John MacGavock Grider
The anonymous hero of War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator, John McGavock Grider, was born in 1892 to an old Arkansas family who owned a plantation called Sans Souci on the banks of the Mississippi. He moved to Memphis shortly after the turn of the twentieth century and attended the Memphis University School. At age seventeen he married a Memphis girl, Marguerite Samuels; by the time America entered the Great War, the couple had two sons but had divorced. Both sons would have distinguished careers in the United States Navy in World War II. George, the younger child, would become one of that war's most famous submarine commanders, writing a memoir called War Fish. He would later be elected to the U.S. Congress from Memphis.
But Mac Grider would not live to see how successful his two sons became. When America entered the Great War in April 1917, Grider decided to volunteer for service in the air corps. He sold part of his ancestral land in Arkansas to buy a house in Memphis for Marguerite and the two boys, then headed north for aviation ground school in Illinois. A charismatic figure popular with his classmates and friends, he felt he had disappointed his family by doing poorly in school and in business and allowing his marriage to fail. In the diary he began on the troop ship that was to take him to Europe, Grider allowed that he hoped to atone for his wasted opportunities by serving his country as best he could. "I haven't lived very well but I hope to die well."
Because the Allies badly needed pilots and the Americans as yet had no planes, Grider and his two new friends Elliott Springs and Larry Callahan were shipped to England to train with the Royal Flying Corps. The film will describe the exploits of the 'Three Musketeers' as they trained for over eight months, impatiently awaiting their move to the front. Grider became one of the most well-respected of the American cadets. His letters home to his two young sons and to his sisters indicate a level of determination and maturity he had never shown before. He was also homesick, urging his father not to move any of the possessions he had left in his house at Sans Souci.
In the meantime he continued to display the charm which had made him one of the most popular American trainees. Along with Springs and Callahan, Grider was feted by London society and found a new love in Billie Carleton, a young actress who was the talk of the town after her performance in the hit play Fair and Warmer. 'At last I have a real romance,' he wrote to a friend back in Arkansas. Training with Britain's Royal Flying Corps was at once sobering -- many trainees were killed in crashes -- and intoxicating, as the Three Musketeers partied at a blistering rate. In the backs of their minds was a grim statistic -- in combat, the average life of a pilot was less than forty-eight hours in the air. Finally, in May 1918 Grider, Springs and Callahan were chosen by famous ace Billy Bishop to join his new squadron, the 85th, in what was now called the Royal Air Force. The Germans had introduced a new attack plane, the Fokker D-VII, with devastating results for the Allies. Meanwhile the new German offensive on the ground was threatening Paris. Bishop's crack unit was assigned the task of helping neutralize the German 'Flying Circus.'
On June 18, Springs and Grider were on patrol when they encountered a two-seater observer aircraft. Both scored direct hits and the German plane went spinning down in flames. Shortly thereafter, the two American pilots entered a cloud bank. Springs became disoriented and went into a spin. When he regained altitude, Grider had disappeared. Back at the aerodrome, Springs waited for his return but there was no sign of him at the end of the day. Springs began to look for him in hospitals, in Paris and in listings of the dead.
'Am I to blame?,' wrote Springs. 'Of course many things might have happened. Mac might have been firing at long range from above and shot up his own prop . . . or lost his way, or attacked another Hun half an hour later. That's the worst of the game -- the uncertainty of it.' Several weeks after Grider disappeared, a message was dropped over Allied lines. Grider had been shot down and killed in a dogfight with German ace Carl Degelow.
Today John McGavock Grider is all but forgotten. An air field in Pine Bluff, Arkansas is named in his honor. A small park in the hamlet of Grider, Arkansas stands as a memorial to his sacrifice. But War Birds is the greatest testament both to him and the other short-lived but heroic aviators of the war. The film The Diary of an Unknown Aviator explores the power, the tragedy and the sacrifice within the story of the Three Musketeers.