To Touch the Face of God

This Day in History

“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

These were the famous words of Winston Churchill in his speech to the House of Commons in August of 1940. He was describing the heroic efforts of the pilots and crew who defended England from the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the greatest air battle in the history of warfare.

Earlier in the day Churchill had sent a wreath of flowers and a letter of condolence to the widow of a downed pilot who had died heroically in the Battle of Britain just days before. He was being laid to rest in the moss-draped churchyard of St Mary and St. Blaise.

There was something special about this pilot and it was not that he was a two time Olympic gold medalist or an exceptionally skilled aviator. It was because he was an American and he wasn’t supposed to be in Britain, much less, in battle. His name was Billy Fiske.

The United States had not entered the war and its citizens were expressly forbidden to take up arms for another country. The Neutrality Act recently enacted and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided for mammoth fines and even jail time to anyone caught in the act.

Fiske, however, had a need for speed and a penchant for firsts. He was a bobsledder in the 1928 Olympic Games and, at just sixteen-years-old, became the youngest male olympian ever to earn a gold medal. He would do it again in 1932.

He was offered the captaincy of the 1936 team but declined the honor. A jewish friend of his later said that Billy could not bear the thought of standing before Adolf Hitler, the host the games in Berlin. True to his word, he did not compete in Hitler’s games.

In 1940, on the eve of the Battle of Britain, Billy achieved another first. He was the first American pilot to join the RAF (Royal Air Force).

Great Britain was embroiled in a fight to the death with Hitler and his war machine. The most wretched and deadliest conflict in human history, which began in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, was now at England’s very doorstep.

The whole continent of Europe had fallen to the Germans in an astounding short amount of time. The very same ground that Germany gained in World War I in four years of fighting took only four days in 1940. France was the last to fall. Now Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi’s.

RAF pilots were being picked off by the German Luftwaffe one by one. Her ranks were growing perilously thin. The Germans had perfected their ground war more commonly known as blitzkrieg or “lightening war.”

Now they took to the air with the same ferocity to try to destroy the last vestiges of free civilization in the old world. Less than a thousand pilots stood between freedom and servitude. The British were thus glad to have Billy Fiske join them, and any other “Yank” who would dare answer the call.


Billy Fiske - U.S. Olympian

The celebrated olympian was not the only one to answer. Others would evade the authorities as well. Eugene Tobin, Vernon “Shorty” Keogh and Andy Mamedoff all would risk the ire of their government and certain jail time in order to throw back the rampaging Nazi’s.

Tobin was tall and lanky with a shock of red hair. His friends called him “Red.” He had quit his job as a MGM shuttle pilot for the stars and starlets of tinsel town. After writing a pleading and apologetic note to his father, he snuck out of Hollywood, bound for flight in less tranquil skies.

“Shorty”, in direct contrast to Red stood at just 4’ 10.” It is ironic that he might barely be allowed to enter upon a ride in an American amusement park but could barrel through the angry air at 350 miles an hour in a bullet strewn sky,. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Shorty was imbued with that scrappy attitude peculiar to that singular plot of land.

When the warning siren would would wail, Shorty could be seen rushing across the field with two cushions tucked under his arms to be placed on his seat so that he may see over the cockpit. In his plane he kept wooden blocks for the bottom of his feet so that he could reach the pedals.

Despite his diminutive size, or maybe because of it, the dogged airman was as brave as any one. Shorty packed more courage in his tiny frame than many men a foot and a half taller.

Andy, born in Connecticut, was the son of White Russian immigrants who had immigrated to America in 1910. Like Tobin, he too had a love of liberty and flying, and they became fast friends. Andy was a lady’s man and a inveterate gambler, a combination that made him both exciting to be around and the consummate fighter pilot.

Though from disparate backgrounds all had one main thing in common; they believed to their core that America would one day have to face the Nazi onslaught just as the British were right now.

They rightly reasoned that it would be better to take on the Germans now before Great Britain fell than to wait and stand alone themselves. The other thing they had in common is they would all die in the Battle of Britain, far, far away from home.

Shorty fought bravely and came up missing after one mission. A fellow pilot witnessed his plane free-falling out of the sky and thought that perhaps he forgot to turn on his oxygen when he ascended to high altitude.

His plane nor his body was ever found but at one point size 5 boots washed up upon the channel shore. They were boots identified as part of the Royal Air Force uniform and as he was the only pilot who wore such a size, they could only have been his.



Spitfire In Flight

Andy, true to his nature, would meet a beautiful and wealthy young English woman. He would also quickly demonstrate his daring temperament in the air and was rewarded for it.

He was wholly unaffected by his new found status, however. When he was installed as a flight commander in the freshly constituted “Eagle” Squadron, he burst out laughing the first time his pilots saluted him, saying, “forget that.”

He and his fiancee were married just before he took off for the last time. Like Shorty, he would die in the skies over Britain.

Red would stand longer in the service of the crown than his friends Andy and Shorty, but he too would share their fate. He was shot down over France in 1941, exactly three months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In that farewell letter he had sent to his father he had assured him, “This is no ‘foolhardy stunt’ —you may think it is but it isn’t.” He signed it, “your little boy Gene.”

His father surely knew it wasn’t a “foolhardy stunt” but that was certainly not enough to assuage his torn and anguished heart. His “little boy Gene” was gone.

A total of eleven Americans would fly in the Battle of Britain. Another who answered the call was a nineteen-year-old boy from Minnesota named John Gillespie Magee, Jr. who also happened to be a gifted poet. He wrote a wonderful poem about what it meant to soar high among the clouds. Shortly after he penned the verse, he sent it to his parents back home.

It wasn’t long thereafter that he was killed in a midair collision. It is the dream of every poet that his or her words survive him. His dream would come true. His poem has served as inspiration for countless millions of people.

Astronaut Michael Collins wrote it on an index card and took in with him into space on Gemini 10. Movie stars such as Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Orson Welles have recited it with a pride reserved only for such vaunted things.

And perhaps most poignantly, Ronald Reagan borrowed the beautiful phrasing from it in his moving speech following the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986.

Below is the original sonnet Magee wrote as a nineteen-year-old aviator:

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 even 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.”

Just before the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe pilots were not busy tending to their planes or gear as their British and American counterparts were. A great many of them were making plans for a holiday. Buoyed by their early success, they believed that they were to make short work of the Britons.

Some of the commanding officers were urging their young pilots not to get married as yet, but instead they were spurring them wait until they had conquered the Brits. This, they reasoned, would give them greater choice in deciding their honeymoon destinations across the English Channel.

Some of the more experienced German pilots were appalled by the absurdity of such boastful reasoning. They had been in the air with the Brits and the Yanks and knew that conquering them was not a foregone conclusion.

The other pilots would unfortunately have to learn this lesson as they plummeted down hard into the cold waters of the English Channel.

Had they known what radio broadcaster Quentin Reynolds knew, it might have given them pause. Here is an introduction to a broadcast in which he told the story of these brave young Americans:

“This is the story of some of our countrymen who did not wait to be stabbed in the back. Long before the rest of us realized it, these boys, with that deep sense of wisdom given to the very young, knew that this too, was our war. They were no adventurers, killing for gain. They could not resist the call of their blood;
liberty and tolerance, and love for freedom had been bred in them.”

Their names were Fiske, “Red”, Andy, “Shorty” and John Gillespie McGee; these are the brave Americans who risked life and limb, everything in the cause of liberty.
These are the great young boys who stood with England in her darkest hour.

We the living, the beneficiaries of such unselfish spirit, in the clear, uncluttered view of hindsight, can peer through the ages and ask ourselves:

What have we bred into the next generation?


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