28th July 2016 | Lakeland, Florida, USA. It is believed (Ray Hass, Touching the Face of God: The Story of John Gillespie, Jr. and His Poem High Flight, page 147) that on 28th July 1941 Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), arrived in the United Kingdom.
The ship, along with the others comprising the Royal Navy-escorted convoy, he had taken from Greenland arrived in Scottish waters, made its way up the River Clyde and docked in Greenock.
Mere weeks later, and apparently after piloting a Spitfire Mk I assigned to No. 53 Operational Training Unit at Llandow, Wales on 18th August 1941, the young aviator committed the words he divinely received or perceived to paper. An immortal sonnet was born.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was born at Shanghai, China, in 9th June 1922. He was the son of missionary parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Magee. His father was American, and his mother was originally a British citizen who descended (Touching the Face of God, page 3) from King Edward III.
John Magee Jr. was one of more than 8,000 men and women who crossed the U.S.-Canada border beginning in 1940 and enlisted with the RCAF before the United States was officially a combatant in the Second World War. Many joined to defend the Mother Country (England) and to defend democracy from the National Socialist (Nazi) military onslaught.
Karl Kjarsgaard of Bomber Command Museum of Canada has pointed out in recent years that in excess of 800 RCAF-Americans died during service. A significant number of the RCAF-Americans were, in the months after Imperial Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, in the process of transferring to the U.S. Army Air Forces at the time of their demise. Essentially, they died while in bureaucratic limbo and, unlike Magee and Royal Air Force (RAF) Eagle Squadron personnel, have largely been overlooked.
Magee eventually became one of the most famous of the intrepid volunteers. While Bomber Command Museum of Canada endeavors to honor the RCAF-Americans through ceremonies and memorials, two having already been placed at the Virginia War Memorial and Winter Haven Municipal Airport (KGIF), House Bill 5887 has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. This legislation seeks to authorize a Congressional Gold Medal to honor the Americans who joined the RCAF and RAF in World War 2.
Magee was killed on 11th December 1941 while at the controls of a Spitfire Mk V, the model which is considered by many “Spit” pilots to have been the most enjoyable version of the iconic fighter to fly.
Nevertheless, throughout subsequent decades the prose John Magee recorded has inspired and touched the emotional centers of countless people, especially those involved with aviation and aerospace.
A sense of awe is experienced as one climbs upward through the bright white puffs of cloud into the brilliant blue sky and the expanse of the earth is spread out far below. This is especially true if one is piloting an open cockpit or high performance airplane. When a fighter plane is strapped to the pilot the adrenaline rush of speed and power add to the already overwhelming event.
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.
Perhaps the late President Ronald Reagan stated (Touching The Face of God, back cover) admirers’ sentiments best when, in a toast, to Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney of Canada on 18th March 1986. Reagan said, “And so, we remember Pilot Officer John Magee — American poet, Canadian pilot, North American hero.”
Magee’s High Flight lives on through the legacies of High Flight, Ray Hass’ Touching the Face of God and the thousands of inspired aviators past and present the lines of prose penned 75 years ago. The words of High Flight will forever resonate within the souls of humankind, and John Gillespie Magee Jr. will be resurrected in memory for all eternity.
The author (John T. Stemple) was inspired to become a pilot after viewing the 1960s version of the sonnet on television. This short film, and subsequent versions, may be viewed through the YouTube links below.
Hass, Ray. Touching the Face of God. Wilson: High Flight Productions, 2014.
High Flight: Renowned RCAF pilot who penned famous poem to receive tribute
High Flight Productions
John Gillespie Magee – Bomber Command Museum of Canada
John Gillespie Magee
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. and High Flight
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. – RAF Digby
Gaffen, Fred. Cross-Border Warriors: Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces. Dundurn, 1996.
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee: “High Flight”
The Americans In The RCAF