John McGavock Grider

(Sans Souci, Arkansas, May 28, 1892 – near Houplines, France, June 18, 1918).1

Grider grew up at the family home and farm, Sans Souci, on the Mississippi in northeast Arkansas. His great-great-grandfather, John Harding, had purchased thousands of acres on the west side of the Mississippi in Arkansas in the early 1830s.  He presented a large parcel to his grandson, John Harding McGavock, when the latter married in 1853.  McGavock and his bride, Georgia A. Moore, saw the erection of an elegant house on the property, and Sans Souci became a prosperous and profitable plantation. During the Civil War the house was used as a hospital for Union soldiers, and hard times continued through Reconstruction for McGavock’s widow and his only surviving child, Susan John McGavock. However, by the time Susan married William Henry Grider in 1880, the outlook had improved.  Their children, John McGavock Grider and his two sisters, Josephine and Georgia, were born into a land-rich southern family in a house and on land to which they were deeply attached.2

Grider’s mother died in 1901.  The previous year, the family had purchased a house in Memphis, thirty-five miles to the south, “that the children might go to school,” and at some point Grider began studying at the college preparatory Memphis University School.3  In Memphis he met Marguerite Samuels; they were married in 1909. A first son was born in November of the following year, and a second in 1912.4

The front of a draft registration form, filled in by hand.
The front of Grider’s draft registration form. The other side indicates he is of medium height; his eyes are blue, and his hair color “light.” He is described as “stout,” which on the evidence of photos, did not mean “fat.”

When Grider registered for the draft on June 1, 1917, he was divorced and had returned to Sans Souci to farm part of the family land. About three weeks later, having made financial arrangements for his lands and crops with a partner, Gene Farley, and with a friend at the local bank, Emma Cox, Grider was in Champaign, Illinois, beginning a course at the University of Illinois’s School of Military Aeronautics.5  His acceptance in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps had been facilitated by Jacob McGavock Dickinson, a relative on his mother’s side and Secretary of War under Taft.6

Grider had his first taste of flying around June 25, 1917, when an instructor took him up: “I got so used to flying in so short a time, that I had the feeling that if I got out of the car I couldn’t hardly fall but would float down like a leaf.” He goes on in that letter: “Now I am studying trig day and night, trying to make good on the lie I told about college.”7  He succeeded. Grider’s class graduated August 25, 1917, and, according to him, he was one of only seven “chosen for this expedition” to Italy.8  That only seven were originally chosen is corroborated by a remark in a letter of his classmate, Marvin Kent Curtis (“I was one of only seven picked to come to Mineola”).9  The opening diary entry in War Birds recounts how Laurence Kingsley Callahan, with whom Grider had roomed at Champaign, was originally bound for France, but was added to Grider’s group, with strings pulled by Grider and Elliott White Springs. In the end, a total of twelve of the twenty-nine men who graduated August 25, 1917, from the S.M.A. at Champaign set sail from New York on the Carmania, on September 18, 1917, as members of the 150-man strong “Italian” or “second Oxford detachment,” bound, as they thought, for Italy.

A book cover with the title "Marse John Goes to War" above a photo of a smiling Grider; under the photo is "By Josephine Grider Jacobs." Initial caps are red, with the other letters in silver.
The cover of Marse John Goes to War, the biography and edition of Grider’s letters by his sister, Josephine Grider Jacobs, published in 1933.

When the Carmania docked at Liverpool on October 2, 1917, the cadets were told that they were to stay in England. A week later, Grider wrote Emma Cox: “No flying yet. We have another ground school here and our hopes of Italy are dead. The latest is, we will fly in Egypt, but there are so many rumors flying around that you can’t tell anything positive. Our work is as easy as can be.”10  They were now at the Royal Flying Corps’s No. 2 School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford University in a holding pattern until places were available at training squadrons. Grider gravitated to fellow southerners: he shared a room at Christ Church College with Springs of South Carolina, James Whitworth Stokes of Nashville, and Callahan (from Chicago, but from an old Kentucky family).11  Work being easy, Grider went biking with Callahan, and apparently enjoyed tea at Sir William and Lady Osler’s (“I went to tea at Lady Somebody’s house yesterday”12).

