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War Stories

By Katharine Beutner | HUMANITIES, November/December 2002 | Volume 23, Number 6

The novel War Birds: The Diary of an Unknown Aviator records the memories and horrors of World War I fighter pilots. When it was published in 1926, its frank depiction of their profligate lifestyle scandalized America. A new film by Robert Clem explains the dispute over the novel’s authorship and the histories of the men who contributed to its creation. Clem’s film will air on public television in the spring. The project received grants from the Southern Humanities Media Fund, a program sponsored by several state councils.

In 1917, John MacGavock Grider volunteered to serve abroad as a fighter pilot in World War I. He became friends with another American, pilot Elliott White Springstogether they flew in the Royal Air Force in England and France. Grider was shot down on June 18, 1918, after only two months in France. Springs survived the war, and after the armistice, he pieced together a novel from Grider’s diaries and his own letters.

The men were stationed near London before being recruited to fly in France. The British, who had lost 40 percent of their pilots in “Bloody April” of 1917, treated the American volunteers like heroes before they had seen a single battle. According to the film, the average lifespan of a fighter pilot in 1917 was two weeks of combat. To cope with the stress, the American pilots drank, danced, and womanized. Grider’s diary records a typical night: “March 30, 1917. I went to a big dance and managed to collect a redhead. She gave every indication of being ready to burn my fingers so I left while the door was still open. She sure is goodlookin’ but my grandfather told me never to get mixed up with a redheaded woman who wears black underwear.”

The wild lifestyle described in the novel scandalized readers when War Birds first appeared as a serial in Liberty magazine, but the film reveals the edge of desperation to the pilots’ fervent desire for joy and entertainment. On August 11, Springs wrote, “I’ve got that feeling, gee, it’s great to be alive! . . . And I’m getting so bored of being shot at I don’t bother to dodge anymore.” When the war ended in November 1918, Springs wrote to his father: “Peace! I find myself alive. Strange--I hadn’t considered that possibility--I must alter my plans.”

The film War Birds tells its story with hundreds of images and film clips. The Grider family contributed letters and photographs sent home by Mac, while the Springs family shared its large collection of papers in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina. With Grider’s grandson, Clem visited the former site of the Grider plantation, Sans Souci, in Arkansas. Descendants of both Springs and Grider appear in the film. Clem also combed the collections of the National Archives and the Air and Space Museum to find footage that shows the grace and danger of World War I combat aviation.

The novel’s disputed authorship is the center of the film’s story. Initially, Springs did not attach Grider’s name to the book. As the book’s success grew, Grider’s sisters felt deceived when Springs refused to acknowledge Grider as its author. They sued and won, but Springs continued to append the subtitle “Diary of a Unknown Aviator.” Before his death, Springs named John MacGavock Grider as the author of War Birds. Clem’s film reveals the complicated truth behind the authorship: Springs composed the novel from two extant diaries belonging to Grider and from his own letters home. (Clem discovered the second diary while sifting through the Springs archives; Springs’ biographer had insisted earlier that only one Grider diary existed.) Springs only told a select few, such as British war hero T. E. Lawrence, of his actual role in the book’s creation. Though he dreamed of being an author and wrote several less successful books, Springs never sought public acclaim for writing War Birds. Clem believes that Springs kept the aviator’s identity secret in the hope that the anonymity of the story would increase its power. “He thought it would apply to everybody,” Clem notes. “It was like the unknown soldier, which we all use as a symbol for lost youth and lost innocence.