Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
1922 - 1941
PO JG Magee
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, the author of the most inspirational poem of aviation literature, High Flight, is buried in the graveyard of Holy Cross, Scopwick. We are indebted to his brother, the Rev. Hugh Magee, for his recollections which are reprinted with his permission below.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to Barbara Hodgson of Coleby. Mrs Hodgson had gone over to Scopwick to view the graves of fallen airmen following an article which had appeared in the MACLA magazine. She met John Gillespie Magee Jnr's younger brother at his graveside at Scopwick. She sent Rev. Magee a copy of the article, which he enjoyed, and subsequently he has written back giving his "Memories of a "Famous Brother". Apparently Rev Hugh has also been interviewed by the BBC re his brother.
Memories of a Famous Brother
By the Reverend F. Hugh Magee
Anyone who has ever flown an airplane is likely to be familiar with and value the poem High Flight, which was written in 1941 by my late brother, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
The reason for this sonnet's durable popularity among pilots is that it has been found by many to give unique and felicitous expression to the emotions aroused by the act of piloting an aircraft:
PO JG Magee's Gravestone in Scopwick War Cemetry © Paul Elmore, 2001
Although this poem was inspired by the experience of flying a spitfire over England during the period following the Battle of Britain, it has since become familiar to pilots everywhere, many of whom regard it as a kind of prayer. It has also been adopted by astronauts, notably the late Col. James Irwin, who served as lunar module pilot for the Apollo 15 mission. Irwin apparently took a copy of High Flight with him to the moon and was so affected by the mission and the poem's association with it that he later founded a religious organization called the High Flight Foundation.
Many astronauts, as well as members of the public at large, have been especially struck by the poem's opening and closing lines, which were quoted by President Reagan at the time of the Challenger disaster in 1986. Of the members of that ill-fated crew, the President said the following:
We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. "
Not surprisingly, the poem was also referred to widely at the time of the Columbia disaster of 2003.
In fact, High Flight seems to have had a life of its own from the start. Soon after it was written, Archibald MacLeish, who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, identified the sonnet as the first great poem to come out of World War II, a view shared by the poet Joseph Auslander, then a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The poem was displayed in early 1942 in an exhibition of poetry at the Library entitled 'Faith and Freedom'. The manuscript copy of High Flight remains at the Library of Congress and High Flight has since appeared in many anthologies and books of quotations.
At the end of the war, actor Tyrone Power, who had served as a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, recited the poem from memory at a Hollywood gathering, in a moving tribute to all those who had given their lives.1 (It was apparently on this occasion that fellow actor Ronald Reagan first heard the words of High Flight.) Lines from the sonnet have also appeared on many headstones in Arlington National Cemetery.
In the period following the War, High Flight was used by many television stations as a close-down theme and over the years. The poem has been set to music a number of times and numerous high school students have memorized it as part of their curriculum. The sonnet has likewise been featured in many films with parts of it being recited by such well-known actors as Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson. The poem's prominence continues to this day, as when the Presiding Bishop Elect of the Episcopal Church in the United States (herself a pilot) recently referred to it in a prime time news interview.
So there is no doubt that High Flight is widely known, at least in the English-speaking world. And since its authorship is also well established, one could make reasonable claim to the notion that my brother is somewhat famous, at least by name and association. Perhaps less well-known is the man behind the name, though there have been several biographies of John over the years.
The story in brief
John and I were the sons of missionary parents. Our mother, Faith Backhouse Magee, was English while our father, the Reverend John Gillespie Magee Sr., was American. Although I was born in London, John (who was 11 years older than I) was born in Shanghai in 1922. My next oldest living brother, David Backhouse Magee, was born in Ruling, China, in 1925.
After preparation at an American school in China and a grammar school near the family home in England, John entered Rugby School, where he remained until 1939, the year he won the school's coveted poetry prize.2 Having travelled to the United States in 1939 on a family visit, he was unable to return to Britain for his final year at Rugby and therefore completed his schooling at the Avon School in the United States. While at Avon, at the age of 17, he published his first and only book of poems.3
In 1940, John elected to join the RCAF as an American volunteer and spent most of the following year training in Canada. After obtaining his wings in mid 1941, he was transferred to South Wales, via the Personnel Reception Centre at Bournemouth, for some final training. Shortly afterwards he was assigned to active service in the newly formed,Number 412 RCAF Fighter Squadron, based at Digby, Lincolnshire.
While John was stationed at Digby, he was asked to test fly a newer model of the Spitfire V, which was capable of flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet. This experience evidently made such an impression on him that it provided the inspiration for his final poem, and best-known work, the sonnet High Flight.
John was killed in a mid-air collision during practice maneuvers on December 13 th, 1941, just six days after the United States entered the War.
Chronology of the life of John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
|China||1922||Born in Shanghai Hillcrest|
|Britain||1932-1935||St. Clare School, Walmer, Kent|
|1935-1939||Rugby School, Rugby, Warwickshire|
|U.S.A.||1939-1940||Avon Old Farms School, Avon, Connecticut|
|Canada||1940-1941||RCAF training at Trenton, Ontario|
|1941||RCAF training at St. Catherine's, Ontario RCAF Service Flying School, Uplands, Ontario|
|Britain||1941||RCAF training camp in South Wales|
|Assigned to Number 412 RCAF Fighter Squadron, Digby, Lincolnshire|
|Killed on December 13th, 1941 after a mid-air collision during practice manoeuvres|
Listen to High Flight (MP3) on this USAF Airman page.
High Flight, A Story of World War II by Linda Granfield, on Amazon.co.uk
From an article by Mike Jerram, European Correspondent
for Flying Magazine.
"High Flight" has become an aviator's anthem, and an epitaph. President Reagan intoned its familiar lines in tribute to the crew of Challenger.
..... When the Battle of Britain was being fought in the hot summer of 1940, John was still a freshman at Yale. He was born in China, of an American clergyman father and an English mother. He came to England at age nine, attended the famous Rugby School, following in the footsteps of the great war poet Rupert Brooke, whose work he much admired. While at Yale Magee decided to give up his studies to join the RCAF in the hope of getting into the fighting in Europe, though warmonger he certainly wasn't. "An aeroplane," he wrote home during his basic flying training in Canada, "is not to us a weapon of war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstacy."
Magee gained his wings in June 1941 and shipped out to Wales to complete his advanced training--"Patches of brilliance, tendency to overconfidence" noted his instructor-- before joining 412 Squadron, RCAF, at RAF Wellingore, Lincolnshire, that fall. So exited was the 19-year-old about his first flights in a Spitfire that he jotted his feelings on the back of an envelope, and sent it to his parents with the note: "It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you." The scribbled poem was "High Flight."
A few weeks later Magee was dead, killed not in the whirl of combat but in a midair collision with a trainer on a misty winter's day. A farmer saw his disintegrating Spitfire fall, and watched Magee struggling to bail out. His parachute failed to open.