At Remembrance Day ceremonies in Nelson, there is a front row of seats reserved for veterans. Chuck Clarkson, age 97, is there every year, representing a dwindling population of soldiers who fought in the Second World War.
He saw a lot of action in two of the war’s most important battles, but in recounting that to the Nelson Star, he was very modest about his role, saying he doesn’t want to be seem too self-important.
Clarkson joined the military at 16, two years after the war broke out.
“To get into the army in those days they didn’t really pay too much attention to your age,” Clarkson says. “If you joined up and you were in your 20s, you were considered an old man.”
Clarkson entered the military from his parents’ farm in Saskatchewan.
“My mother didn’t like the idea, but my father [a veteran of the First World War] was gung-ho.”
On Christmas day in 1943, Clarkson was on a boat headed from England to Antwerp, Belgium. They were turned around once by the German Navy –“they chased us back to the coast” – then they tried again successfully a week later.
Clarkson spent the next two years in Europe working as a radio operator and communications technician, sometimes doing this as a paratrooper. His unit was part of the British 6th Airborne Division.
When he first landed in Europe he didn’t have a clear idea of why he was there.
“I never paid too much attention to the news of the world.”
He was, after all, a teenager from a farm in Canada.
At his training in England he had become used to the sound of guns and of shells passing overhead.
“But then when we first went into the theatre of operations, when they [the German army] were coming towards us, that’s when you realize that something is going on. This brought me home to the fact of where we were and what we were doing.”
This included full awareness, for the first time, that he could die or be badly wounded. But his approach, as was the case with most soldiers, he says, was to keep his head down, follow orders, and do his job.
“We don’t make decisions, we just follow them. You just do what you’re told to do and you do it to the best of your ability. I was pretty good signaler. I knew the Morse code very well.”
He says he rarely thought about home because he was consumed by the dangerous tasks in front of him.
“I was scared most of the time. You had that feeling in your stomach.”
Clarkson was part of the Battle of the Bulge (Belgium, 1944-45), Hitler’s last main offensive of the war.
One of his strongest memories of the battle was nearly dying at the hand of his commanding officer, who almost shot him for barging through a door without remembering to first state a password after he had gone in search of water for his unit.
One day he was so involved in his work as a radio operator, on the main floor of a house, that he didn’t hear a bombardment and an officer ordering them all into the basement. Fellow soldiers saved his life by dragging him down the stairs at the last moment.
Clarkson was part of the Allied crossing of the Rhine in 1945, with the German army in retreat.
“I had my jeep with two tractors. And I was the lead vehicle going across, and we went across the river on a Bailey bridge.”
Did he realize the significance of this crossing at the time, that it allowed Allied troops to move into the interior of Germany, eventually leading to an Allied victory?
“No, a lot of things we couldn’t realize at the time. We just had a job to do and you had no concept of the big picture.”
Another memory: toward the end of the war he and his unit rescued some prisoners from an SS camp. He was shocked by their emaciated condition.
“It was sickening. It was like watching marching matchsticks, there was nothing to them. We did the worse thing we could do. We gave them chocolate bars, and it nearly killed them.”
On his return to Canada in 1945, Clarkson was surprised by how strange his home country seemed.
“They had so much here. And we were used to scratching for everything. In a way it was hard to get used to.”
Living in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, recently married and needing a job to support his new family, Clarkson joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a communications technician. Like most military families they moved a lot, living in several Canadian communities with Clarkson working on aircraft telecommunications.
The Clarkson family eventually grew to three daughters and one son.
He left the air force in 1970 and took training as an operating stationary engineer. A job came up in Nelson, where he worked for the BC Buildings Corporation for 13 years, maintaining power plants, generators, and heating systems.
In that job, Clarkson was a member of the BC Government Employees Union and was elected as a union rep. In that position he became increasingly committed to workers’ rights, actively pushing for better health care, pensions, and other benefits.
Clarkson has been an avid bridge player since he was a young man. In the early 1980s he took over the directorship of the Nelson Kokanee Duplicate Bridge Club and maintained that position until two years ago. He still plays bridge twice per week, having achieved the rank of Silver Life Master.
For two years, he also ran the local branch of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
In 1998, Clarkson’s wife Edna passed away. Clarkson himself is still active, playing bridge twice a week and committed to making his annual appearance at the Remembrance Day ceremony.
“I feel very lucky to be there,” he says.
This story was corrected on Jan. 6. The original version stated that Chuck Clarkson was Nelson’s oldest veteran. In fact, the oldest veteran in the city is Eric Smith, age 103.