Decorated Canadian war veteran Pte. William Albert (Bert) Cluney spent much of his time during the Second World War running artillery shells to the front lines in Europe. When the war ended, he enlisted in the Transport Division of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and spent two tours of duty between 1950 and 1955 in the bloody conflict in Korea.
He was also among the many Canadian military personnel to take part in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt between 1956 and 1967.
But after all those years in theatre, it was a house fire early Saturday morning that ultimately claimed the life of the feisty 90-year-old, as well as four dogs that were in the single-storey dwelling at the time.
"Father was one of the many unrecognized heroes of this country," Bert’s son, Dave Cluney, said from his home in Oak River on Monday afternoon. "He’s kind of been forgotten about.
"He had quite a distinguished and interesting career."
"He was a hard man, but a solid man," added his brother, Pat Cluney, who lives within viewing distance of his father’s burnt-out home. "He instilled in me to be hard-working, honest and a man of your word. That’s what he was, was a man of his word."
The Rivers Fire Department received a phone call reporting a structure fire south of Rivers and three kilometres west of the Deerboine Hutterite Colony at 6:48 a.m. Saturday.
By the time Rivers firefighters arrived, a team from the Deerboine Colony was already on scene and attempting to battle the blaze. The Deerboine team told the Rivers firefighters that there was an individual still inside the house.
By that point, the house was fully engulfed, and the flames and smoke had prevented their entry before the Rivers firefighters arrived. One of Pat’s neighbours arrived at his father’s house first, even before residents from the colony, but he couldn’t get in because there was too much smoke and heat.
An RCMP spokesperson told the Sun that the fire does not appear to be suspicious in nature. Though the Office of the Fire Commissioner is still investigating the blaze, Pat says he was told it was likely an electrical fire.
"They figure it was the electrical panel," Pat said. "When my neighbour got there, the whole front porch was on fire. Not the kitchen, where the wood stove was."
Rivers Fire Chief Richard Brown said firefighters entered the home and removed the bodies of Cluney and the four dogs, and then carried on with defensive fire tactics.
"We brought the fire under control at 1:30 in the afternoon, and carried on watching for hot spots until supper time."
Pat said his father, who had dementia, was found by the bedroom door. Two of the four dogs that died in the fire were his, and the other two were his father’s.
In all, Bert had five children, and a wife, Eileen, who passed away a few years earlier.
Though he didn’t speak much of his military years, three of his five children told the Sun yesterday that it was clear several tours of duty had taken a toll on their father.
Daughter Mary Cluney-Boenig said that he applied for a post-traumatic stress disorder pension with Veterans Affairs, but was denied because he wouldn’t talk openly about his experiences.
"The only stories I really ever got out of father on his war years were funny things. He never really talked much about the war years," Dave said.
In speaking of their father, Dave, Pat and Mary all expressed both regret, but also a kind of relief following the death of their father, who had grown unhappy following the death of his wife.
"He missed (my mother) so much," Dave said.
"It’s not that we don’t miss him, we just know that he’s a lot happier."
"That’s the one thing — I was there when they pulled my dad out of the building," Pat said. "He was an awesome man.
"You’d have to understand my family to understand why we’re not so upset. To my family he said, he was going to live, and he was going to die on that farm. And when they brought him out of there, it would be feet first.
"When they brought the fire department there, and they brought him out the window, I saw they brought him out head first," Pat said, in a wry voice.
"Well dad, you didn’t win that one."
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Cluney’s son shares one of his dad’s war stories
William Albert (Bert) Cluney’s son, Dave Cluney, spoke at length of his father’s war stories. Here’s one of them, as told to the Sun on Monday:
During the Second World War at the end of the war, there was a German officer who snuck up to the Canadian base. He had to go around an American outfit to get there. So he got to the Canadian base and told them he had 150 troops who wanted to surrender. They had a horse and wagon, and they asked if there was anybody who knew anything about horses. And father said, yeah, I do.
They said, OK, you go with this (German) guy, and he’ll take you back to where they are. Get them to put all their guns in the wagon and you come back with them. His only instruction was that the German officer was not to ride in the wagon. He had to walk. And dad said "that’s exactly what we did till we got out of sight. Since I couldn’t disobey an order, I got off the wagon and walked with him."
They got out in the middle of nowhere on this road. The German officer stopped, shouted something in German, and all of a sudden there were German soldiers all over the place, coming out of the bush. "They all kind of ran past me and threw their guns in the wagon," dad said. And he said when they were on the way back — the officer didn’t speak any English really — and on their way back they stopped for a break and he said that him and this officer were sitting together and that guy was showing him pictures of his wife and his kids, that kind of stuff.
(Along the way) they had to stop at the American checkpoint. The U.S. rangers were there. They asked father what they were doing and he told them what they were doing. One of them looked down at the German officer’s wrist and saw his gold watch. And he told father, "If I was you, I’d just shoot him and take that watch."
And father said, "I looked at him straight in the eye and I said, ‘If I wanted his watch all I’d have to do is ask him for it, and I’m sure he would give it to me. But it’s his watch. Now get out of my road."
And that is who my father was.