Next month, February 2012, will mark the 70th anniversary of the exhibit that helped propel John Magee’s “High Flight” to national attention.
The exhibition was called “Poems of Faith and Freedom” and was put on by the Library of Congress. The Libriarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, a poet himself, was responsible for the creation of the exhibit. Along with High Flight were poems by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (“In Flanders Fields”) and Rupert Brooke (“The Soldier”). I’m sure John Magee would have been thrilled to have his poem be shown alongside a poem written by his idol Rupert Brooke (Magee actually wrote a poem about Brooke, called, appropriately enough, “Sonnet to Rupert Brooke”).
In a press release, MacLeish declared “High Flight” to be the first great poem of this war. (Keep in mind that this is February 1942, a mere two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. ) MacCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was one of the great poems from WWI.
Newspapers picked up on the press release, as well as the fact that John Magee, who was listed as a resident of Washington, D.C., had died just after Pearl Harbor. “High Flight” was “discovered” and, in today’s terms, went viral.
Last Friday, April 26th, 2013, I made a trip of about 250 miles, the distance between my home in North Carolina and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. This particular journey, however, had its true origins nearly 73 years ago on an airfield in Llandow, Wales. On a September day in 1941, a pilot wrote a letter to his parents. In many ways, this letter was what you could expect from a young man serving in combat, nothing really earth-shaking, just general news and happenings. The pilot did include a poem; a sonnet, really, something written for his parents, particularly his father. Again, nothing special, he called it a “ditty.”
This young man would have never, in his wildest dreams, suspected what would ultimately become of that letter and sonnet. How could he have known that he had succeeded in capturing lightning in a bottle? The young pilot had managed to distill what it meant to fly, and committed it to paper. He included the resulting sonnet in a letter to his parents, dated September 3rd, 1941.
The author, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., and his sonnet, “High Flight,” would come to be read and heard by millions of people around the world. To the present day, “High Flight” continues to inspire.
My own journey had begun when I first heard the poem on television in the 1970s. Accompanied by music and a jet cavorting with the clouds, a voice recited this amazing poem. I was entranced. In 1990, I took on the task of finding out all I could about the author, and bringing his story to the world. This journey has taken me thousands of miles, introduced me to hundreds of people, and finally took me to the source. The ultimate source, you might say. The original letter containing “High Flight” that John Magee wrote to his parents.
The years have not been kind to the letter. It has been publicly exhibited at least twice; the first at the Library of Congress starting in February 1942, and the second time by the US Air Force Museum in 1975. It has been copied, perhaps several times, being subjected to very bright light each time. And so, much more than other letters written during that period, the original letter is barely legible. But it can be read.
I was allowed to view the original letter only after pleading my case many times. My efforts paid off last Friday, when I was allowed by Dr. Alice Birney to view the letter. I couldn’t touch it, since it was in a special case and further protected by special plastic. But… I got as close to it as anybody will be able to from here on out, as the Library of Congress is taking special precautions to limit exposure to even regular light.
And so… my journey has taken me to this spot, to see the very letter that has inspired me and millions of other people. And now I can say that I have seen, with my own eyes, John Magee’s own summation of “slipping the surly bonds of earth” and “touching the face of God.”
And that, surely, is good enough.
Dr. Alice Birney and I examine “High Flight.”
I am very sad to note the passing of David Backhouse Magee, John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s brother. David passed away on March 11, 2013, in White Plains, NY, after a brief illness. David was born in Kuling, China, on July 6th, 1925, the second child of John and Faith Magee. David was one of two Magee brothers who was born in China (old brother John was born in Shanghai, China; Christopher was born in Japan in 1928, and Frederick Hugh was born in England in 1933).
During John’s training in the Royal Canadian Air Force, David was John’s confidant. John often wrote to David about thoughts, feelings and experiences that were happening to John on almost a daily basis.
Many of the letters John wrote to David began with “Frater,” Latin for “Brother.” Many times the letters would end with a request for David to keep the letters from being read by anybody else in the family (and having read some of those letters, I can certainly understand why!).
Perhaps inspired by his older brother, David entered into the Army Air Corps in 1943 and served until the end of the war in 1945. The “rest of the story” of David’s life can be found on the NY Times website:
After John Jr. joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, and before he began his flight training, he experienced a seemingly interminable period of time waiting to begin flying. John was posted at the RCAF Base at Trenton, Ontario, and standing guard duty outdoors during extremely cold Canadian nights. He wrote a heartfelt letter to his brother David, pouring out his feelings and emotions. John, who always felt that his own death was not far away, gave what might be considered a final message to David:
“Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave et vale!”
I’m sure that David understood the message. Please pardon me, but I would like to resend that message, written some 73 years ago, from brother to brother:
“And forever, brother, hail and farewell!”
During my research on John Magee, I had found out that he was a cousin to Christopher Lyman Magee. Chris was a member of the famed WWII Black Sheep squadron, becoming an ace with nine kills.
