Posts tagged with: prisoners of war

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:

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 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.

Colonel Robinson Risner 1973 – Retired as Brigadier General in 1976

“I want to show that the smartest and the bravest rely on their faith in God and our way of life,” was Robinson Risner’s answer to why he wrote The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam and the publication of Risner’s often horrific but ultimately triumphant account.

Many books written by and about American military prisoners during the Vietnam War focus on the deep Christian faith of many of these captives. Their prayers and cries to God depict desperate circumstances, but also a sustaining and unwavering faith in the face of horrendous torture and cruelty. Risner’s account expresses a beautifully simple faith. By simple I mean he absolutely believed in the power of prayer and for God to give him strength to endure his dark trial. He notes in his book:

To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.

Finally, though, the pain and aching increased to where I did not think I could stand it any longer. One day I prayed, ‘Lord, I have to some relief from this pain.’ I quoted the Biblical verse that He would hear us and that we would never be called upon to take more than we could bear.

Risner was shot down twice over North Vietnam. He was captured the second time in September of 1965 and taken to the Hanoi Hilton. As a senior ranking officer Risner was marked for additional torture and solitary confinement while in prison. Eventually he would spend a number of years in solitary confinement.

Risner was also featured on a Time Magazine Cover in April of 1965 as an American pilot serving in Vietnam. Risner’s picture on the cover of Time undoubtedly contributed to his abuse and the resolve of the North Vietnamese to break his spirit and beliefs. The North Vietnamese felt he was a celebrity figure in America, and breaking him would lessen the resolve of others who looked to him for leadership. Senator John McCain, the most well known prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, credited Robinson Risner as one of the leaders who helped sustain him and that Risner would always be a hero to him.

Risner and other senior officers orchestrated a campaign of resistance to limit and sabotage the use of military prisoners for propaganda purposes and to maintain a military posture and morale all despite continued torture. Risner showed his resolve after spending 32 days in stocks attached to his bed, and forced to lie in his own waste. When he was brought to his first torture session his arms were bound and his shoulders were pulled out of his sockets. Then his feet were hoisted up behind him, and his ribs were separated. Risner tried to slam his head against the cement in order to knock himself out because the pain was so unbearable. Risner describes the pain as incredibly horrific and the screams were so deep and vicious he did not think they were his own.

He discusses a time when he was in stocks for so long he had to get out and by prayer he says he was able to unlock them. Another time he prayed for the annoying prison speaker to stop its incessant noise and it ceased. Risner’s book is full of fascinating stories and the will of so many American fighters to always resist in whatever way they could. He talks about the importance of communication, the tap code, and how it saved lives.

Risner was especially adroit at showing little emotion when the North Vietnamese tried a carrot and stick approach. In fact, when American prisoners finally felt like they were going to leave for real after being informed, they showed no emotion. They would not give their captors the satisfaction. (more…)