By Elizabeth Collins, ARNEWSFebruary 28, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 28, 2011) -- America's last known World War I veteran, Cpl. Frank Buckles, died Sunday at the age of 110.
Buckles died of natural causes at his home in Charles Town, W.Va., according to a family spokesman who added funeral arrangements would be announced later this week.
Buckles enlisted at the age of 16 by reportedly convincing an Army captain that he was older. He was the last living American doughboy to have served in France during World War I and the last of 4.7 million U.S. troops who signed up to fight the Kaiser 94 years ago.
Buckles later spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II after being captured in the Pacific while serving as a U.S. contractor.
President Obama released a statement today that recognized Buckles as "the oldest known World War I-era veteran in the world."
"Michelle and I were inspired by the service and life story of former Army Corporal Frank W. Buckles," Obama said, adding praise not only for his war service, but also for Buckles' continued service as honorary chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation.
Two years ago, Buckles testified at a Senate hearing urging the establishment of a national World War I memorial on the mall.
"I think it's an excellent idea," said Buckles about the possibility of a national memorial to remember the Great War. "There should be no question about it," he said Dec. 3, 2009, in front of a session of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, subcommittee on national parks.
Three years ago, Buckles was at the Pentagon March 6, 2008, to help Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren unveil a new portrait exhibit that featured nine World War I veterans.
Photographer David DeJonge had set out in 2006 to help America remember the war by documenting remaining World War I veterans. By the time he could finance the project, four had died. Five more died within weeks of their sessions.
"For those of us here today, we will forever put the face of Corporal Buckles on the Great War," said Geren.
Wearing the Legion of Honor he was awarded by French President Jacques Chirac, Buckles simply thanked the room on behalf of his fellow World War I veterans and received a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd.
RARING TO GO
Buckles enlisted Aug. 14, 1917 and his serial number was 15577.
He was only 16 when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 and Buckles had to lie about his age several times to enlist -- although he insists "lie" is too strong a word. He was rejected by the Marines because he was too small and by the Navy because he had flat feet.
An Army recruiter in Oklahoma finally took him after Buckles said the only record of his birth was in the family Bible in Missouri.
"The Army sergeant was dubious about my age," Buckles said in a 1988 interview. "He called the captain in and the captain asked me some questions. I explained that at the time I was born, there were no public records. The only records were in the family Bible. But I wouldn't expect to bring the family Bible down to the recruiting station."
So he joined the First Fort Riley Casual Detachment and sailed for Europe on the HMS Carpathia, a ship that had rescued the survivors of the Titanic in 1912.
"The Carpathia was a ship that went to the rescue of the Titanic," Buckles said, "which I had read about as a boy and was very interested in."
ANXIOUS FOR ACTION
An old sergeant had told Buckles that the fastest way to get to the action in France was to join the ambulance corps, as ambulance drivers were desperately needed at the front, but to Buckles' dismay, his unit was rerouted and he found himself in Winchester, England, driving officers on a motorcycle with a side car.
After pestering everyone he could think of and several unsuccessful schemes to simply fall in line and board a troop ship across the channel, Buckles eventually made it to France, but never near the trenches. As an ambulance driver, he saw plenty of casualties, but never any combat.
He did get to see Paris, however.
"We went out to the Eiffel Tower," Buckles said, "and of course you couldn't get into the Louvre in those days. And you could get into the Notre Dame cathedral -- and I saw Paris before we went to Bordeaux."
UNFORGETABLE 'BLACK JACK'
After the war, Buckles helped escort hundreds of German prisoners of war home before returning to Oklahoma and meeting Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of U.S. forces during World War I. Buckles said the meeting was one of the highlights of his life.
"After I'd given the general a snappy salute and passed on," Buckles said Pershing asked him to come back. "He knew about the four gold bars on my sleeve, which indicated I'd been in Europe two years," Buckles said, adding that he probably also recognized his Missouri accent. Buckles was born on a farm in in Harrison County, Mo., and Pershing was born in Linn County, just 43 miles away.
WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
Buckles was in Manila when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. He had turned down a job in Buenos Aires and expected to be in the Philippines for only six months working as a shipper. Instead, during three years of incarceration, he nearly starved as he ate each small, mush-like meal from a tin cup the size of a coffee mug.
Buckles said he lost more than 50 pounds in the prison camp and he kept the tin cup as a remembrance of his struggle.
"Frank Buckles lived the American century," Obama said in the White House statement. "Like so many veterans, he returned home, continued his education, began a career, and along with his late wife Audrey, raised their daughter Susannah."
Buckles is survived by his daughter, Susannah Flanagan.
(Excerpts were included from a 2008 feature article by ARNEWS writer Elizabeth Collins. Todd Lopez also contributed to this report.)