75 years ago, a 19 year old RCAF fighter pilot named John Gillespie Magee, Jr., wrote a poem that continues to resonate today.
Magee was born on June 9th, 1922 in Shaghai, China. He began his education at the American School in Nanking from 1929 – 1931, and then moved with his mother to Britain where he continued his education. Notably, in 1938, he won the Rugby School’s poetry prize. The following year, he moved to the USA to live with his aunt. While there, he earned a scholarship to Yale University, where his father was a chaplain. However, rather than enrolling, he chose to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940.
So, at the age of 18, Magee went to Canada and enrolled. Following his flight training, he went back to England as a commissioned pilot officer. It was during his training in the Spitfire aircraft that he was assigned to make a high altitude flight ‘into the stratosphere’. On landing, he went to his quarters and there wrote his now famous sonnet on the back of a letter to his mother:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
It was on December 11th of 1941 that on returning to base with his squadron (#412 Falcon Squadron), following a successful training exercise, Magee’s Spitfire collided with an Airspeed Oxford piloted by Ernest Aubrey Griffin. Both pilots were killed.
Along with other Canadian airmen who lost their lives while stationed at Digby, John Gillespie Magee is buried in the Scopwick Church Burial Ground, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom. Within days of his death, ‘High Flight’ had been reprinted in newspapers. Soon after, the RCAF began distributing plaques with the text of the poem to British and Canadian airfields and training stations. And before long, copies of the poem could be found in the pockets of many fighter pilots. It is one of the best known poems of WWII.