Monday, February 28, 2011

Frank Buckles, last American WWI vet, dead at 110

Frank Woodruff Buckles, America's last surviving veteran of World War I, has passed away. He turned 110 on February 1st.

Born on February 1st, 1901, on a farm in Bethany, Missouri, Buckles and his family moved in 1916 to Dewey County, Oklahoma, near the small town of Oakwood. Frank worked at the bank in Oakwood, lived in the hotel and attended high school there. America entered the War in 1917.

During the summer of 1917 and at the age of 16, Frank sought to join the military. He first tried joining the Marine Corps, but was turned down because he wasn't 21 years old. He tried again later, this time saying he was 21, but didn't weigh enough. He then tried the Navy, but they said he was flat-footed, and wouldn't take him.

He then went to Oklahoma City, where he enlisted in the Army on August 14, 1917. He joined the Ambulance Service, which was the fastest way to get to France.

Buckles in 1917

Buckles and his fellow soldiers sailed to Great Britain aboard the HMS Carpathia, famous for rescuing survivors of the Titanic disaster. "While in England, I drove a Ford ambulance, a motorcycle with sidecar, and a Ford car for visiting dignitaries," Buckles told David DeJonge, a photographer and documentarist who became the family spokesman.

He finally made it to France, where he had several different assignments. After the Armistice, he escorted prisoners of war back to Germany. "After two years with the AEF (American Expeditionary Force), I returned home on the USS Pocahontas in January 1920. I was paid $143.90, including a $60 bonus," Buckles told DeJonge.

After the War, he returned to Oklahoma City, where he took shorthand and typewriting at a business school. Using those skills, he got a job in Toronto, Canada, with the White Star Line Steamship Company. This sparked an interest in the steamship industry, and although he had a short stint in banking, he soon returned to shipping.

1940 found him working for the American President Lines in Manila, Philippines. He was there in 1941, when the Japanese occupied the city right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Frank spent the next three and a half years in Japanese prison camps, and wasn't liberated until February 23rd, 1945, when the 11th Airborne Division came in.

Buckles lived in California for a few years after the war, and married his wife Audrey. They moved to West Virginia in 1954, where they then operated a small cattle ranch. They lived in an area which one of Buckles' ancestors originally settled in 1732. Audrey died in 1999. Frank was the Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation, which was founded to call on Congress to refurbish the District of Columbia WWI Memorial and rededicate it as a National Memorial. World War I is the only major historical conflict to not have an official national memorial (the D.C. memorial was built by the City, and was to memorialize the 499 DC citizens who died in WWI).

Due to special arrangements made by the White House in March of 2008, Buckles will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Both France and Great Britain have previously made arrangements to send delegates to his funeral.

Frank was the last living, first-hand military memory of the Great War. With him passes an age where men fought using centuries-old tactics, but with modern weapons. World War I was a bloody, brutal conflict that changed how wars are fought, and changed forever the face of Europe. It was the War to End All Wars, but did not accomplish that goal. It wiped out an entire generation of young men, and led to future, greater conflicts.

I saw this quote about Frank, which I thought was very profound: "Today most kids lies about their age in order to buy a pack of cigarettes or a case of beer. Buckles, only 16 at the time, did so in order to enlist in the Army."

We should never forget the men like Frank Buckles, who fought to guard and protect freedom in the West. We should remember the lessons that they learned, and never fail to pass on their memory.

Just two individuals now live who were enlisted during World War I. Royal Navy seaman Claude Choules (who witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy), and Women's Royal Airforce waiter Florence Green are the lone survivors.

[many thanks to David DeJonge; much of the above information was adapted from his website Pershing's Last Patriot, which is about Frank and a planned documentary about his life and story]

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