WWI: And Then There Was One


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Over 4 1/2 million Americans served their country during World War I. Over 110,000 of them never returned, with over 200,000 of those that return coming back wounded. That was a century ago, perhaps a little longer. Today, there is only one World War I veteran still alive. Thanks to Tom Infield of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Larry Scott founder and editor of VA Watchdog Dot Org, read on about Frank buckles, a little about his family, and a little about the man himself.

Last Known U.S. Military Veteran Of World War I Turns 108 With Abundant Memories

World War I took place so long ago -- in a lost world of cavalry horses and biplanes -- that it s a little startling to meet Frank Buckles in the flesh. The last known U.S. military veteran of World War I, Buckles just turned 108. As a winter storm moved in from the west, he sat in a nice blue blazer in a warm corner of his day room, surrounded by history books. Outside, white wisps blew across the pale stubble on the 330-acre cattle farm where he settled quietly in 1954 after what already had been a life s worth of adventure in not one but two wars and as a commercial seafarer. Beyond lay the river town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and the Civil War battlefield at Antietam, Md.

Buckles said he had always known he would grow quite old. His father lived to be 97. He had a sister who was 104. Other relatives on his mother s side lived to be 100. The national World War I veterans group, of which he is the commander and sole member, used to publish a newsletter. Each issue counted down the number of old doughboys still around. As the number got smaller and smaller, I realized I d be one of the last, he said, but I never thought I d be the last. " He grinned slowly and added, Of course, if it has to be somebody, it might as well be me.

Until he was in his 70s, Buckles each month smoked a pound of pipe tobacco and a box of cigars that he ordered from a shop in San Francisco. He drove a car and a farm tractor until he was 102. He s still in good health -- for a man my age, as he put it. A couple of years ago, his only child, Susannah, 53, moved in with him. His son-in-law built two new rooms on the ground floor of his 250-year-old house so he doesn t have to climb stairs anymore.

As he sat in his favorite chair, his shaggy hair combed across his scalp, an eagle-head cane leaning against the wall, Buckles had to concentrate hard to hear the questions in an interview. His answers came with pauses to catch his breath. He enjoyed telling the old, old stories " the funny ones, mostly. Like the time he tried to teach his father how to drive a Model T Ford on the Oklahoma farm where he grew up. On the way back to the house after a spin, his father forgot himself and yelled, Whoa! The car crashed through the gate. If anyone could be said to embody the history of America, Buckles might be it.

He can remember talking to his grandmother, born in 1817. His grandmother, in turn, could remember talking to her grandfather, who had been in the Revolutionary War. The first Buckles came from England to Philadelphia in 1702 and married into a Quaker family in Bucks County. The clan moved to the upper Potomac River region in 1732, the year of George Washington s birth. Frank Woodruff Buckles was born Feb. 1, 1901.

He spent the 1920s and 30s sailing three oceans as a ship s officer. He hit ports up and down both coasts of South America, and visited the town of Vilcabamba in Ecuador s valley of longevity, where people were said to live to be 110 or even 115. I saw that I could live to be 100, he said. In 1940, he boarded a ship bound from San Francisco to the Philippines. He was in Manila when the Japanese attacked there a few hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese invaded, he was among Western civilians taken prisoner. He was held for 3 1/2 years at the Santo Tomas and Los Banos internment camps. He wouldn t talk much about that time, except to say, There was no mercy as far as the Japanese were concerned. He once saw three men, British and Australian, nearly beaten to death. Food became scarce as the Japanese began to lose the war. At Los Banos, on the campus of an agricultural university, the prisoners found a scale. Buckles discovered that he had lost almost a third of his 140 pounds. When I got down to 100 pounds, he said, I quit weighing.

Buckles still has the chipped metal cup from which he ate his beans and rice.

Until not long ago, he said, few people in the area knew he was a World War I veteran. He had no reason to mention it. But as veterans dwindled to a few, he started to attract interest from journalists, history buffs and autograph-seekers. He now even has a Web site, www.frankbuckles.org.

--- Regards, Walt Schmidt