"THE LAST SOLDIERS -- THE LASTING SOLDIERS"
March 14, 2011
- Brigadier General Henry J. Reilly was a reflective man and noted the passing of Civil War veterans.
- General Reilly recognized the stories and history that was being lost upon the passing of these veterans.
- The last living American veteran of World War I, Frank Woodruff Buckles, recently passed away at the age of 110.
A year was ending; an era was ending. The time seemed suitable for reflection, and Brigadier General Henry J. Reilly was a reflective man. He was, to be sure, an experienced combat veteran -- son of a hero of the Boxer Rebellion, himself a West Point graduate in 1904, commander of the 83rd Infantry Brigade of the fabled 42nd ("Rainbow") Division in World War I, first President of the Reserve Officers Association. Yet he is best known for devoting most of the post-World War I period to writing, speaking, and commenting on military affairs and serving as a war correspondent covering conflicts in Poland, Spain, Albania, and France.
His reflective and analytic frame of mind he applied even to a gift that he received in 1928. On December 14, he wrote to a friend:
"Thank you very much, indeed, for the very interesting pamphlet on 'The Death of the Confederacy,' by Captain Frank Potts [a personal account of the Appomattox Campaign by an officer on Confederate Lieutenant-General James Longstreet's staff].
"Am always glad to see any testimony from eye witnesses of our Civil War. It always seemed to me that we were so accustomed to having the men around us who took part in those stirring events, that we were overlooking the fact that gradually one by one they were disappearing, taking with them, unrecorded, so much both of great interest and historical value."
Civil War veterans disappearing -- surely that could not be! Perhaps 3,000,000 military personnel, Federal and Confederate, had served in that war. Reilly, born in 1881, had grown up in an America where Civil War veterans were everywhere. Approximately 75,000 were still living when he reflected on the matter in 1928. To most people of his day, America without Civil War veterans seemed unthinkable. But he was right; they were disappearing, though some would survive into mid-century. The last known Union veteran, Albert Woolson, a drummer boy in the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, passed away on August 2, 1956. Various claimants to Southern service also died in that decade; the concluding confirmed Confederate combatant, Private Pleasant Crump of the 10th Alabama Infantry Regiment, expired on December 31, 1951.
And what of General Reilly's own war, the Great War, the "war to end all wars," the First World War' Over 4,700,000 Americans served in that conflict. Ten years after the Armistice, when Reilly wrote his reflection, Doughboys still ranked in the millions, so numerous as not to need numbering. Yet they, too, could not live forever. The last United States veteran of World War I, Corporal Frank Buckles of the U.S. Army Ambulance Service and the 122nd Prisoner of War Escort Company, has just passed away, on February 27, 2011, at age 110.
His war, of course, did not end all wars. Over 16,000,000 American military personnel -- the "Greatest Generation" -- served in the Second World War. Approximately 2,000,000 of them are still living today. At some future time, all of them will be gone, too. For the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Operation Desert Storm, even Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, there will come a time when no veteran of those conflicts remains alive.
Yet their record of service to our nation lives on. It endures in the success, the vibrancy, the vitality of the United States. It is interwoven in the character of our country. It shines in the memory of descendants. And it survives in the historical sources and studies which mark the service of our veterans.
Each of the other Armed Forces -- the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard -- has its own agencies for collecting such records. In the Army, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks acquires, preserves, and makes available for study source material on the history of the Army and its Soldiers. Our holdings of 400,000 books and publications, 1,800,000 photographs and audio-visual items, 12,000,000 Soldier letters and other manuscripts, and 50,000 weapons and other artifacts represent the best collection in the world on American military history. Through these holdings, the record of service of Civil War Soldiers, World War I Doughboys, World War II GIs, and all our Army veterans comes down to current and future generations, long after the Soldiers themselves are gone.
General Reilly's papers are among these records. So is a filmed interview that our staff conducted with Corporal Buckles in 1988. In special tribute to Frank Woodruff Buckles, we link to that interview, and we continue this article with a special essay and poem by Mr. Clifton P. Hyatt of our staff:
"The Last Doughboy"
Just after the turn of the 20th Century, in 1901, a Missouri farm boy named Frank Woodruff Buckles was born. In 1917, at the age of 16, he joined the Army and served his country in World War I. Then in 1942, as a civilian in the Philippines, he was interned by the Japanese during World War II and spent three years in captivity. Frank continued to defy the odds and lived into the 21st Century, until February 27, 2011, when he passed away at the age of 110.
Buckles was born in Harrison County, Missouri, on February 1, 1901. In 1916 Frank's father purchased a new farm, and the family moved to Oakwood, Oklahoma. While living in Oakwood, he attended school and worked part time at a bank.
In April 1917, the United States entered World War I. Notices were posted in the U.S. Post Office soliciting men to join the service. The thought of joining and seeing the world excited Frank, and he decided that at the first opportunity he would enlist and get away from Oakwood. That opportunity came when he visited some friends in Wichita. While there, he tried to join the Marines but was told he was not heavy enough. Next Frank tried the Navy, but they turned him down because he was flat footed.
Not wanting to be denied opportunity to serve, he went to Oklahoma City. The Marines and Navy again turned him down, so he tried the Army. Frank was sixteen and too young to join the service. When the Army recruiter asked for a birth certificate, he replied that he did not have one. The sergeant left the room and brought back his captain. Frank explained to the captain that in Missouri when he was born there were no birth certificates and that births were recorded only in the family Bible, and he had seen no need to bring the Bible with him. The captain accepted that story, and Buckles was inducted into the Army, August 14, 1917.
Frank Buckles was shipped first to Fort Logan, Colorado, and then Fort Riley, Kansas. While at Fort Riley he told an old sergeant that he wanted to go overseas. The sergeant told him the quickest way to get there was to join the Ambulance Corps. Frank joined and was shipped overseas. He served in the Ambulance Corps throughout the war, and after the signing of the armistice in 1918, he was assigned to guard German prisoners of war being escorted back to Germany.
In 1942, during World War II, he was interned by the Japanese while working as a civilian for the American President Lines steamship company in the Philippines. He was held in captivity for three years until the camp was liberated in February 23, 1945.
To honor Frank Buckles and all the Doughboys from "the war to end all wars," the author respectfully submits the following poem, "The Last Doughboy," included with the photos that accompany this article.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021. Website: www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec