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Remembering - the high hopes and tragic loss of one of the world’s first fighter pilots

PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 November 2017

Clifford Kimber training with the US air service in March 1918 Picture: Kimber Family Archive

Clifford Kimber training with the US air service in March 1918 Picture: Kimber Family Archive

Picture: Kimber Family Archive

A collection of letters, written from the battlefields of the First World War, inspired a Suffolk woman to research her uncle’s bright life and devastating death.

Elizabeth Nurser holder a copy of her new book - An American on the Western Front. Picture: GREGG BROWN Elizabeth Nurser holder a copy of her new book - An American on the Western Front. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The story of one of the world’s first fighter pilots is being told almost a century after his death - thanks to his niece in Suffolk.

Just seven years after aeroplanes were first used in war, Arthur Clifford Kimber was flying over the battlefields of the First World War in a fragile wood and canvas biplane.

Now Elizabeth Nurser, of Sudbury, has written the story of his heroism, his high hopes for his future, and his death in one of the final battles of the war, aged just 22.

She has based her account on the vivid letters he wrote home to his mother and brothers, back in America. Clifford, who was always known by his middle name, had planned to publish his letters as his own account of the war.

But in the autumn of 1918 he died in battle. Almost a century later his dream of publication has come true, thanks to the daughter of his younger brother.

Elizabeth, who is now 87, tells the story of the uncle she never knew in An American on the Western Front.

Young Clifford was one of the first wave of Americans to travel to Europe to help with the war effort, volunteering as an ambulance driver before his country had even officially entered the war.

“The only way these enthusiastic lads could get over and do something was to go as non-combatants, as ambulance drivers,” explained Elizabeth.

She said that although the US did not join the war until 1917 a wave of anger against the Germans had been building since the sinking of the Lusitania, and deaths of more than 1,000 civilians, in the Atlantic in 1915.

Clifford was one of many students at Stamford University in California who volunteered to drive battlefield ambulances in France. By the time he was despatched to Europe, his country had announced its intention to join the war, and he was asked to take the very first official US flag to be flown on the Western Front. En route to France he attended a parade in New York and was thrilled to meet former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote him a personal message.

The young student never returned, but the flag he carried with such pride is now in the archives at Stamford University.

Clifford had once seen an aeroplane as a child in and from then on he was desperate to fly.

In France, he persuaded a French pilot to take him up for his first flight. “He was so excited about that!” said Elizabeth. Soon he had talked his way on to a French training course and his letters home were full of his adventures.

He became an American fighter pilot, before America even had an air force. But his excitement at being able to soar into the sky was tempered by the horrors he had seen on the battlefields below as an ambulanceman. And although he assured his family that flying was the safest way to fight, his flight-logs were full of the names of friends killed.

By the summer of 1918 he had transferred to the new US army air service. His main job was reconnaissance but his final mission was to bomb a railway junction being used to distribute goods to the German army.

“He went up with two or three bombs on the seat next to him and was expected to toss them overboard, but he was caught in crossfire,” said Elizabeth.

He wrote his last letter just hours before he died.

“He had begun to realise that he might not get back. His death affected my grandmother a great deal and she would speak about what a wonderful chap he was,” said Elizabeth.

In 1922 his devastated mother published some of his letters in a book called The First Flag. The complete collection eventually passed to her youngest son and then to Elizabeth.

She was brought up in America, coming to England in 1954 to study at Cambridge University, where she met her husband, John. They went on to have four children and Elizabeth co-wrote An American on the Western Front with her journalist son-in-law Patrick Gregory, former managing editor of the BBC’s political programmes department.

“Clifford was a very optimistic and energetic young man and he had a very charming personality. You feel that the world is your oyster at that age. He was hoping to president of the United States!”

He died just seven weeks before the end of the war and is buried in an American Cemetery in France, close to the Luxembourg border, alongside more than 14,000 of his countrymen killed in the war.

“It’s a big cemetery. As far as you can see are these white crosses,” said Elizabeth.

An American on the Western Front is on sale at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford and London, as well as from bookshops and via the website americanonthewesternfront.com

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