John Gillespie Magee, Jr. is remembered fondly by American aviators who defended and sacrificed for this nation in World War II to the present day. He is remembered for his touching poem High Flight, which he penned in 1941.
Magee was born to an American father and British mother in Shanghai, China in 1922. His parents were Christian missionaries in the country. Well educated in China, England, and the United States, Magee received a scholarship to Yale University, where his father was then serving as a chaplain. With the outbreak of World War II, and the British Isles under German threat, Magee postponed college and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. The United States had not yet entered the war, and hundreds of Americans served as combat aviators with the Canadian Air Force.
Magee received his pilot wings in June of 1941. He served in the defense of the British homeland against the Luftwaffe. In August of 1941, Magee was test flying the new Spitfire MK I at high altitude. The inspiration of the flight led him to write High Flight, which came to him in the sky, and he completed the poem on paper soon after landing.
He sent a copy to his parents, and his father reprinted it in church publications. Sadly, Magee died just a few months later in a mid-air collision with another airplane in December of 1941. An English farmer said he saw Magee struggle to open the canopy, and was finally able to bail out, but by then he was too low to the ground for his parachute to open. Magee was only 19 years old.
The poem would however continue to gain praise as the war continued. The Library of Congress featured the work in an exhibit titled ‘Faith and Freedom’ in 1942, and it was published in the New York Times. Also, several biographies were written about Magee as the popularity of the poem skyrocketed.
It is a poem that is loved and cherished by many aviators everywhere, especially those who have defended this nation in the sky. Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy memorize the poem. American pilots shot down and tortured in North Vietnamese prison camps during that war drew inspiration from Magee’s words. Lines from the poem are quoted on the headstones of many military pilots buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
It gained still further fame when President Ronald Reagan quoted the first and last lines of the poem in his moving words of tribute to the American astronauts who perished in the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy in 1986. “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” Reagan said.
Dedicated to those who have given their life in defense of the nation, High Flight is printed in its entirety below:
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 ever 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.