The powers that were at American Aviation Headquarters in London and at the Royal Flying Corps continued to look for ways to occupy the cadets.  Places for twenty of them at Stamford’s No. 1 Training Depot Station became available at the beginning of November, and Springs, charged with selection, chose mainly men who, like himself, already had flying experience.  The remaining 130, including Grider, went to machine gun school at Harrowby Camp near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Grider recounts how he “had a chance to stay here [Oxford] and accept a non-flying commission, be a supply officer attached to a flying squadron.”  Presumably this option was offered to all the remaining 130 cadets; as far as I can tell, all, like Grider, “turned it down cold.”13

In mid-November Grider wrote Emma Cox that “I am now taking another ground course. This time it is machine gunnery. We have been on the range all day and I am as deaf as a post. I feel as cheery as can be, however, there is a brand new rumor and it sounds good. 50 of us will be posted to a squadron next week!”14  This rumor turned out to be true. On November 19, 1917, fifty of the men were dispersed to various training squadrons. Curtis, wrote his father from No. 12 T.S. at Thetford that the “boys here with me are Grider, the Arkansas boy you met in N.Y., Callahan of Chicago, Brown of Lake Forest, and Fry, of Columbia, Tenn.”15  Grider wrote his sister that “I am posted to a squadron at last and fly whenever the weather permits, which isn’t often.” He goes on to describe the training planes, Maurice Farmans or “Rumpties,” and then flying itself: “It’s beautiful to see a sunset from about five thousand feet, you cannot imagine anything like it. You wouldn’t be surprised to see God any time. I absolutely can’t describe it.” “I am now learning the gentle art of looping, spinning, turning side slips, tail slides, flat spins and vertical banks. . . . My only objection to flying at all is the loneliness. You stay up an hour and thirty minutes and come down expecting to find all of your friends married and raising large families.”16

From Thetford, Grider went to London Colney sometime in December 1917.  Callahan was assigned to No. 56 T.S. on December 16, 1917; the War Birds entry for January 1, 1918, indicates that Grider and Callahan were assigned together.  Proximity to London provided an antidote to the loneliness of flying, and Grider wrote Cox at the beginning of February that “I have had more wild parties at the Savoy.”17  By the end of February, Grider had completed the first stage of training, and he took several days graduation leave in Bournemouth.18  He was now qualified for a commission, and Pershing’s cable recommending a first-lieutenancy is dated March 5, 1918.19  Meanwhile, along with Curtis and others, he served as a pall-bearer at the funeral of Joseph Frederick Stillman, Jr., who had died on February 23, 1918, some two weeks after a crash at London Colney.20

Sometime in the first half of March Grider travelled to Scotland where he initially attended aerial gunnery school at Turnberry: “This is a wonderful place! The flying corps has taken over this wonderful summer hotel and we are billeted in it. My window overlooks the sad sea waves on one side, and on the other, one of the most famous golf courses in the world.” He goes on to note that he had “put in about twelve hours on the meanest thing with wings, known as a ‘Spad’.”21  From Turnberry Grider went to the School of Aerial Fighting at Ayr, apparently sometime before March 20, 1918. Grider implies that Thomas Cushman Nathan was his roommate there.22  Nathan, of the first Oxford detachment, was killed March 20, 1918.

Springs, also at Ayr, wrote in his diary for March 25, 1918, “Mac [Grider] gets orders to depart for overseas. I go down to London with him.”23  Springs was determined that he, Grider, and Callahan should remain together and on April 1, 1918—the day Grider learned he had received his commission—Springs was able to write of his success in his diary: the three of them were assigned to No. 85 Squadron R.A.F., which, under the command of Billy Bishop, was at Hounslow preparing to depart for France.24  It appears that Grider actually arrived at Hounslow on or before March 29, 1918.  Eugene Hoy Barksdale notes in his diary for that day:  “Mac Grider came over [to London Colney] from Hounslow in Avro and took 2nd Lt Webber (American) up for a flip and put wind up him properly.”25

Grider wrote to Cox on May 10, 1918, from Maidenhead—a town west of and within easy flying distance of Hounslow—about his commission and reported that “Three of us, ‘The Three Musketeers,’ are stationed in London, or almost, and have been living in a house in Berkeley Square.” “We are in the squadron we want to be in and all three together. . . .  We are going with the fastest, keenest crowd in London, and I have gotten away with the handsomest, most charming and sought after girl in the drove”; this was the actress Billie Carlton.  In the same letter he remarks that “We are getting a good deal of flying now” and goes on to recount a crash in a Sopwith Pup in which he was not injured, but the plane was “written off.”26

