in one of its most famous dogfights. Barker found himself alone against 15 German planes and was shot three times. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

But few Canadians are familiar with his feats, which in time have been largely overshadowed by legendary flying ace Billy Bishop.

Onley called Barker "Canada's greatest pilot ever" as he dedicated the bronze and granite monument outside the mausoleum where his body rests at Mount Pleasant cemetery.

A bronze propeller rises from atop the monument, which features a picture of Barker and a plaque that reads: "most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British empire and the Commonwealth of nations."

Not one pilot under Barker's command nor one plane under his escort was lost to the enemy, the plaque notes.

Honour long overdue, says grandson

Barker's 60-year-old grandson said the honour was long overdue.

"Now we've really fulfilled a duty that we owed to our grandfather and we've righted a wrong that was done to him 81 years ago," said Ian Mackenzie of Vancouver.

"He should have had this from the very beginning, he should have had a public monument so people can find him and now he does," he said.

Before Thursday, the only evidence of Barker's final resting place had been a small marker inside his wife's family crypt at Mount Pleasant. There, his remains were hidden since his death in a flying accident in Ottawa in 1930.

Barker married Jean Kilbourn Smith, who was Bishop's cousin. But Barker's father-in-law, a member of Toronto's high society at the time, didn't think much of the upstart farmer from Manitoba who married his daughter.

That may have influenced his burial place, said Mackenzie.

The idea of a Barker monument was first raised by Ipsos Reid pollster John Wright after he saw the flying ace's understated resting place. In 2009, he contacted Barker's family and Onley about getting a monument erected.

In addition to his bravery as a pilot, there are other reasons Barker deserved proper recognition, said Wright.

"He had 50,000 people at his funeral, was able to start the island airport, had the first commercial airline … [was] the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and he's buried in a crypt that says Smith and no one knows who he is," said Wright.