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High Flight

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.

By Bill Zuk

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, so begins the poem, High Flight, one of the most-recited poems in the world, and it has been since it was written in August 1941 by a 19-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Pilot Officer, John Gillespie Magee Jr. Born in China to missionary parents, Magee, like many young men when war engulfed the world, was an American who had joined the RCAF in 1940. After successfully receiving his wings through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, he joined No. 412 Fighter Squadron, stationed at RAF Digby, Lincolnshire, England, flying the redoubtable Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft.

Tragically, three months later, on December 11, 1941, young Magee while flying a Spitfire on a training mission, was killed in a mid-air collision over England, when he encountered a twin-engine Airspeed Oxford flown by LAC Ernest Aubrey Griffin. Both pilots were killed in the collision. Yet 75 years later, the poem Magee had written after a soaring flight in his Spitfire, remains his continuing legacy.

High Flight, a short 14-line “ditty” as he called it, had already been sent home to his parents who lived in Washington, D.C., with the brief note, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” Magee’s aunt sent the poem on to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Coupled with the news of his death, High Flight was reprinted in newspapers across the U.S.

With the horrific news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the death of Magee, so soon after America had gone to war, struck a chord with readers, leading reporters in Washington to seek out more details about the poet. In contacting his father, John Gillespie Magee, the Episcopal priest who served as an assistant minister at St. John’s Church, among the materials he provided to journalists was an issue of the church bulletin in which High Flight had been published.

The poem was subsequently reprinted in countless publications and soon after, the RCAF began distributing plaques with the text of the poem to be displayed at British and Canadian airfields and training stations. Copies of the poem circulated rapidly to many U.S., Canadian and British fighter pilots, who could understand the exhilaration and sense of wonder that Magee had experienced in his soaring paean to flight. High Flight was designated as the official poem of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

High Flight was to come to the attention of Archibald Macleish, poet and Librarian of Congress who immediately hailed Magee as the first poet of the Second World War. On February 5, 1942, the Library of Congress included Magee’s poem in an exhibition called “poems of Faith and Freedom”. High Flight shared a case in the exhibit along with two noted First World War poems, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Fields”, and Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”. English poet Brooke had been Magee’s idol as a youth, with Magee styling some of his poems after Brooke’s work.

High Flight was the only contemporary poem included in the exhibit, and due in part to the Library of Congress exhibition, it quickly became one of the best-known poems of the Second World War. Magee’s parents donated the poem, in its original thin airmail paper form, to the Library of Congress as part of the John Magee Papers on April 14, 1943.

High Flight remains as one of the most requested manuscripts in the Library of Congress collections. The drama and impact of the poem was later featured in a soliloquy performed by Russell Crowe in For the Moment, the Manitoba-made 1993 feature film written and directed by Aaron Kim Johnston, and that’s how this story nearly comes full circle.

For members of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS), High Flight strikes a resonant chord with aviation historians. For decades, the poem and its background have been a topic of interest. Recently, historian Linda Granfield and CAHS member, whose book, High Flight: A Story of World War II recounts the familiar story of John Gillespie Magee Jr. and his famous poem, has made a remarkable discovery.

In her research, Granfield was able to locate the November 1941 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where High Flight appeared first, prior to Magee’s death. The earliest publication of the poem had been previously believed to be in the St. John's Church bulletin. She also sought out the Magee family and was able to speak to David Magee, John’s brother, now deceased, who provided some personal artifacts, including the hitherto unknown pencil study by artist Jere Wickwire, derived from young John Magee’s official RCAF portrait that eventually was transformed into an oil portrait.

Granfield notes, “… the entirety of the Magee Family Fonds is now held in the Yale Divinity School Library. The oil portrait for which Wickwire made the sketch hangs in the library at Rugby School, in England.” David Magee would later donate the Wickwire drawing to the Canadian War Museum in 2012.

