Built at Squantum, Mass., and commissioned in March 1920, the USS Billingsley (DD-293) was a 1,215-ton Clemson class destroyer which operated along the East Coast and in the Caribbean between 1922 and 1924 before deploying to Europe and the Mediterranean, where she assisted refugees in the Near East. In the spring of 1925, Billingsley served as plane guard for the North Atlantic crossing of the Army "Around-the-World Flight” and returned home in late 1925, conducting additional routine operations along the East Coast until being made inactive in 1929.
The ship’s short lifetime of service unfortunately mimicked its namesake, Ensign William Devotie Billingsley.
Born in Winona, Miss., on April 24, 1887, Billingsley graduated from the Naval Academy in 1909 and became one of the earliest naval aviators. On June 20, 1913, Ensign Billingsley took off from the Annapolis, Md., aviation camp in a Wright B-2 biplane modified into a hydroaeroplane by the addition of pontoons. Carrying Lt. John Towers as a passenger, Ensign Billingsley headed for Claiborne, 18 miles from Annapolis on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay.
In the early days of naval aviation, aviators wore no torso harness or seat belts and sat on the edge of the wing. By the account of Lt. Towers, the Wright B-2 hit some turbulence and the nose dropped abruptly, lurching forward and down. Ensign Billingsley slipped from the wing and through the forward supports. Billingsley's body damaged the rigging and caused the upper wing to fold down, which in turn put the aircraft into descent. Lt. Towers also slipped from the wing but caught a strut or cable with his arm and clung to the airplane as it fell toward the water 1,600 feet below. The aircraft stabilized momentarily before hitting the water and Lt. Towers took the chance to leap clear of the aircraft before it crashed. He was picked up by onlookers; Ensign Billingsley became the first naval aviator killed in the line of duty. He was buried in his hometown of Winona, Miss., where a historic marker has been erected with the following inscription:
“A graduate of Winona High School and the United States Naval Academy class of 1909, Ensign Billingsley was one of the “Bird Men," the pioneers of naval aviation, the fathers of the test pilot generation, and the grandfathers of the astronauts. He was the first U.S. naval and military aviator to die in the line of duty when he perished in an aircraft accident over the Chesapeake Bay on June 20, 1913. Ensign Billingsley is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Winona.”