MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
Though his words now come in a hushed whisper, Frank Woodruff Buckles’ 109-year-old eyes still gleam with wisdom and experience.
Buckles, who served in the Army as a corporal, is the last known surviving American veteran of World War I – making him a living piece of American history.
America entered World War I in 1917. Everyone was reading and talking about the war, and recruiting posters were set up everywhere to encourage Americans to do their duty and defend America, according to Buckles’ daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan.
Buckles enlisted in Oklahoma City after having to lie to his recruiters about his age; he was 16 at the time. He was the 15,577th Army recruit to join for the war, according to national archive records in his family’s possession.
“I was all gung-ho to get to France,” Buckles said in an interview with ABC Nightly News. “A regular Army sergeant said that, ‘if you want to get into France in a hurry, you go into the Ambulance Corps.’”
Buckles did just that, becoming a member of the First Fort Riley Casual Detachment. The unit was sent to England aboard the RMS Carpathia, the same ship that had rescued the survivors of the Titanic five years before.
“He was sent to England on the Carpathia and was stationed in Winchester, England,” said Flanagan. “Since not everyone in those days knew how to drive and he did, he was assigned to drive military officers to various meetings and private homes.”
Though Buckles never saw combat action, he played his own role in the war. Most people had not yet been trained to drive, and his abilities were useful in France.
“Once in France, he did whatever was needed; driving ambulances and other vehicles and occasional guard duty,” Flanagan said. “After the Armistice, he stayed in the Army of Occupation and escorted German prisoners of war by train back to Germany.”
He returned to the United States as a corporal in 1920 and did not reenlist after the war. That did not mean it would be the end of adventure in his life. Buckles then worked for a shipping company on a cargo ship and had the misfortune of being in Manila, Philippines, when the Japanese wrested control of the Philippine Islands from the U.S. According to his website, www.frankbuckles.org, he spent 39 months in a Japanese prison camp. There he survived on small cups of beans, rice and worm-filled mush until being rescued by the 11th Airborne Division.
Now, at the age of 109, this old soldier deserves a rest. However, the fighting spirit has never left him. As the last known surviving World War I veteran, he lobbies congress for the building of a national World War I monument on the Mall of Washington as no such monument has yet been built.
“Frank feels that it is his responsibility as the last man standing to bring honor to the nearly 5 million that served for our nation,” said David DeJonge, who serves as Buckles’ spokesperson and photographer. “Not only is Frank the last American that served, but he is the very last person to have served an active role on the Western Front.”
Washington currently has a World War I memorial dedicated to the citizens of the capital, but no monument for the nation itself. The citizens monument has fallen into disrepair but is being restored at the urging of Buckles and his supporting activists.
“We would like to share the property and enhance the respect for the District of Columbia memorial by incorporating some simple elements to bring it to a national and D.C. World War I memorial,” said DeJonge.
Buckles now resides on his family farm in Charles Town, W. Va. His website is used to educate the public about World War I and those brave Americans who served in the great war.
“I knew I would be one of the last ones,” Buckles said. “But I never expected to be the last.”
Now Buckles is the only living-link America has to a time gone by.