I first heard this poem in the days when TV broadcasting ended at 2 a.m. After a bad B-movie, our local station would sign off with images of military jets flying in formation while the narrator intoned, “…put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
The author of this most famous of all aviation poems, John Gillespie Magee Jr., was born in 1922 to an American father and British mother, both Anglican missionaries in China. At age 7, he attended the American School in Nanking and later moved to England where he attended the celebrated Rugby School. There, he developed a love of poetry and won Rugby’s Poetry Prize in 1938. He was an admirer of the poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), who had also attended Rugby and died in World War I.
Magee was at school in the United States when World War II broke out in Europe in 1939. Instead of attending university, Magee joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and received his wings in 1941. He was sent to the United Kingdom for advanced training on Spitfires at Llandow, Wales. There, on August 18, 1941, he flew a Spitfire to 33,000 feet, higher than he’d previously flown, and it’s this “high flight” that is believed to have inspired the poem.
Magee wrote the poem immediately after landing, and it was first read by a fellow pilot later that day in the officer’s mess. Magee sent a copy of the poem to his parents, in which he wrote, “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, then a curate in Washington, D.C., printed the poem in church publications, and that might have been the extent of its renown, if not for a convergence of tragic events.
After training, Magee was assigned to a fighter squadron at RAF Digby in the East Midlands of England and took part in his first operational sorties in November and December 1941. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was drawn into World War II. Four days later, December 11, 1941, Magee’s Spitfire collided with an Airspeed Oxford, a twin-engine training aircraft, and Magee was killed, aged 19. He was buried in the graveyard of Holy Cross Church in the village of Scopwick, close by RAF Digby.
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