By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2011 / All Rights Reserved)
Frank Buckles, the last living U.S. World War I veteran among the 4.7 million who served– and the last survivor of that conflict’s brutal Western Front – died February 27 at his small West Virginia farmhouse. He was 110.
Buckles’ storied life – forged as a Missouri farm boy, Army ambulance driver, international ship’s purser and freight expediter, and World War II prison camp survivor – was harrowing, inspiring, courageous and historic. He survived the Spanish Flu pandemic, witnessed black U.S. track and field star Jesse Owens win a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and bumped into Adolf Hitler on the stairs of a German hotel during the dictator’s rise to power. He was the last of the generation of soldiers that founded The American Legion and the oldest person to ever testify before Congress.
“He’s Forrest Gump with class and IQ,” says photographer David DeJonge, referring to a 1994 fictional movie character who witnesses the 20th century’s most important events. “He’s lived half of American history. He’s the last man of 70 million combatants in the world who witnessed the Western Front (during World War I). He’s brushed elbows with some of the most significant people in history.”
Buckles was aware of his place in history. “I always knew I’d be one of the last because I was one of the youngest when I joined,” Buckles said in his interview with the New York Daily News, after he became the last surviving member of those 4.7 million.
“But I never thought I’d be the last one.”
Buckles also died disappointed that Congress failed to create a National World War I Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in honor of the millions of Americans who helped defeat Germany. He did live long enough to see a significant refurbishing of the memorial on the National Mall that pays tribute to those from the District of Columbia who gave their lives in the “war to end all wars.”
“He’s the last torch bearer from World War I,” says DeJonge, who is producing Pershing’s Last Patriot, a documentary film about Buckles. “He recognizes that The American Legion was birthed out of the veterans of World War I. And to have the nearly 5 million who served go without representation in our nation’s capitol (was) very disheartening to him.”
Frank Woodruff Buckles was born on Feb. 1, 1901, on his family’s farm near Bethany, Mo., roughly 40 miles from the birthplace of Gen. John J. Pershing – leader of U.S. forces in France in World War I. Buckles’ family moved to Oakwood, Okla., when he was 15, where he attended high school and worked in a bank.
He joined the Army in August 1917 by claiming to be 18 and, when challenged, insisted the only record of his birth was back home in the family Bible. This after the Marines and Navy each rejected the 16-year-old three times for being under-age, under-weight or flat-footed.
Buckles opted for the Ambulance Service on the advice of an old sergeant who told him it was the quickest way to get to France. He trained in ambulance operations and “trench casualty retrieval,” as he described it, at Fort Riley, Kan. Buckles sailed for Europe in December 1917 on the Carpathia, meeting several of the ship’s crew who helped rescue Titanic survivors five years earlier. His detachment replaced a unit of the 6th Marines at a military hospital near Winchester, England. After weeks of chauffeuring visiting dignitaries and driving ambulances, he asked to see the commanding officer.
“I told him, ‘I came over to go to France,’” Buckles later told filmmakers. “He said, ‘So did I, but I have to go where the government tells me to go.’” Buckles was finally assigned to escort an officer from another unit to France. He served along the Western Front for the duration of the war.
“Everybody was in mourning,” Buckles told videographer Sean Dunne in 2007. “Every officer, every man, seemed to have a black ribbon on his sleeve,” commemorating the deaths of friends, family and fellow soldiers.
Although less dangerous than the grim trench warfare of the time, driving an ambulance was risky and exhausting. Buckles was forced to grab sleep wherever he could. One night he took an unused bed in a field hospital and fell asleep talking to the man in the bed next to him, DeJonge says. When Buckles awoke, the man had died of the Spanish Flu.
Armistice Day brought a different set of worries for the 4.7 million U.S. soldiers. “They were naturally wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to us? All those men back looking for jobs,’” Buckles told Dunne. Indeed, there was no VA, no GI Bill, and no veterans home-loan program when Buckles’ generation answered the nation’s call.
Buckles remained in Europe after the war and helped transport prisoners back to Germany. He returned to the United States in 1920 and left the Army as a corporal. “When I came back, the parades were all over. Nobody gave a damn,” Buckles said.
He attended business school in Oklahoma City, worked for the post office and then landed a job in the freight office of the White Star Line in Toronto. Buckles spent most of the next 20 years working on cargo and passenger ships in South America and other foreign destinations. Along the way, he joined American Legion Merchant Marine Post 945 in Jefferson Valley, N.Y., and was a member of the Legion for nearly 80 years.
On a trip back to Germany in the 1930s, he met German military officers who told him their country was equipping itself for another war, DeJonge says. After the ship landed, Buckles warned friends and fellow riders at a German equestrian club that Hitler would bring down their nation. He later bumped into the up-and-coming dictator in a Berlin hotel.
American President Lines sent Buckles to Manila in 1940 as a freight expediter. “Unfortunately for me, my stay was extended by the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941,” Buckles later joked. But his three years in the infamous Los Banos prison camp was the most grueling experience of his life, far worse than what he experienced in World War I. “He obviously witnessed the catastrophe of the war and the wounds and the after-effects,” DeJonge says. “But when he was a prisoner of war, he was in the middle of it for 39 months.”
Starvation was the rule at Los Banos, and prisoners stopped weighing themselves when they dropped below 100 pounds. Buckles routinely gave his food to the children in the camp, and plummeted to about 75 pounds. Buckles also witnessed atrocities, including the deaths of friends and fellow prisoners. “He still had nightmares about that,” DeJonge says.
A couple of prisoners escaped in late February 1945, reached a detachment of the 11th Airborne, and warned them that the Japanese planned to execute all of the remaining prisoners because they had run out of food. The 11th Airborne parachuted in the morning of Feb. 23 as the Japanese soldiers did calisthenics in their loincloths. All 2,000 prisoners were rescued without a single loss. Buckles returned to his burning barracks to get the starched shirt, shorts and polished shoes he’d long kept ready for his liberation. The burning building collapsed moments after he left, DeJonge says.
Buckles met Audrey Mayo in California after returning from the Philippines, and the couple married in 1946. They eventually moved to Gap View Farm, near Charles Town, W.Va. Susannah Buckles Flanagan, the couple’s only child, returned to the farm to care for her father after Buckles’ wife died in 1999.
Buckles told her his war stories almost as life lessons, Flanagan said. He also “taught me the importance of knowing who you are, the importance of being independent and making up your own mind,” she told Dunne in 2007.
Buckles became something of a media celebrity in December 2009 when, as the oldest person to ever testify before Congress, he advocated giving national memorial status to the District of Columbia World War I memorial on the National Mall. That campaign was born during Buckles’ March 2008 visit to the deteriorating monument, erected by D.C. residents in 1931 to honor their World War I fallen.
“It was sad to take him up to the World War I memorial,” says Staff Sgt. Gustavo Rodriguez, who was Buckles military escort during that visit. “You go all the way down the National Mall, past the World War II Memorial, and all of a sudden you see, down in the corner, a little memorial that nobody has taken care of.”
That changed, thanks to a $2.2 million restoration project that started last fall. And it’s a fitting tribute to Buckles and all his generation represents, Rodriguez says.
“People are in awe of him and all he’s done. He’s a national treasure.”
To read more about Frank Buckles go to The American Legion Magazine’s website.
Read more about efforts to make a documentary about Frank Buckles life here.