John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922-1941)
John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was born in Shanghai, China in 1922, the son of missionary parents, the Reverend and Mrs. John Gillespie Magee. His father was an American and his mother was originally a British citizen. Magee came to the U.S. in 1939 and earned a scholarship to Yale; but in September 1940, at age 18, crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he became a pilot.
Within the year, he was sent to England and posted to the newly formed No. 412 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, which was activated at Digby, England, on 30 June 1941. He was qualified on and flew the Supermarine Spitfire. Magee's squadron was engaged in flying fighter sweeps over France and air defence over England against the German Luftwaffe, who were crossing the English Channel with great regularity to attack Britain's cities.
On September 3, 1941, Magee flew a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem "To touch the face of God."
Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented, "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, "High Flight."
Just three months later, on December 11, 1941 (only three days after the US entered the war), the Spitfire V Magee was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield while over Tangmere, England and Magee, only 19 years of age, crashed to his death.
His remains are buried in the churchyard cemetery at Scopwick, Lincolnshire, England.
After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of January 1986, The then US President Ronald Reagan read from this poem, leading the American Tribute to the seven astronauts.
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 windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee, Jr
Thanks to Skygod.com for information contained in the above biography.
The Classical Library,