Last doughboy's burial marks end of era
March 16, 2011
ARLINGTON, Va., March 15, 2011 -- America recognized the end of an era today as it bade a solemn farewell to Army Cpl. Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last surviving U.S. World War I veteran, as he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery here with full military honors.
President Barack Obama paid tribute to Buckles this afternoon as he lay in repose in the chapel beneath Arlington's Memorial Amphitheater stage. Buckles died Feb. 27 at age 110.
Obama was the last of a long line of mourners who began filing past his flag-draped casket early this morning to pay their last respects to Buckles, and a whole generation of combat veterans he came to represent.
The visitors paused in quiet reflection within the stark grandeur of the white-marble chapel. Its most striking adornment is a gold-leaf "Winged Victory" figure the Chinese government presented to President Warren G. Harding when the unknown soldier of World War I was buried at Arlington on Nov. 11, 1921. Today that figure, along with a single soldier from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," kept a constant vigil over the last "doughboy" to serve in World War I.
As they streamed from the chapel, the mourners - a mix of families, school groups, veterans, even a Canadian air cadet group - said they were honored to be able to say a final goodbye to a generation of American heroes.
"I felt like it was my duty as an American to come here and give him my respects," said Ray King, who took time during a family trip here from Houston to pay homage to Buckles. "It's because of him, and those he served with, that we have the freedoms we have today."
King's wife, Marilyn, said she felt privileged to be able to personally honor Buckles and those who served alongside him in World War I. "What we are doing here today is a statement, and to be able to be part of it is just awesome," she said. "We will carry this home in our hearts, and it is going to change us. I don't think we will go back to Texas the same way."
At 4 p.m. this afternoon, members of The Old Guard transferred Buckles' casket to a horse-drawn caisson and made the slow, solemn trek to his final resting place.
The soldiers, too, recognized the significance of Buckles' passing.
"What we are seeing here is history," said Army Spc. Athiambo Onyango, who supported today's funeral activities. "To me, this feels like the passing of an era."
Although he's participated in more funerals than he can count - Arlington typically conducts more than two dozen every weekday -- Onyango said he felt particularly honored to be a part of Buckles'. "I think this is probably one of the most important ceremonies I've been in," he said, holding it right up with Obama's inauguration as an experience he'll never forget.
Army Sgt. 1st Class William Cramer, another Old Guard soldier, said he, too, felt honored to render honors to Buckles and the whole lineage of World War I doughboys he came to symbolize.
"But this is not just about Mr. Buckles," Cramer said. "It's also about what he represents ... This is the end of that lineage for that generation, a recognition of everyone who stepped forward and volunteered... and a way to thank them for their sacrifices."
After brief remarks at Buckles' gravesite, an Old Guard firing party fired three rifle volleys and a U.S. Army Band bugler sent the wail of "Taps" across the burial grounds. Buckles was laid to rest in Arlington's Section 34, slightly down the hill and within view of Army Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing's gravesite, and site of Arlington's World War I National Memorial that bears Pershing's words.
"You are remembered," it says, recognizing 116,516 Americans killed in World War I. "Their devotion, their valor and their sacrifice will live forever in the hearts of their grateful countrymen."
Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I -- the "War to End all Wars" -- that 16-year-old Buckles quit school with dreams of becoming a part of. After lying about his age to one recruiter after another, he finally hoodwinked one into enlisting him into the Army in August 1917.
The United States had entered World War I just four months earlier, and Buckles was among fewer than 422,000 soldiers at the time. But within a year, he watched the Army swell to 2.4 million, most of it serving in the American Expeditionary Force.
Buckles deployed to the Western Front, driving an ambulance in France and Germany and earning the rank of corporal before his discharge in 1920.
As he lived out his later years in West Virginia, Buckles worked tirelessly to ensure the sacrifices made during World War I never be forgotten. One of his pet projects was a campaign to refurbish a little-known memorial to World War I veterans from the District of Columbia and rededicate it as a national memorial.
In 2008, on the death of 108-year-old Harry Richard Landis, Buckles became the sole living link to more than 4.7 million Americans who served in that war.
It's a role he embraced, visiting the Pentagon at age 107 for the unveiling of a World War I veterans' exhibit. "Whoever views this display will, I am sure, feel a connection to Mr. Buckles and his comrades-in-arms," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during that presentation. "We will always be grateful for what they did for their country 90 years ago."