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War Birds Elliott White Springs John MacGavock Grider Larry Callahan Creation of a literary classic The Perils of Flight, 1917-18 Southern Manhood and 'the Lost Cause' War and Disillusionment The Springs Ad Campaign
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Elliott White Springs

Elliott White Springs was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1896. His grandfather Samuel White had been a local Civil War hero and helped to start a cotton mill after the war to help the town recover from the South's defeat. Samuel's White's daughter had married Leroy Springs, a driven man whose business dealings in the textile industry had made him a wealthy man. Elliott was their only child. Leroy Springs was a strong-willed character who had once shot and killed a man in a gunfight (the case had been ruled self defense). When Springs' mother died, Elliott was still a boy. The elder Springs expected Elliott to carry on the family trade and took it upon himself to instruct the boy on every subject and activity.

Elliott harbored a rebellious streak that would put him at permanent odds with his father. The earliest manifestation of this rebellion came, naturally enough, in school. At Princeton Elliott displayed a wildness his father found embarrassing. Instead of studying business, Elliott set his sights on (1) women, (2) becoming a writer, and (3) becoming an aviator. Though Leroy Springs often displayed his impatience with Elliott, he also gave in to his son's expressed needs, e.g. the Stutz Bearcat Springs drove around the Princeton campus and between Princeton and the hot spots of New York. When America edged closer to entering the World War in 1917, Elliott quickly volunteered for training as a pilot. Leroy was aghast that his son would enter such a dangerous line of work, begging his son instead to push for an Army desk job.

Springs had no intention of taking his father's advice. When American declared war on Germany, Springs was ready to go. From the Princeton aviation training unit, he moved on to the airfield at Mineola, New York, there meeting Larry Callahan and John McGavock Grider. Springs, with his years in military boarding school and his leadership of the Princeton unit, was made a sergeant during training, but even without ranking his friends Mac and Cal Springs was the natural leader of the group. The three southerners became inseparable and were soon given the nickname "the Three Musketeers."

America in April 1917 had no flying corps of its own. What planes and pilots there were were assigned to the 'aviation section' of the Army Signal Corps, reflecting the fact that the original military use of airplanes was for aerial observation of enemy movements. This had been the function of airplanes early in World War I, but by 1917 aviators such as Albert Ball of Great Britain and Manfred von Richthofen of Germany had mastered the use of airplanes as fighting machines. Whether Elliott Springs aspired to emulate Ball and von Richthofen we don't know; we do know that flying became one of his most enduring passions.

As it did most of the men who experienced it, the war changed Springs forever. Entering it a raw, rebellious youth thrilled by the experience of flight and the excitement of aerial combat, he left the war both shaken by the experience of killing his enemies and losing so many of his compatriots, at the same time utterly convinced that nothing would ever compare with what he had just gone through. 'Peace,' he write on Armistice Day. 'The French are still dancing in the streets. But I can find no enthusiasm. I went to bed a free man but I awoke with a millstone around my neck called tomorrow which pulls and pulls and will hang there 'til the grave. . . I only scowl and everyone and demand another war. Peace! I find myself alive. Strange -- I hadn't considered that possibility -- I must alter my plans.'

The fifth ranking 'ace' among American pilots with twelve victories over enemy aircraft, Springs went home and after trying to find jobs in aviation, returned to South Carolina to enter the family business. The elder Springs crowed to the local newspapers about his son's accomplishments in the war but continued his efforts to control his son's future. His father urged him to live in Lancaster but Springs insisted on living in the house his grandfather had bequeathed him in Fort Mill, thirty miles away. When his son once again defied him, Leroy Springs swore he would never enter his son's house in Fort Mill -- and never did. Springs continued his wild behavior -- he had shown a taste for women and alcohol both at Princeton and during the war -- to his father's lasting chagrin. When Elliott courted and married a Massachusetts heiress, the elder Springs was miffed he'd married a Northerner.

His altercations with Leroy Springs were constant. When his father berated him for never earning a dime on his own, Springs accelerated the literary efforts he had begun in the mid 1920s. After selling several short stories based on his wartime experiences, Springs in 1926 went to work on the Diary of an Unknown Aviator. He had succeeded as an aviator during the war, passing the test of endurance. Now he succeeded in his first major literary effort. His father's prediction that the book would be nothing but an embarrassment for all concerned proved unfounded. 'He wanted more than anything else for his father to be proud of him,' says Anne Springs Close, Spring's daughter, ' and his father was but he wasn't going to admit it.'