Editor's Note: Frank Buckles died on Sunday, February 27, 2011 of natural causes. He was 110 years old and the last surviving American veteran of World War I.
Frank Woodruff Buckles was visiting the Kansas State Fair in Wichita one day in the summer of 1917 when, seeing a Marine Corps recruiting booth, he decided to enlist; the nation had just entered World War I. Buckles was only 16, but he told the recruiting sergeant he was 18. The recruiter, perhaps suspecting the boy's real age, offered a fib of his own: he told Buckles he had to be at least 21 to become a United States Marine. Undaunted, Buckles passed another booth and tried his luck with a Navy recruiter. He, too, turned Buckles down, saying he had flat feet, which he didn't.
But Buckles wouldn't give up. The Great War, which had started in 1914, was "an important event," he explains. "The world was interested in it. I was interested." So he traveled south to try his luck with recruiters in Oklahoma City. Again, the Marines turned him down. So did the Navy. But an Army sergeant passed him on to a captain, who asked him for a birth certificate. "I explained that when I was born in Missouri, birth certificates were not a public record," Buckles recalls. "It would be in the family Bible. And I said, 'You wouldn't want me to bring the family Bible down here, would you?' He said, 'Go on, we'll take you.'" And so it was that in August of 1917, Frank Buckles joined 4.7 million Americans recruited or conscripted for the new American Expeditionary Forces. They are all gone now—all except Buckles, who turned 107 this past February. He is the last living American veteran of the Great War.
After basic training, Buckles joined the First Fort Riley Casual Detachment and shipped out for England in December 1917. To Buckles' dismay, his unit was held in reserve there, while others, under the command of Gen. John J. Pershing, were in France fighting the Germans.
Buckles spent most of his time in England on a motorcycle with a sidecar, shuttling officers, delivering dispatches, driving the occasional ambulance and trying to get to the action. "I let any person who had any influence at all know that I wanted to go to France," he says.
Finally, after six months in England, Buckles managed to get himself sent to France, where he was assigned to escort an American lieutenant—a dentist—to Bordeaux. He was in the right country, but still miles from the fighting. As the war wound down, he continued to chafe behind the lines.
He was still there when the shooting stopped on November 11, 1918, having claimed 8.5 million lives. "I wasn't disappointed that the war ended," he recalls. "[But] I would have liked to accomplish what I had started out for."
Following the armistice, Buckles' unit was ordered to escort 650 prisoners of war back to Germany. He remembers them as mostly friendly and cultured. Some were professional musicians, a few conductors; they staged concerts. "Where they got the instruments, I don't know," he recalls. "But we would take boards and put them on boxes to make benches and listen to the concert." One late night he found himself about to exchange blows with a young prisoner over some dispute long since forgotten. "A big German on each side just took us by the back of the arms and read the law to us," he recalls. That was as close as Buckles got to fighting any Germans. He was sent home in January 1920 and mustered out of service.
Those who fought in World War II are now celebrated as "The Greatest Generation," but there were no such honors for the veterans of Frank Buckles' war. Many came home to find their jobs gone or their farms in a terrible state.
"I was lucky—wherever I went, I got a job," Buckles says. After paying his way through business school, he worked in Toronto, then New York City and then on steamships, which took him all over the world. He was running the Manila office of the American President Lines when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941 and promptly took him prisoner. He spent 39 months in prison camps. "When I got down to 100 pounds, I quit looking at the scales," he says. He also developed beriberi, a degenerative disease caused by malnutrition, which affects him to this day. Nevertheless, he led a daily calisthenics class for his fellow prisoners. "I explained to them," he recalls, "that we're under severe circumstances, but you must keep yourself in shape—for when the war is over." On February 23, 1945, they were all liberated in a raid led by the U.S. Army's 11th Airborne Division. Frank Buckles was then 44 years old.
He returned home to the United States, got married, became a father and bought more than 300 acres of gently rolling meadows in West Virginia, where his ancestors had farmed more than two centuries earlier. Today, he remains active on the farm, raising cattle and maintaining his 18th-century farmhouse. He spends a good bit of time in a small, sunny reading room filled with World War I artifacts—including his doughboy's cap, letters he sent home from France and a German belt buckle inscribed with GOTT MIT UNS, or "God Is With Us." As the last of his kind, Buckles receives a lot of mail from strangers, writing to thank him for his service. He responds to all of it, with the help of his daughter, Susannah, 53. "I know that I have an obligation," he says, "to keep the [next generation] aware that we had a World War I."
Buckles stopped driving a few years ago, but he still makes forays with Susannah to inspect his farm and to visit nearby Charles Town. He also travels to events around the country, and was invited to the White House last March, when President Bush recognized his World War I service. "That was interesting," he says. "I went to the White House and sat in the Oval Room, and here came President Bush...and he asked me, 'Where were you born?' And I said, 'That's exactly the words that General Pershing used,''' when Corporal Buckles met him after the war.
Frank Buckles isn't surprised to be a centenarian. His father lived to 95, his grandmother to 96. "I had been warned by my two aunts, both of whom made it past 100, to be prepared—that I was going to live past 100 years old," he says. "I see no reason why I shouldn't live to 115."
Richard Rubin is writing a book about America's World War I veterans, to be titled The Last of the Doughboys.
Karen Kasmauski contributes to National Geographic.