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A few months ago I had the rare treat of flying a restored World War II B-25 bomber — something I had not done in 58 years. It was great.  Later I was with a group of friends and one asked me how I had enjoyed my flight. I described it as an incomparable moment and I shared with the others the sheer joy of once again handling the controls in flight.

As I reminisced, two ladies in the group began to softly speak the familiar words of the widely acclaimed poem, “High Flight.” I asked my friends if they knew the story of the poem the ladies recited, but no one did. I began by telling them of the painting I have in my room. In the painting are the words of this thrilling and spiritual poem which became the most famous poem to emerge from World War II. The poet's name is not shown because, during World War II and for years afterwards, the poet was virtually unknown in the U.S. In 1941 he was a young American pilot flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Britain. Though only 19, he was already an accomplished poet. His name was John Gillespie McGee, Jr.

In August, 1941 McGee wrote to his parents, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” His father was an Episcopalian priest, and he printed the “sonnet” in church publications. The poem went viral (to use a word not common in those days), but for some reason the name of the poet was not included initially.

When my mother-in-law Elsie Gordon first saw my picture of the poem without a name she told me the poet was John Gillespie McGee, Jr; she also had an interesting family story to tell about this poem.

Elsie said her husband, Richard Gordon, who also was a minister, saw the postings of “High Flight” that Reverend Father McGee, Sr. had made. Being impressed by the poem, he wrote to Rev. McGee, requesting permission to publish it.  He received a prompt reply from Rev. McGee, dated December 17, 1941, saying, “you can use it as much as you want.” My family still has this beautiful letter (reproduced below).

Richard Gordon shared this information with my father, Rev. Ole Curtis Griffith, and Dad was one of the first to publish it. When I learned this history, I passed it along through my then-limited contacts in the aviation world. But time marches on, sometimes slowly, so today one never sees nor hears the poem without the author's name. As the Reverend Father McGee wrote, "I believe the poem will live.”

Tragically on December 19, 1941, just two days after his father wrote this letter, young John McGee died in a collision of his Spitfire fighter with another aircraft in the cloudy sky above England. He was buried there with full military honors. His poem is on exhibit in the Library of Congress.

Dec. 17, 1941

ST. JOHN’S CHURCH
LAFAYETTE SQUARE
WASHINGTON

Dear Mr. Gordon, 

Thank you for your very nice letter of Dec. 15th. A great deal of mail has been received by us, many of the letters such as yours being from total strangers. The boy wrote this sonnet on the back of a letter to us and told us he had started it at an altitude of 30,000 feet and finished it after grounding his plane on that same day, September 3rd. He called it “High Flight.”

I have felt for about a month that the little sonnet had a message for the youth of America but did not know how to manage to get it before the public. Now his death has changed all that, and it is being published all over the country. You will be interested to know that the mns [manuscript] and his picture are to be exhibited in a special Exhibition of Famous Poetry having to do with Faith and Freedom in the Library of Congress to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. It will hang alongside of the original mns [manuscript] of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, some by Bobbie Burns etc.

Of course you can use it as much as you want.

Thanking you for your letter, I am Sincerely yours,
James Gillespie (McGee, Sr.)

It was the man in charge of the exhibit who asked us for it, and he said he thought it would live.


 

Ole Griffith

Ole Griffith is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. He served as a command pilot and aeronautical engineer.

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