WARSAW — David Clifton knew from an early age that he wasn’t destined for a normal, earth bound career. Growing up in Warsaw during the 1920’s, Clifton would watch the local stunt pilots, known as barnstormers, perform tricks with their planes, lying on the ground beneath their wings and dreaming of the day when he could join them in the sky.
“He used to carve airplanes out of wood and fly kites. He just wanted to be in the air,” said his son, David, during a phone interview last week.
“’I was six-years-old when I fell in love with airplanes,”’ quoted David, reading from a letter written by his father, who passed away on December 30 at the age of 90.
While his dreams of flying would have to wait, Clifton’s adventurous spirit found other outlets around his hometown. “Dad was a little bit of a daredevil,” said David. “He was the only guy in school who had a car and he would take it out on the football field with his friends and drive from one end to the other.”
It was during this time that Clifton discovered his other enduring passion—music. “When he was 12 years-old he bought a $3.98 guitar and taught himself to play,” said David. “He was always into music.” It was a skill that would serve Clifton well in the years to come.
While attending a family reunion at White Lake, Clifton met his future wife, Ruth, a fellow Warsaw resident who had previously escaped his attention. “I was chasing him down,” remembered Ruth, speaking from her home in Pompano Beach, Florida last week.
Ruth recalled Clifton’s fascination with music. “He was in the band in high school and he used to carry this big horn with him wherever he went. Some people would get on him about it, but he was the kind of person who always liked to do what they wanted to.” As proof of his determination, Clifton also began taking flying lessons.
After graduating from Warsaw High School as Senior Class President in 1938, Clifton attended N.C. State University for six months. On December 7,1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor; 10 days later Clifton was called up to the Air Force. While completing his training, Clifton was joined in Rapid City, South Dakota by his high school sweetheart, Ruth. They were married on December 5, 1942.
The newlyweds didn’t have long to spend together—Clifton left for England in March of 1943. “It was kind of devastating when he had to leave. So many of those boys didn’t come back,” remembered Ruth.
While flying to England Clifton put his musical skills to good use, playing his battered $3.98 guitar over the intercom to keep his crewmembers awake. Later, he would play ragtime music to help his fellow pilots relax each night before lights-out in the Quonset hut.
Due to his already considerable flight experience, Clifton secured a spot as a B-17 pilot with the 303rd Bomb Squad, Hell’s Angels, based in Molesworth, England. Clifton flew 25 combat missions between March and August of 1943.
According to David, one of his father’s most memorable combat missions occurred on June 11, 1943 over Wilhelmshaven Germany, where, after being knocked out of formation and attacked by 15 FW-190’s he landed safely with 96 bullet holes in his plane. Another close call occurred on August 17 of that same year during a bombing raid on the German’s Schweinfurt ball bearing works factory. With no long-range fighters to escort them, 60 of Clifton’s fellow 315 B-17 pilots were shot down during the raid. Clifton also took part in a bombing campaign against a facility in the German occupied city of Heroya, Norway. After the war it was revealed that the target had been a production complex that produced heavy water for use in German nuclear research. The movie actor Clark Gable also took part in this mission. For his service, Clifton was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medals.
After returning from the war, Clifton attended college, graduating from N.C. State in 1946. Soon after he rejoined the Air Force, where he served for the next 25 years.
“We lived all over,” remembered David. “Biloxi, Mississippi; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; England; Savannah, Georgia. We were on the move a lot.”
In 1949, the Clifton’s adopted a daughter, Libby, from an orphanage in Germany. In 1951 they adopted a second child, Danny.
During this time, the one constant in the family’s life was their return trips to Warsaw to visit relatives. “Warsaw was always my home,” said David. “It’s the only place we ever came back to. When we got close to home, dad would start singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” that’s how I knew we were almost there.”
Throughout the years, music remained an active part of Clifton’s life. “He would always perform,” said Ruth. “He would put on concerts for the whole family.” Ruth remembers her husband as a versatile musician, able to perform everything from oldies and country and western songs to his own, self-penned numbers.
After 25 years in the service, Clifton retired in 1971, after which he and Ruth found a permanent home in Pompano Beach, a perfect spot to indulge yet another of Clifton’s obsessions—golf. “He loved to play,” said Ruth. “He played up until he was 90.”
“I’d ask him how his game was and he’d say ‘Oh, I shot my age today,”’ said David, who recalled his father giving him tips on how to improve his game. “He was my golf swing coach,” he remembered with a laugh. “Being a pilot, he would make these checklists of things I needed to work on. It was great.”
Last year, at the age of 90, Clifton starred in a YouTube video singing his version of Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell,” a song about life, love, and war. “I’ve heard there’s a wicked war a-blazing, and the taste of war I know so well,” sings Clifton, “Even now I see the foreign flag a-raising, their guns on fire as we sail into Hell.”
His son and wife remember Clifton as a humble, intelligent man. “He was interested in everything; very inquisitive,” said David. “He would send me these articles about the universe and different things. He was always curious.”
David also remembers his father as a skilled repairman. “He could fix anything,” he stated. “It might not work exactly like it did before, but it would be close enough.”
According to David, arrangements are currently being made to bury Clifton at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
“He was a great guy,” remembered Ruth. “He was the love of my life.”