Creation of a literary classic
Though little known today, War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator is a classic account of the air war in World War I and its impact on the young men who fought it. It first appeared as a serial in the nearly moribund magazine Liberty. Liberty had been a successful, widely-read magazine for years but had recently fallen onto hard times. Chicago newsman Joe Patterson decided to buy the magazine in 1926, hoping to infuse it with new life. After The Diary of an Unknown Aviator was rejected by several book publishers because it was considered too unpatriotic, Patterson decided to take a risk with the book and began publishing installments in late summer 1926. To give it more popular appeal, he insisted on adding the title 'War Birds' despite Springs' objections.
The story of a doomed pilot as told in the pages of his diary was an immediate popular success. Most portrayals of the war in the popular American press had treated the conflict with noble solemnity, stressing the patriotic sacrifice of those Americans who served. War Birds by contrast, was both tongue in cheek and frankly salacious, portraying the American volunteers in England as hell raisers in the extreme. It was enough for Springs father in 1926 to plead with his son not to allow the book's publication 'for the sake of your family and children.' But as often happens, it turned out that the reading public was more than ready for the cynical narrative of War Birds. The circulation of Liberty jumped to a million readers a week. Published subsequently as a book, it was an instant bestseller. T.E. Lawrence, the famous 'Lawrence of Arabia,' called it 'immortal.' To the London Observer, it was 'entirely a masterpiece.' 'So much of the ardor, the . . . idiocy, and the heartbreak of youth [in this book] . . . has captivated the American reading public,' wrote Mississippi poet William Alexander Percy in the Saturday Review of Literature. 'Its very verve and excess strike us as peculiarly American and our Puritan scruples are anesthetized because the gay and bawdy incidents recounted are danced against a crimson backdrop of terror and tragedy and death.' Major Sholto Douglas, a seasoned British pilot who had known Elliott White Springs in France (and later was Marshal of the Royal Air Force), wrote that 'War Birds will always be the great classic of flying. . . [The book's] great disdain for all forms of rank and class consciousness was nothing short of superb.'
Though the author of War Birds presumed to be unknown, South Carolina ace Elliott White Springs was listed as editor. He refused to reveal whose diary it was, saying only that he was a fellow pilot. 'Before he was killed, he gave me his diary and told me how he would like to have his deeds reported in case I survived him. He was very definite in his ideas and I agreed to respect them.' Pilots who had known Springs in Europe immediately recognized the narrator of War Birds as John McGavock Grider of Arkansas, killed in action in the summer of 1918. Grider was known to have begun a diary as his unit, which included Springs, crossed the Atlantic in the fall of 1917. 'This is the damn fool diary of a son of the South and of rest. I hope he don't weaken and forget to write in it. . . . I haven't lived very well but I'm determined to die well.' Over the space of almost a year, War Birds: The Diary of an Unknown Aviator describes the wild English nights of Grider, Springs and Lawrence Callahan of Chicago -- known as the 'Three Musketeers'; their arrival at the front in May 1918; the growing fatigue and sense of hopelessness and, finally, death as the diary comes to an abrupt end.