Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, May 22, 2020

An American Airman Forsees His Death

I couldn't help thinking of Yeats's poem when I found this in an issue of Air and Space magazine.

Lt. Grider
(Replaced 22 May 2020)
John MacGavock Grider from Arkansas was one of 210 cadets who joined the aviation section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps shortly after the United States entered the war in 1917. Volunteers from the group were sent to England for training. In May 1918, Grider was assigned to Royal Flying Corps 85 Squadron, where he downed four enemy aircraft [fact challenged]. On 18 June he was killed in action. After his death, his letters were edited and published by his friend Elliott White Springs. “I can’t write much these days,” wrote Grider. “I’m too nervous. I can hardly hold a pen. I’m all right in the air, as calm as a cucumber, but on the ground, I’m a wreck and I get panicky. Nobody in the squadron can get a glass to his mouth with one hand after one of these patrols. Some nights we have nightmares. We don’t sleep much.”

By the time Grider wrote the following entry, he was already a man forever changed: 

It’s only a question of time until we all get it. I’m all shot to pieces. I only hope I can stick it out. I don’t want to quit. My nerves are all gone, and I can’t stop. I’ve lived beyond my time already. It’s not the fear of death that’s done it. It’s this eternal flinching from it that’s doing it, and has made a coward out of me. Few men live to know what real fear is. It’s something that grows on you, day by day, that eats into your constitution and undermines your sanity. I have never been serious about anything in my life, and now I know that I’ll never be otherwise again. Here I am, twenty four years old. I look forty and feel ninety. I’ve lost all interest in life beyond the next patrol.

A few days later, Grider was shot down 20 miles behind German lines. He was given a decent burial by the Germans, and his grave was later found by the Red Cross. Death must have come as a relief to him.

[Ed. note: Contrary to this article, John Grider is listed on the Tablet of the Missing at the American Flanders Field Cemetery.]

[Ed. note2:  In the comments section below, you will see a reader has challenged the facts behind this article, most importantly, whether Lt. Grider was actually the author of the diary entry that forms the substance of the posting.  I will be contacting the author of the original source material [for me], a 2018 article published in Air and Space Magazine to get his view.  Our commentator cites the author of Warbirds, Elliot White Springs, as the true originator of the diary entry. My understanding, however, is that Springs drew heavily on the diary of Grider and eventually conceded this at the behest of Grider's family. The commentator was correct, however, about the photo of Lt. Grider, which I have replaced above.

Sources:  Air and Space magazine, February 2018; Find a Grave (Photo)


  1. Powerful -- thanks for sharing. Here's a link to the Yeats poem "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death" (with context notes):

  2. One brave man to continue to go on patrol.

  3. Purely in the interest of accuracy, I have to make some corrections here: the young pilot in the photo is not John McGavock Grider - I don't know who it is, but I have several photos of Grider and have researched him a great deal. Furthermore, Grider, though a brave and competent pilot, did not shoot down four enemy aircraft. To my knowledge, he didn't have a single confirmed kill. And finally, none of these passages are from him. His diary and letters played almost no part in the writing of Elliott White Springs' classic book about flying in WWI, entitled "War Birds"--which is where these passages were taken from. I visited Grider's son George 40 years ago in Memphis and he showed me the diary the book was supposedly taken from. It was mostly empty and ended before he even started flight training. There is more than ample evidence that "War Birds" was written after the war entirely by Springs, a top-scoring US ace, based on his own experiences. He subtitled it "Diary of an Unknown Aviator" as a tribute to his dead friend Grider, who was shot down and killed while flying with Springs, only a few days after arriving at the front. That Grider contributed anything substantial to "War Birds" is a myth that just won't die.

  4. Steve - I have added an Editor's note in response to your comment at the bottom of the article. I will check on the matter of Grider's aerial victories, which does seem high for the limited time he saw combat. I've also replaced the photo. Thanks for this heads up. On the key issue as to who wrote that diary entry, I will pursue the matter. I have, though, a vague recollection from a WWI conference that included aviation topics that there has been an on-going controversy as to the sources of Springs book. I'll see what I can find out about that and adjust the article as necessary.

  5. When the second edition was printed, Springs let it be known that he was the writer but that the book was developed from the diary of John McGavock Grider, who had been killed less than three weeks after reaching France. Immediately, Grider’s family filed suit against Springs. If this was John Grider’s diary, then it was his book and Springs was a thief. There has been a fair amount of controversy about this subject ever since. Springs never avoided a good story while he was alive and let it be known that the book was actually an amalgam of several diaries — two of them his! Springs was also a careful man who kept every bit of paper that came his way. The Springs papers (now at the University of South Carolina) show that Springs’ own diary was the basis for War Birdsbut that he imagined his dead friend Grider as the book’s hero. The lawsuit ended with the Grider family settling for $12500, probably half the net from the original serialization and the Hollywood sale combined. [Or so I calculate.]

    1. the above article from an extract published by MIKUPEPPER

  6. A film about Grider: