He never saw combat, but he was thought to be the last of the Doughboys. Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away peacefully Feb. 27 at his home in Charles Town, W.Va. He was 110.
“We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said about Buckles, whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow Doughboys are appropriately commemorated.”
Buckles, who was born by lantern light in a Bethany, Mo., farmhouse on Feb. 1, 1901, quit school at 16 and wanted to “chase adventure,” he told a Washington Post reporter when he was 105. “I knew what was happening in Europe, even though I was quite young. And I thought, well, ‘I want to get over there and see what it’s about.’”
A man slight of build at 5 feet 5 3/4 inches tall, Buckles tried to sign up in Wichita, Kan., as a Marine, but was turned down as underage (saying he was 18, not the required 21) and under the required weight. The Navy didn’t want him either because he had flat feet. He succeeded, however, in joining the Army out of Oklahoma City, Okla., by misleading the recruiter about his age (In spring 2001, he told the Associated Press that the Army captain demanded a birth certificate. “I told him birth certificates were not made in Missouri when I was born that the record was in a family Bible,” Buckles explained. “I said, ‘You don’t want me to bring the family Bible down, do you?’ He said, ‘OK, we’ll take you.’”). He enlisted Aug. 14, 1917, and volunteered to be an ambulance driver, hearing that was the fastest way to service in France.
During an interview with USA Today in 2007, he said: “I was a snappy soldier … all gung-ho.”
In December 1917, Buckles set out for war with the 1st Fort Riley Causal Detachment, one of 102 men, and sailed aboard the HMS Carpathia – the vessel that rescued survivors from the RMS Titanic – to Winchester, England, where the unit awaited cross-channel deployment to France.
Later, he drove various military vehicles in different locations in France, but only came within 30 or so miles of the Western Front trenches. Buckles was moved by the war’s effect on the French, he explained during a 2001 interview for the Veterans History Project (VHP) of the Library of Congress. “The little French children were hungry,” he said. “We’d feed the children. To me, that was a pretty sad sight.”
On Sept. 22, 1919, Buckles was promoted to corporal. After Armistice Day, he escorted weary, grateful German prisoners of war back to their homeland. In January 1920, Buckles returned to the United States and collected his $143.90, including a $60 bonus.
Back at home
Buckles worked in a series of trades in Oklahoma, Canada, and New York City, then took a job in the freight soliciting office of the White Star Line Steamship Company, which permitted him to travel abroad. In 1941, while on business in the Philippines, he was captured by the Japanese.
“Three years, two months,” he said of his imprisonment, spending time in both the Santo Tomas and Los Baños internment camps. “The starvation was so bad … it is surprising that any of us survived,” Buckles said during the VHP interview. He lost more than 50 pounds and was one of 2,147 Los Baños prisoners liberated Feb. 23, 1945, by the 11th Airborne Division and Filipino guerillas.
“I was never actually looking for adventure,” he admitted to the VHP interviewer. “It just came to me.”
Buckles married Sept. 14, 1946, settled on Gap View Farm near Charles Town, W.Va., land owned for decades by family, and drove his tractor up until the age of 106. There in his Colonial-era stone house, he quietly spent the rest of his life, while keeping his doughboy tunic hanging in a closet. As his generation passed away, he persevered, doing daily calisthenics and engrossing himself in books and newspapers.
Stooped, frail, and hard of hearing but keen of mind, Buckles was honored by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon and met with President George W. Bush at the White House in March 2008. Schoolchildren, history buffs, journalists, younger veterans, and even Britain’s defense secretary visited the centenarian at the farm.
“Well, I guess I’m famous now,” he said.
On Oct. 29, 2009, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), along with 13 cosponsors, introduced S. 2097, the bipartisan Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act, a bill that would rededicate the existing District of Columbia War Memorial as the National and District of Columbia World War I Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The memorial was originally built to honor the District of Columbia’s war dead.
To endorse the proposal, Buckles testified before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks Dec. 3, 2009. He told the Senate panel it was “an excellent idea.” Sadly, the bill never became law.
When asked in February 2008 how it felt to be the last of his kind, he said simply, “I realized that somebody had to be, and it was me.” And he told the Associated Press he would have done it all over again, “without a doubt.”
He had a secret to longevity: “When you think you’re dying,” his son-in-law once heard him say, “don’t.”
Honoring those who fought
Buckles was among the 4.7 million Americans in uniform and 2 million U.S. troops shipped to France to fight in the Great War. In total, 65 million people were mobilized by militaries around the world.
Two World War I veterans are thought to remain: Claude Choules, born March 3, 1901, served in Britain’s Royal Navy and now lives in Perth, Australia; and 110-year-old Florence Green, a member of Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force, lives in England.
Because he served only one tour in the Army and returned from the war without injury or medals for bravery, Arlington National Cemetery protocols permitted him only for inurnment in a vault for cremated remains. However, in March 2008, the Bush administration ordered a rare exception for Cpl. Buckles.
President Barak Obama said in a statement that Buckles lived “a remarkable life that reminds us of the true meaning of patriotism and our obligations to each other as Americans.”
The last Doughboy will have a gravesite at Arlington with a traditional white marble headstone and full military honors.
Editor’s note: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have complete records from World War I. But amid all the national attention Buckles received, no one emerged claiming to have also served in the U.S. military before the armistice.