On May 22, 1918, the pilots of No. 85 Squadron set off in S.E.5a’s for Lympne, not far from Dover. From Lympne they crossed the Channel to Marquise, and then flew to Petit Synthe near Dunkirk.27  Grider and the other pilots of No. 85 spent until the end of May familiarizing themselves with the area and practicing gunnery. On May 26, 1918, Grider wrote that “I started over to have a look at the Great War today, when my engine cut out at twelve thousand feet. . . . Major Bishop was taking Springs and me over before anybody else and of course I had this kind of luck.”28  When the squadron became operational on June 1, 1918, they flew patrols down to Ypres and escorted bombers into Belgium.  On June 8, 1918, “Mac distinguished himself by filling a Hun full of lead bullets”; both Springs and Grider provide lively accounts of this “dog fight.” Although the German plane was last seen “diving vertically to the ground” (Grider), “headed towards his future home and breaking all records” (Springs), it was not seen to crash, and Grider apparently did not receive credit.29

On June 10, 1918, the squadron was ordered south to St. Omer, where they arrived the next day; their patrols now extended from Ypres south to Nieppe. Assuming Grider flew the same patrols as Springs, he flew a practice patrol on June 12, and then was over the lines every or nearly every day thereafter. On June 17, 1918, Grider, by Springs’s account, shared credit with Springs and Callahan for shooting down a two-seater. They had gone out on a patrol as a threesome just before 7 a.m. and encountered the lone enemy plane ten miles inside the German lines south of Merris.30

An RFC form, Report on Casualties to Personnel and Machines with information typed in about Grider and the disposition of his SE5a.
This report is signed by William Avery “Billy” Bishop, who this same day was ordered back to England.

The next morning the three set off again.  Callahan turned back with engine trouble. After another encounter with an enemy two-seater near Menin (Belgian Menen, about twelve miles east northeast of Armentières), Springs made it back through clouds to the aerodrome, but Grider did not. Springs wrote several accounts of this patrol, in his flight log, his diary, an undated narrative, a letter home, and a letter to Grider’s sister.  Details vary, but the essence is always the same: Grider was following Springs back towards the lines and then disappeared from view.31

A casualty report was filed with the information that Grider had left at 9:15 a.m. and that he was “last seen over enemy Lines near Menin by Lieut Springs, who with Grider had engaged an E.A.  No conjecture as to fate.” Springs claimed a German two-seater plane over Menin at 10:05, which suggests an approximate time for his last sighting of Grider.32

According to Grider’s sister Josephine, Grider’s father received a telegram on June 21, 1918, informing him that his son was missing.33  On July 11, 1918, he received a letter dated June 19, 1918, from 85’s acting C.O., George Brindley Aufrere Baker holding out the possibility that Grider was a prisoner of war.34  Springs, recuperating in Paris from injuries sustained in a crash landing, tried to get news of Grider through the Red Cross around July 25, 1918, without success.35  But at the very end of the month, reassigned to the U.S. 148th Aero at Capelle, Springs wrote his father that “News has been received that Mac Grider was killed in action but we can’t figure how.”36  There is another letter to Grider’s father from Captain Baker dated August 14, 1918: “. . . you will have learned that the worst, I fear, has befallen your son. . . .  We had hoped with hopes we thought well founded that he was alive, but it seems from a message dropped over the lines, that although the name was misspelled, the name referred to was his.”37

A printed "Casualty Card," filled in in blue ink with information about Grider's being missing.
One of casualty cards for Grider at the RAF Museum in London. It was usual to designate U.S. pilots “Colonials.”

A casualty card for Grider includes the notation:  “Report from B. M. Mission states this Officer was brought down dead on the 18th June ’18 near Houplin. No further information to hand.” A second casualty card has the notation: “killed between Houplin and Armantieres [sic].”38  “Houplin” was presumably Houplines, less than a mile west of Armentières.  There have been efforts to match the disappearance of Grider and his plane to German victory claims, but always with discrepancies as to time, place, or type of plane, leaving open the possibility that his plane was shot down by ground fire or suffered some catastrophic structural or engine failure.39

Grider’s body was not recovered.  His is one of forty-three names memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Flanders Field American Cemetery, at Waregem, Belgium.40

An oblique photo of a wall with names carved into it and gilded; prominent in the center is "John McG. Grider Arkansas."
From the Tablets of the Missing at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.  The photo is taken from the “Courage & Heroism Tour” web page.

mrsmcq August 10, 2017


(For complete bibliographic entries, please consult the list of works and web pages cited.)

