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For Dunkirk veteran, movie brings back different memories

Movies like the World War II epic Dunkirk are popular escapes from reality.

Unless you're Fred Clutterbuck, who watched Christopher Nolan's movie expecting more reality about his escape.

Clutterbuck, 97 and belying it, survived the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940 that Nolan's acclaimed film dramatizes. His story is different from the movie's triangulated tension on land, sea and air.

Mainly Dunkirk is set at sea and in the air, disappointing Clutterbuck, a Pinellas County resident since Eisenhower ran for president. He thought Nolan's overlapping chronologies were "confusing," finding little resemblance to his wartime experience.

"It was a funny movie to be called Dunkirk," he said London proper as Hans Zimmer's music played over end credits.

"It wasn't in my mind anything like what I thought it was going to be.

"Dunkirk, what I remember, was a land operation. This (movie) was all on the water so I don't know the connection."

Any eyewitness testament to Dunkirk is logically rare. In 2016, the Office for National Statistics estimated nearly 172,000 living British males were 90 or older. Perhaps half were actively involved in World War II, fewer at a specific event like the Dunkirk evacuation. Certainly the number of Dunkirk veterans living in the United States is much smaller.

The fog of war memory gets soupier over time. However, Clutterbuck's recollections of Dunkirk are consistent, confirmed by his stepson John Nash, 66, who shares the veteran's Treasure Island home.

Clutterbuck joined the war as a Territorial Army volunteer, England's version of the U.S. National Guard. He served in the Royal Corps of Signals, setting up battlefield communications systems, hoping to learn a career.

"I didn't want to be in a marching unit," Clutterbuck said of enlisting. "That's all it was, just marching and parading. I wanted to be in something more technical."

Something more exciting?

"Yeah, it turned out to be, at Dunkirk," he said. "A bit more than we thought."

Dunkirk is a French harbor town seen in Nolan's breathless introduction of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), one of countless Allied soldiers scrambling to the coast to escape German forces. It's where Clutterbuck awaited a boat to England for several days.

On the way to Dunkirk, Clutterbuck was separated from his unit after an enemy bombing raid left the 20-year-old soldier injured, a sunburst scar on his right hand.

"You put your hands on the back of your neck, you know, to protect your spine," he said. "So I got shrapnel in my hand."

Transferred to a medical unit, Clutterbuck didn't stay long.

"I was in this tent, a little injured, for four days," he said. "There were orderlies helping out, dressing the wounds as much as possible. But I had enough of that. I felt sorry for them, but I couldn't do anything for them.

"I started walking down this dead straight road, parallel to the water."

Where was he going?

"I didn't know," Clutterbuck said. "Away from where the wounded were. You do what you have to do in times like that."

Soon after, a British staff officer's car stopped to pick up Clutterbuck, taking him to a Dunkirk outpost to await transit back to England. Four days later, he was on a vessel crossing 26 miles across the channel to safety.

"I remember sitting on the floor and they brought me a cup of tea," Clutterbuck said, chuckling. "I will never forget that. That was the best cup of tea."

When the war ended in 1945, Clutterbuck's story began anew like many World War II veterans.

Before Germany's surrender, Clutterbuck contracted tuberculosis from guarding an infected prisoner of war. While hospitalized, he fell in love with a nurse named Josie.

They married and moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where cold, damp climes exacerbated Josie's rheumatoid arthritis. Her doctor suggested moving to warmer surroundings.

In 1951, the Clutterbucks chose Gulfport, where Josie had relatives. Later they built the Intracoastal Waterway home where he still resides. Josie died in the early 1970s.

Clutterbuck remained single until 1996 when he married Daphne Nash, John's mother. Clutterbuck retired as a print setter and proofreader for the now-defunct Evening Independent. Daphne died in 2002.

Clutterbuck survives, as he did 77 years ago, with his own Dunkirk story that will never be a movie. He lives fairly independently. Our afternoon at the movies occurred while John Nash and his wife, Lorna, took a weeklong RV trek to Miami. A caretaker dropped by, declining to join us at the show.

"There's nothing wrong with him at all," Nash said by phone on the road. "Doesn't take any medications, but he's just getting old now."

Stooped in posture, unbowed in what the British call "Dunkirk spirit."

"Never to give in," Clutterbuck said, defining the term. "We don't give in easily."

You certainly haven't, he's told.

"No, I haven't given in easily," agreed Clutterbuck with a movie-star smile.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

For Dunkirk veteran, movie brings back different memories 07/24/17 [Last modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 9:05pm]
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