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Chaplain Method Cyril Billy

Chaplain Method Billy at Grafton Underwood

Chaplain Method Cyril Billy was the first Catholic chaplain of the 384th Bomb Group. He was known by the men of the 384th as Father Billy or Brother Billy.

Father Method Billy was born as Michael Billy on December 12, 1910 to Joseph and Elizabeth Billy who had immigrated to America from Slovakia in 1897. Joseph earned a living as a coal miner in the Midvale section of Plains Township, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth was a housewife and mother. Michael was their fifth of nine children.

They were a religious family and Michael was not the only Billy child to be called into religious service. All three Billy sons became priests: Joseph (Monsignor Florian), John (Reverend Anthony), and Michael (Monsignor Method). Four of the six Billy daughters became nuns and served as teachers: Anna (Sister Ulphia), Elizabeth (Sister Emiliana), Margaret (Sister Gemma), and Cecelia (Sister Elise). Only two daughters, Mary (the oldest daughter) and Emily (the youngest daughter), married and had children.

In 1929, Michael Billy graduated from St. Francis Seminary in Staten Island, New York. He entered the Novitiate of the Conventual Franciscan Friar in Syracuse, New York where he received the religious name, Method Cyril Billy, and professed his religious vows in 1930. He likely took his religious name from the Saints Cyril and Method Friary.

Billy also studied theology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Method Billy was ordained a priest on July 26, 1935. In 1936, he was assigned as a professor at St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, New York, where he remained until at least 1940, according to the 1940 census.

Method Billy enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and served as a Chaplain for four years. He was assigned to the 384th Bombardment Group Headquarters Complement per Headquarters Detachment 384th Bomb Group Morning Report dated 23 August 1943, effective 22 August 1943.

Father Billy saying Mass at Grafton Underwood

In early October 1944, the same month 384th Bomb Group Commander Dale Smith transferred out of the 384th on the 24th, Billy Method was transferred to the 92nd Bomb Group based in Poddington, England. In return, the 92nd Bomb Group sent their Catholic chaplain, Herbert Butterbach, to the 384th.

Regardless of the fact that Brother Billy had left the Group, he was at the 384th in spirit until the end of the war. Eugene Spearman, a radio operator who didn’t arrive at Grafton Underwood until February of 1945, wrote about the 384th’s chaplain and identified him as Brother Billy. To me, this shows the high esteem the men of the 384th had for Method Billy. Billy’s name and reputation lived on even after he had left Grafton Underwood.

We then taxied out to the end of the runway and awaited our signal for take-off. Standing just outside the plane during most of my missions even in rain or snow stood a man, Bro. Billy, holding a Bible. His being there was such a blessing for me. Just knowing that someone was praying for me made me feel better.

Father Method Billy at Grafton Underwood

After the war, Method Billy was Guardian at St. Bonaventure Friary in Washington, D.C. There he pursued advanced studies and received the Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of America, after which he became a Professor of Theology. In 1957, he was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Endicott, New York, and later served as Professor of Religious Studies at Maria Regina College in Syracuse, New York. He later was assigned to Saints Cyril and Method Friary in Binghamton, New York.

Portrait of Method Cyril Billy

Monsignor Method Billy died Nov 9, 1995. He is buried in the Saint Cyril Slovak Catholic Cemetery in Binghamton, Broome County, New York.

Thank you to Candy Kyler Brown with the 92nd Bomb Group for information on the transfers of Billy Method and Herbert Butterbach.

Series to be continued with Chaplain Herbert Butterbach…

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017

384th Bomb Group Chaplains

In WWII, clergy could not be drafted for military service. However, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many felt patriotic and enlisted. Although there were a few exceptions, the requirements for a military chaplain at the time of initial examination included:

  • Male citizen of the USA
  • 23 to 34 years old
  • 4-year college degree
  • 3 years of theological seminary education
  • Ordained, accredited by, and in good standing with a religious denomination or organization
  • Primary occupation in the ministry with 3 years of experience

There were Christian-faith (Catholic and Protestant) and Jewish-faith chaplains in the Chaplains Corps. But there were very limited numbers of chaplains, so often one chaplain would minister to all faiths.

As far as I can tell, the 384th Bomb Group had three chaplains during its stay in Grafton Underwood. Two of those chaplains were Catholic, Method Billy and Herbert Francis Butterbach. The other chaplain was Protestant, Dayle R. Schnelle. I cannot find record of a Jewish chaplain, or Rabbi, but I am still searching.

The importance of the group chaplain to the men of the 384th cannot be underestimated. Eugene Spearman, a radio operator with the group, wrote about the importance of the presence of this religious figure to him before missions.

One thing that I was thankful for was that a minister or priest stood holding a Bible beside the runway just before we released the brakes and raced down the runway on every mission, rain or shine. Standing just beside the end of the runway, where we made that final check of instruments before releasing the brakes, stood a minister. I don’t know what denomination he represented, but it was an inspiration to me to see him there. And then we were on our way.

The first Catholic chaplain was Method C. Billy. Brother Billy or Father Billy, as he was known, served under the first group commander, Budd Peaslee, and the second, interim commander, Julius Lacey. In the Fall of 1943, Dale Smith took command of the 384th. Smith wrote in his book “Screaming Eagle” that his service with the 384th was the “most challenging and terrifying year of my life.”

Smith found that the men of the 384th had such respect for original commander Budd Peaslee that any replacement could not measure up to the great man. Ask anyone familiar with 384th Bomb Group history today who the commander of the 384th was and the answer will be Budd Peaslee. There was a succession of commanders, six of them in fact, but the only name you will likely hear in answer to that question is Peaslee’s.

Smith felt like an outsider at Grafton Underwood and felt the continued allegiance of the men to Peaslee to such an extent that he replaced many of the group’s leaders. Perhaps Brother Billy was one of those or who did not fit into Smith’s plans for the group. In the Fall of 1944, Smith transferred Brother Billy and replaced him with Herbert Francis Butterbach.

At the end of WWII, when the 384th Bomb Group moved to Istres, France, they had at least one chaplain with them with the last name Duvall. He could have been James T. Duvall, who served during the war as chaplain of the 398th Bomb Group, according to the American Air Museum in Britain.

For more information about the Chaplain Corps, click here.

Thank you to 384th Bomb Group Combat Data Specialist and Researcher Keith Ellefson for contributions to this article.

I will continue this series with separate posts about and photos of Chaplains Billy Method, Herbert Francis Butterbach, Dayle R. Schnelle, and James T. Duvall…

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017