Frank Buckles, who fibbed his way into the U.S. Army at age 16 and lived to become America’s last known World War I veteran, has died. He was 110.
He died yesterday of natural causes on the West Virginia farm where he lived since 1954 with his daughter, Susannah Flanagan, the Washington Post reported.
More than 4.7 million Americans served in the military during World War I, which wracked Europe from 1914 to 1918. When 108-year-old Harry Landis died in Florida in February 2008, Buckles became the last known surviving American participant.
While Landis served without ever leaving Missouri, Buckles sailed for England in 1917 and worked as an Army ambulance driver and warehouse clerk in Germany and France. Two decades later, as a civilian working in the Philippines at the outbreak of World War II, he was captured by Japanese troops and endured three years in a prisoner-of-war camp.
He was saluted at ceremonies in Washington and West Virginia when it became known that he was the last of a generation. At a meeting at the White House in March 2008, President George W. Bush thanked him “for your patriotism and your love for America.”
“I had a feeling of longevity and that I might be among those who survived, but I didn’t know I’d be the number one,” Buckles told the Associated Press.
In December 2009, at 108, Buckles testified in Congress in support of a proposal to turn a Washington, D.C., monument honoring local residents who fought in World War I into a memorial honoring all Americans who served in the war. He was honorary chairman of the group leading that charge, the World War I Memorial Foundation.
‘Fitting and Right’
“These are difficult times, and we are not asking for anything elaborate,” he said in a statement in November 2010. “What is fitting and right is a memorial that can take its place among those commemorating the other great conflicts of the past century.”
Frank Woodruff Buckles was born Feb. 1, 1901, in Harrison County in northern Missouri, near the Iowa border.
At 16, he said, he was turned away from a U.S. Marines recruiting station because of his age. Then, even lying about his age, he said he was rejected by the Navy because he was flat-footed. Finally he was accepted at an Army recruiting station and sent for ambulance-serving training at Fort Riley, Kansas.
“I was interested in the war,” Buckles told an interviewer for the U.S. Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project in 2001. “I’d been reading the newspapers since I was a child, and I was a wireless amateur, and the war was interesting to me.”
His unit was sent to England, where Buckles drove a motorcycle sidecar, ambulances and cars while “pestering every officer of influence” for the green light to be sent to France, closer to combat.
He finally got his wish and drove cars and ambulances in western France, getting within 30 or 40 miles of the fighting.
After the Allied forces reached an armistice with Germany in November 1918, Buckles joined a company that escorted German prisoners from France back to their country.
After the war -- and still just 18 -- Buckles took business classes in Oklahoma and moved to Toronto, where he joined the White Star Line, the British shipping company. He later worked in the bond department of Bankers Trust Co. in New York.
Back to Europe
Back in the shipping industry, he spent much of the 1930s in Europe, learning languages -- he spoke German, Spanish, Portuguese and some French even in his later years -- and watching the rise of the Third Reich.
In 1940, the American President Lines dispatched him to Manila to expedite the movement of cargo at the start of World War II. He was there when Japanese troops invaded the Philippines -- “I knew we were going to get into the war, but I didn’t expect it was going to be so soon,” he recalled -- and became among 2,000 non-military prisoners of war, surviving three years, two months in a prison camp.
For most of his life, Buckles kept his World War I stories to himself, his daughter and his wife, Audrey, who died in 1999.
Also in 1999, Buckles and other American veterans of World War I were awarded the Chevalier Cross of the Legion of Honor from French President Jacques Chirac.