As a former Navy flier, I’m familiar with a poem called “High Flight.” It’s popular with pilots and is frequently displayed on the walls of air bases and flying schools.
Maybe you’ve encountered the poem yourself. It begins:
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 .
Its conclusion is even better known:
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.
In the 1960s, the poem was used by U.S. TV stations when signing off for the night. Individual lines have been carved into the gravestones of pilots and astronauts. President Reagan quoted from it in his speech commemorating the crew of the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
But while many people are aware of the poem, few can tell you who the author was. Even fewer can tell you anything about him. So Memorial Day is an appropriate occasion to honor his memory.
“High Flight” was written by a young man named John Gillespie Magee Jr.
He was born in China in 1922. His parents were missionaries. His father was American, his mother English. So young John would taste life on three continents. From the beginning, he showed exceptional promise. He was educated at Britain’s prestigious Rugby School. He wrote his first poems at the age of 12, and at 16 he won a major prize for poetry. Two years later, at 18, he moved to the United States and won a scholarship to Yale.
But the year that would have been his freshman year was 1940, and John Magee heard a higher call. German bombers were devastating his mother’s homeland. People who had been his friends and mentors were being hurt, made homeless or killed. So John Magee passed up his chance to go to Yale, and with it his chance to win fame as a scholar and a poet. He chose instead to enlist in the Royal Air Force.
He almost didn’t make it. His parents strongly opposed his decision, and the State Department refused him a visa to go to England to sign up because America was still a neutral country at the time. So young John slipped across the border into Canada to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In Canada, he was nearly thwarted again — this time by the Canadian enlistment authorities. At his physical, the slight, poetry-loving lad was found to be 16 pounds underweight. So the medics rejected him as unfit for military service.
Now, it’s unlikely that anyone would have blamed John Magee if he had accepted that medical verdict as final. After all, he had already done a lot more than most other young men in his position might have done. He might have decided that he was an American, America was neutral, and so it wasn’t really his fight that was raging on the other side of the Atlantic. He might have given up trying to enlist and taken the scholarship to Yale.
But John Magee wouldn’t quit. Instead, he resolved to eat his way into the Canadian Air Force. By gorging himself unmercifully for the next two weeks, he managed to gain enough weight to pass the physical and qualify for flight school.
He was sent to England in September 1941. There, he wrote “High Flight” while serving with a Spitfire squadron. In a letter to his parents, he said that the inspiration for the poem — or “ditty” as he called it — struck him at 30,000 feet, and it was finished soon after he landed.
Sadly, his career with the RAF would likewise prove short. He was killed in a mid-air collision on Dec. 11, 1941 — just three days after America entered the war.
Thus ended the life and aspiring literary career of John Gillespie Magee Jr. He was destined to leave behind just one memorable poem — a sonnet — but a poem as rare and stirring as his life. He, and millions of other fine young people in uniform whose stories we will never know, gave their todays for our tomorrows. This Memorial Day, let’s take a quiet moment to remember them.
• Thomas C. Stewart is a former Navy commander who flew combat during the first Iraq war.