The story does not end there, but continues in England where Dr. Jay Pinto enters the picture. A couple of years ago, filmmaker Aaron Kim Johnston received a phone call from a Dr. Pinto who had seen For The Moment and tracked the director down to tell him how moved he was by it. Johnston relates, “Jay was born in The Netherlands after the war, but like so many Dutch people, he is passionate in his appreciation for the sacrifices made by the Allied forces, especially Canadians, in the liberation of his homeland. “

Each year in the town of Wilnis, near Utrecht, where Dr. Pinto was born, a candlelight parade takes place to the crash site of a RCAF Wellington bomber. On May 5, 1943, Vickers Wellington (NA-K), a bomber from RCAF 428 “Ghost” Squadron was shot down near Wilnis. Pilot Robert Moulton from Brockville, Ontario, along with two other crew were still aboard the aircraft when it overflew the town, and crashed in a bog. The resting place for the three airmen and their aircraft was exhumed 60 years later. The people of Wilnis and all across The Netherlands never forgot the sacrifice of the Canadians who fought for and ultimately secured the freedom of the occupied country.

In 2014, Dr. Pinto created a memorial program known as the “Gramophone Tour” that resulted in a period-accurate gramophone that was originally brought to Wilnis to take part in a ceremony commemorating the town’s wartime incident. The same gramophone was brought back to England, Pinto’s adopted homeland, as a continuation of his desire to thank Canadians for their role in the liberation of his homeland, where the gramophone was showcased at the former RCAF bases in the United Kingdom.

In 2015, when the “Mynarski Lancaster” toured England, Dr. Pinto was able to arrange that the gramophone continue its tour of RCAF bases in Canada. After the gramophone was flown on the Lancaster back to Canada and its home at the Canadian Warplane Museum, at Mount Hope, Ontario, the gramophone was exhibited for six months at the museum. At the 2015 CAHS convention in Hamilton, the gramophone was passed to the Manitoba Chapter of the CAHS. Dr. Pinto’s gift now resides at CFB Winnipeg, under the custodianship of Captain Gordon Crossley, prior to its display in a future exhibit and tour across western Canada. Pinto recently wrote, “Your green Gramophone was alos in Digby, Wellingore (where Magee took off, but never returned), Gatineau (on the wings of Magee`s Harvard), places where Magee had been.”

Dr. Pinto, however, also had another request, that revolved around his interest in another iconic aviation story.

As Kim Johnston further recounts, “The first time Jay heard High Flight recited was in For The Moment and it seems to have made an indelible impression on him. Besides getting in touch with me, he tracked down John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s younger brother, the Reverend Canon Hugh Magee, who is now 83 years old and lives in Scotland. They have subsequently become quite good friends. Hugh told him that on August 18th 1941, John took a Spitfire up to 30,000 feet and became euphorically dizzy from the lack of oxygen. Inspired by this overwhelming experience, when he returned to earth, he went straight to his quarters and wrote the poem. Three months later, John was killed in a mid-air collision over a village in England where Jay practiced medicine.”

Dr. Pinto and Hugh Magee (and others) are planning to celebrate the 75th anniversary of High Flight on August 18, 2016. Kim says, “The poem will be recited simultaneously at the airfield in Wales where it was written, in Shanghai where John was born, in Ottawa where he was a part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and in Melbourne, where his cousin Chris Magee will recite it. Collectively, they will reach out and touch the face of God.”

Johnston learned that the Royal Air Force (RAF) and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC ) are interested in such an anniversary. He recounted that the dramatic scene in For The Moment started it all where two young people, LAC Lachlan Curry (Crowe) and Lill Anderson (Christianne Hirt) shared a moment in a time of war. Dr. Pinto wanted to extend to both Russell Crowe and his Canadian co-star Christianne Hirt, an open invitation to come to England for the dedication ceremony.

Recently, Christianne Hirt has accepted his invitation and will tour the former RAF DIgby with Dr. Pinto. He will have a lot to share.