Critics and historians alike have praised the Christopher Nolan motion picture “Dunkirk” for its inspiring and accurate account of an important moral victory in the early months of World War II, when civilian mariners were called upon to sail whatever boats were available across the English Channel to rescue approximately 340,000 British troops from certain capture or defeat in northern France.
But John Carpenter didn’t need to see the blockbuster film to know what happened at Dunkirk in 1940.
He was there.
“It was chaos,” Carpenter said. “If you saw a boat, you were lucky.”
Carpenter, 99, was a private in the 48th Regiment of the British Army and has lived in Parker for seven years. His daughter, Pat Cowan, moved to the United States after marrying a member of the United States Air Force in 1956, and in the 1970s Carpenter and his late wife came across the Atlantic Ocean to be with them.
But at the outset of the war, he was stationed in the French town of Lille. When his commander learned that the German army was about to surround British forces, the captain gave carpenter an order he almost couldn’t believe.
“He said `Get back to the beach as fast as you can,’ ” Carpenter said. “It was every man for himself.”
His captain disappeared after giving the order, leaving Carpenter and his friend Wally to find their way from Lille to the beach at Dunkirk alone.
Carpenter contends the film’s depiction of the evacuation was excellent, though it didn’t match his experience. When he and Wally eventually made it to the waterfront, there was no dock and no officers to direct troops to ships.
“Every man was all pushing and shoving,” Carpenter said. “We lost a lot of men, young boys really, all 20 and 21… The boys were just on their own.”
As he and Wally sat against a sand dune, resigned that they would be killed by a sniper’s bullet or one of the German Messerschmitt planes strafing the beach, they were surprised to see help on the way.
“It was a shock to me, because I said `that is a pleasure boat coming in,’ ” he said. “Then I was made to understand there were a lot of small boats coming.”
Unable to swim, Carpenter was pulled onto the steamer, where dozens of other men lay trembling with cold and fear. German planes attacked the boats, including Carpenter’s, but he felt safe when the boat’s captain brought the men a cup of tea.
Upon his return to England, Carpenter and many other Dunkirk survivors were discharged with what would now be referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. But he couldn’t sit out the war, so he joined the American Red Cross, crossing the English Channel to transport wounded soldiers to safety.
After the Allied victory, Carpenter largely put the war, and the events at Dunkirk, out of his mind. Though there was one reunion, by chance, on a London sidewalk, that he cherishes.
“He looked at me and said `Carpenter!’ ”
It was Capt. Wright, the officer who gave him the evacuation order in Lille and promptly disappeared.
“I went to salute him,” he said.
Wright grabbed Carpenter’s arm to prevent the salute and embraced his former private.
“He got hold of me and said `Good boy, you got out alive.’ ”