John MacGavock Grider, whose diary became the starting point for War Birds, was born in 1892 to an old Arkansas family that owned a plantation on the banks of the Mississippi named "Sans Souci." Bored with plantation life, "Mac" Grider moved to Memphis shortly after the turn of the twentieth century and attended the Memphis University School to prepare for a career in law. But at age seventeen, he dropped out of school and married a Memphis girl, Marguerite Samuels, who the family considered of a lower status. By 1917, the couple had two sons but the marriage had ended in divorce.


Through a family connection Grider was accepted for training as a military pilot. He sold part of his ancestral land in Arkansas to buy a house for Marguerite and the two boys, then headed north for aviation ground school in Illinois, then to England with his new friends Callahan and Springs.  Grider and Springs were in the words of author Marvin Skelton "born hell-raisers." Grider was popular among his comrades and was something of a hit within London society. Grider's grandson George sees a bit of Neal Cassady in Grider, a rough-cut entertainer who'd decided to enlist in the war after a brawl on a Memphis street. In the pages of his diary, Grider promised himself he would not lose his temper anymore. "I fight too much." "I haven't lived very well," he added, "but I intend to die well."


Grider's death in combat so soon after the American pilots reached the front was a sobering loss for Ellliot Springs and Larry Callahan, but the Grider family suffered the greatest loss of all. Their fortunes continued to wane as more and more of their land was lost to the Mississippi River's ever changing course. In 1928 the family home, built in the 1840s, burned to the ground. Sans Souci was no more.