About the author: Marcus Peacock is the Deputy Administrator of EPA.
In 1940 Nazi Germany was consuming Europe. The United States was doing its best to stay neutral. In fact, it was illegal for a US citizen to join a warring power’s military or even ‘hire someone for the purpose of traveling outside the United States to enlist in a foreign country’s military.’ The penalty for doing so was a $10,000 fine and five-year jail sentence.
Despite this, dozens and dozens of US citizens tried to leave the country and join the fight against the Nazis. They included Billy Fiske, who a few years before, at age 16, was the youngest American to ever win an Olympic gold medal. They included a budding poet, John Magee, Jr., who gave up a full scholarship to Yale to fly for the Royal Air Force (see poem below).
And then there was Art Donahue. Art grew up on a farm in Minnesota and at age 19 became the youngest qualified commercial pilot in the state. War broke out when he was 27. The bumper corn crop that year didn’t obscure his view of what was going on. He said, “I felt that this was America’s war as much as England’s and France’s, because America was part of the world which Hitler and his minions were so plainly out to conquer.” In July of 1940 Art wangled his way to London believing it was his mission to defeat what he called barbarism. He saw first hand the courage and composure of the English people. “To fight side by side with these people would be the greatest of privileges,” he said.
Over the next two years Donahue fought all over the world. He flew in England, the Mediterranean, and Singapore. He was shot down twice and horribly burned. Yet he returned to fight again. On September 11, 1942 he went out on a mission over Ostend, and didn’t return. His body was never recovered.
by John Magee, Jr
killed December 11, 1941
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 windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor 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.