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Elliott White Springs - Great Pilot, Clever Writer, You Wouldn't Want Him With Your Daughter

elliott cowdin elliott white springs

The two Elliotts are easy to confuse.

Elliott Christopher Cowdin, one of the original seven in the Lafayette Escadrille, was a friend of Norman Prince, and went to Harvard. A New York City native, he was credited with three aerial victories.

Elliot White Springs was a Southerner, went to Princeton (part of the Princeton Flying Club), and wanted to be in the Lafayette Escadrille but didn't get "over there" until after the US joined the war. He became an ace, and some said his score could have been up there with Rickenbacker's if he had bothered to count them all.

Springs was typical of the early American aviators in several ways: from a wealthy family, contributed to the wild-living fighter pilot image, owned a business after the war, loved flying, and considered his time in WWI the most important time of his life. "I went to 7000 feet and put the joy stick between my knees and drank a toast to Pegasus and Bellerophon and another to Daedalus. Then spiraled all the way down." This quote from Springs illustrates an observation by Eddie Rickenbacker, that "In 1918 we were caught up in a great adventure, with the emphasis on thrills and excitement. In 1943 there was a sense of dedication and obligation to win this war and to preserve freedom, liberty, opportunity, comfort and standard of living for future generations."

Thrills and excitement suited Springs. According to his letters home, Springs expected to die, and even hoped that if he could die as a hero his father would finally be proud of him. Some of his quotes were clear premonitions of his impending death...except that, to his surprise, he lived, spoiling the romantic tragedy. To everyone else's surprise, when his father died he stopped acting irresponsible, took over the family textile mills and showed himself as successful a businessman as he was a pilot. He kept the mills going throughout the Great Depression (fuming about the government and the New Deal) and kept several generations of employees at work, treating them so well that unions couldn't get his millworkers to strike.

During later life, Springs was probably best known for the double entendre ad campaigns he ran for the family textile mills, becoming living proof of the saying "nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Though there were many complaints about his ads, the result fell under the category of another Hollywood saying, "any press is good press" and other marketers took notice, leading to decades of ad campaigns sneering at those not "mature" enough to understand.

Now, a hundred years later, Springs is known for his (semi-controversial) authorship of War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator, based on the diary of his friend John MacGavock Grider who was killed in combat. (Apparently Springs started it with Grider's diary, but Grider didn't write much before his death, and Springs filled in with descriptions drawn from other friends.) The book was very successful, as it was considered to be an inside look at the thoughts and feelings of those who flew. T. E. Lawrence called it "a permanent book and a real and immortal part of our war with Germany."

Both Springs' book and a biography of Springs (which this article is pretty much a review of) are in our reading list.



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