Who was John McGavock Grider and what’s his connection to Pine Bluff Municipal Airport?
John M. Grider, born in Mississippi County in 1892, enlisted as a cadet in the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Aviation Section. Before the U.S. was able to organize its own air service, Grider and a small number of other newly trained pilots were dispatched for World War I service with the British. Grider and two of his closest friends – Lawrence Callahan and Elliott Springs – were assigned to the Royal Air Force’s 85th Squadron.
Grider, Callahan and Springs came to be known as “The Three Musketeers” as they served and often enjoyed their free time together.
According to the Foundation for New Media Inc. of New York, the three were warmly received into London society, and Grider – a divorced father of two sons – began a much talked-about romance with young English actress Billie Carleton, who gave him a doll that he carried with him in flight.
About eight months after his arrival in England, Grider was declared missing after flying a pursuit mission in France on June 18, 1918, Mike Polston wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. The 26-year-old’s body was never recovered, but it was later determined that he had perished in a dog fight with German ace fighter pilot Carl Degelow.
Carleton died five months later after a cocaine overdose. She was only 20.
Grider had kept what was described as “quite a diary.” In 1926, Springs published a book entitled War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator, supposedly “cleaning up” Grider’s diary and using it as a basis for the work, said Mississippi County historian Deanna Snowden. Springs later revealed that Grider had given him the diary before his death and expressed a desire for his story to be told. Meanwhile, Springs paid Grider’s sister – Josephine Louise Grider Jacobs – $12,500 in an out-of-court settlement after she filed a suit against him. Jacobs wrote her own book about her brother – Marse John Goes to War.
In 1988, Texas A&M University published a new edition of War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator and listed Grider as author. In 2003, an educational documentary video by the same name was produced. Grider’s sons – John M. Grider Jr. and George Grider – both had storied Naval careers. George Grider wrote a well-received book, War Fish, about his experiences as a decorated World War II submarine commander. After the war, George Grider served as a U.S. congressman.
The landing field for the Pine Bluff School of Aviation, founded in 1940 and now part of the municipal airport, was named in Grider’s honor. The facilities opened in 1941. How the field came to be named for Grider is unclear, but one could theorize that the notion may have been promoted by William R. Kent of Memphis’ Southern Air Service, which established the local aviation school. Memphis is only about 35 miles from Grider’s birthplace, and Kent may have been a devoted Grider admirer and even a friend of the Grider family as the famed pilot’s sons had settled in Memphis.
Grider was also saluted by the City of Osceola, near his birthplace, where a now-defunct Veterans of Foreign Wars post was established in his name and the McGavock-Grider Memorial Park still exists.