Since I have been putting together a family tree for John Magee, I wanted to know exactly how John and Chris were related. So I read a couple of great books, one on the Black Sheep squadron itself: Once They Were Eagles: The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron by Frank Walton, and Lost Black Sheep: The Search for WWII Ace Chris Magee by Robert T. Reed.
Most of the specific information I got was from Reed’s book. It’s an impressive story about a complex man. I was very touched about the ups and downs of Chris’s life. Chris has actually joined the RCAF just about the time John was shipping out overseas, mid-1941, and transferred to the Navy/Marine Corps a little later. I wondered if Chris was inspired by what his cousin John had done, or was just eager to become a fighter pilot. Both Chris and John flew a couple of the most advanced fighters of that time: the Chance-Vought Corsair and the Supermarine Spitfire, respectively.
Chris and John also shared a love of reading and writing. Did they ever meet, I wonder? If they did, I can’t help but wonder what the conversation would have been like…
– Continued from O Canada (Part 1) –
Driving from Toronto to Trenton, I got a few tantalizing glimpses of Lake Ontario. Arriving in Trenton, I drove around the area, spotting several WWII vintage buildings. However, it seems entirely too busy and modern here to do much in the way of filming.
John Magee attended his ITS (Initial Training School) at Trenton. Much like boot camp in the U.S., Magee had to learn how to be a part of the military. So much to learn: how to dress, walk, salute, etc. There is some air training here, but just ground school… no flying, not yet.
The Canadian Forces 8 Wing is located here, and were certainly very busy while I was visiting. Lots of flying activity going on. The National Air Force Museum of Canada (http://airforcemuseum.ca/en/) is here, and that was my next stop.
When I entered the Museum, I was warmly greeted (they did not know who I was). I was asked if I would like to be shown around. Certainly I would, thank you! The very first thing that I was shown was a memorial area. A granite slab was there, with familiar words on it. Within two minutes, the guide was pointing to a picture of John Magee getting his Wings, and telling me all about this American who had joined the RCAF! I let the guide go on for awhile… he was very good, with no factual errors that I could ascertain. I gave him my High Flight Productions business card, and told him what I was doing there. I complimented him and the Museum for doing such a great job of keeping the memory of John Magee alive.
National Air Force Museum of Canada, Trenton, Ontario
As you enter the main museum area, a huge Handley Page Halifax bomber dominates the room. This particular Halifax had been pulled out of a lake in Norway, shipped to Trenton, and has been lovingly restored. It is absolutely fantastic!
Outside, there are several aircraft on display. Bordering the walkways are hundreds of blocks with the names of RCAF pilots on them; some of the blocks had Canadian and RCAF flags planted next to them. I managed to locate John Magee’s, noting that he was right next to the marker for George “Buzz” Beurling, Canada’s most successful fighter pilot. I thought that John’s marker was missing something, so I corrected it:
I was reluctant to leave such a place, but I had to. Lots of places left to visit. On the way to Ottawa, I visited BCATP airfields at Mountain View, Picton, Kingston, and Gananoque. The BCATP hangers at Mountain View have been torn down, Kingston has quite a few modifications, and Gananoque has just one hanger (although the hanger there does have a control tower, the only one that I saw on my trip). Picton, though…. my goodness, talk about an embarrassment of riches! Picton has 43 intact BCATP buildings. The great people there gave me a tour which included the Officer’s Mess (complete with original dishwashing machine and coffee urn!), gym, movie theater, and a hanger. The runways are also there, in the original triangle pattern. Picton is at the top of my list for location filming! I got a whirlwind tour of Picton, so I just took video, no still photos. I will do screen captures of them one of these days. So… on to Ottawa, capital of Canada, and the final Canadian stop on this trip. First things first: I visited the Library and Archives Canada. All told, I must’ve spent close on to eight hours there over three days. So much information! It appears that the RCAF keeps everything related to a pilot. It’s quite amazing. The results of that research will appear in the book and movie, so stay tuned. Second Ottawa stop: Rockcliffe. I took a flight in a Cessna 172 to the BCATP airfield at Pendleton… now THIS is the way to do reconnaisance! By air! Again, all I took was video, no stills. It was very nice to have an aerial perspective, and was quite exciting to fly into a genuine WWII BCATP airfield! Last stop before heading home: Canadian Aviation & Space Museum (http://www.aviation.technomuses.ca/) in Ottawa. Last but not least! I loved the way that the aircraft were displayed… not just sitting there, but often displayed in dioramas. There’s a de Havilland Beaver and a Stinson floatplane sitting at a dock, being loaded for trips to the wilderness, and several other very nice displays.
Of course, this museum (like all the rest) had Yales, Harvards, Spitfires and assorted other WWII aircraft. Plus several other aircraft I had not seen anywhere else, such as a Fairey Swordfish with retractable wings (for carrier operations… who knew that Canada had an aircraft carrier?).
After bidding goodbye to this museum, I pointed the car south and headed home. A mere 14 hours later, I arrived.
What an amazing trip. I met many wonderful people, and all seemed interested in the story of John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Maybe one of these I’ll be back with a film crew, and we’ll make a movie! Stay tuned…