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On 3 September 1941, Pilot John G. Magee flew a high altitude (30,000 feet) - on a 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.'
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.
— John Gillespie Magee, Jr
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was born in Shanghai, China to an American Father and a British Mother, who worked as Anglican Missionaries. He attended schools in Nanking and Britain.
Magee and his family visited the United States in 1939. Due to the outbreak of the war, he was unable to return to Britain, lived with his Aunt in Pittsburg and attended school in Avon, Ct. He earned a scholarship to Yale, where his Father was a chaplain in July 1940. He chose not to enrol to Yale; choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year.
He was awarded his WINGS and promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer and sent to Britain. He was posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit ( OTU) in RAF Liandow, Wales to train on the Supermarine Spitfire. As stated above, it was on this flight he was inspired to write this poem. He had flown up to 33,000 feet in a Spitfire Mk 1, his seventh flight in a Spitfire. John graduated from No. 53 OTU and was assigned to No 412 Fighter Squadron, RCAF in June, 1941. He was killed at the age of 19, while flying Spitfire VZ-H, in a mid-air collision.
John's funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, Near Digby Aerodrome, Lincolnshire UK. He was given full Service Honours; his coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron.
A biography, "Sunward I've Climbed", The Story of John Magee, Poet and Soldier, 1922-1941 was written by Hermann Hagedorn in 1942.