1  Grider’s date and place of birth are taken from, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918, record for John M Gavock Grider [sic].  The photo is a detail of the group photo of his ground school class.

2  On Grider’s family and their plantation, see Strange, “The Civil War and Reconstruction in Mississippi County: The Story of Sans Souci Plantation.”

3  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, pp. 26-27.

4  Ibid., pp. 32-33.

5  On Farley and Cox, see Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, pp. 40 and 43.

6  Ibid., p. 44.

7  Ibid., p. 47.

8  See “Ground School Graduations [for August 25, 1917]” and Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 54.

9  Curtis, undated letter to Josephine on Hotel McAlpin letterhead.

10  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 62.

11  Ibid., p. 63.

12  Ibid., p. 64; see also p.74.

13  Ibid., pp. 65–66.

14  Ibid., p. 70.

15  Curtis, letter of November 21, 1917.

16  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, pp. 73–76.

17  Ibid., p. 78.

18  Ibid., p. 79.

19  Cablegram 678-S.

20  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 79; Curtis, letter of February 27, 1918.

21  Ibid., p. 86.

22  Ibid., p. 92.

23  Springs, Letters from a War Bird, p. 108.

24  Ibid., p. 111. See Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 89 on his learning of his commission; the cablegram from Washington (979-R) was dated March 25, 1918; it was typical for some time to elapse before the news trickled down to the man commissioned.

25  Barksdale, “The Diary of Lt. Eugene Hoy Barksdale 1917–1918.”

26  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, pp. 89–92.

27  See Springs’s flight log and diary entries for this day, cited on p. 131 of Springs, Letters from a War Bird.

28  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 96.

29  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 104; Springs, Letters from a War Bird, p. 154. Grider’s letter indicates this encounter occurred June 8, 1918; Springs’s letter and flight log indicate June 10, 1918. It is possible that there were two separate encounters, but the two accounts are similar enough to suggest they are describing the same incident.

30  Springs, Letters from a War Bird, pp. 158–59, 160. Grider does not receive credit for any victories in American lists; see the entry for him in Munsell, Air Service History, p. 232 (39). See also “Individual Victory List: Confirmed Credits of All U.S. Air Service Officers for Enemy Aircraft Destroyed” and Thayer, America’s First Eagles, pp. 315-31. Perhaps the victories were not confirmed; perhaps there were problems transferring R.A.F. records to American records; perhaps the victories did not meet American criteria.

31  Springs, Letters from a War Bird, pp. 160, 161, 162-63; Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 107.

32   See The National Archives (United Kingdom), Reports on aeroplane and personnel casualties, 11 June 1918 – 20 June 1918.  See also The National Archives (United Kingdom), Pilot and observer casualties: R.F.C. France, 01 February 1918 – 31 July 1918, p. 373, which notes that “Capt. G. M. Grider [sic]” in S.E.5a C1883 was “Last seen in engagement with E.A. 1.50 p.m.”; the time is likely a clerical error.  I am grateful to a Great War Forum member for copies of these documents.

33  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 106.

34  “McGavock Grider Missing.” Captain Baker’s initials are garbled in the printings of his letters. Hillier, ed., on p. xxv of Springs, War Birds: The Diary of a Great War Pilot, indicates that George B. A. Baker was temporary C.O. of 85 at this time; the index of names at Pentland, Royal Flying Corps, provides the middle names.

35  Springs, Letters from a War Bird, p. 186.

36  Ibid., p. 190.

37  Grider and Jacobs, Marse John Goes to War, p. 108.

38  See “Grider, J.M. (John McGavock).”

39  See the relevant entry in Franks, Bailey, and Duiven, The Jasta War Chronology; “John MacGavock [sic] Grider”; “Mac Grider done in by Degelow?”; “Mannock’s SE5a”; and the relevant entry in Henshaw, The Sky Their Battlefield II.

40  See “John Mc G. Grider.”