It is fitting today to pause to offer a final salute and quiet reflection on the remarkable life of Frank Woodruff Buckles, America’s last living World War I veteran, who passed away this week in Charles Town, W.Va., at the age of 110.
When Buckles falsified his age more than 90 years ago to join the Army at 16, who could have imagined that it would lead to a career that included rubbing elbows with a U.S. president and serving as grand marshal of a national Memorial Day parade?
Or that the sitting U.S. president would say, upon hearing of his death: “Michelle and I were inspired by the service and life story of former Army Cpl. Frank W. Buckles. ... We join Susannah and all those who knew and loved her father in celebrating a remarkable life that reminds us of the true meaning of patriotism.”
It is our hope that his memory will keep reminding us.
Born in 1901, Buckles yearned to serve in the military, but had some trouble finding a recruiter who would buy his alleged age of 18. He found one in the Midwest and was on his way overseas.
Buckles served as an ambulance driver among his fellow Doughboys in Europe, and he survived not one World War but two, the second tour landing him for three years in a civilian Japanese POW camp.
Buckles never assigned himself heroic status. Of being the last living WWI veteran he simply asserted to a reporter that “Somebody had to be, and it was me.”
He earned his sobriquet as “the humble patriot.”
It was important to Buckles that the sacrifices of “the war to end all wars” not be forgotten. He worked toward a national memorial and with biographers and filmmakers to preserve the memory of World War I.
The Doughboys — one theory on the nickname is that long marches in white dust during the Mexican War gave them a floury appearance — came to the aid of France in Britain in the last year of the war.
Along with the Germans, they battled the great influenza pandemic of 1918; the noncombat-related deaths were higher than those killed in battle. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing led two major offenses that helped turn the tide of the war and molded our troops into a truly modern army.
It is a story not simply worth telling, but crucial of being told. Our history defines who we are and when we lose a part of our story we lose a part of ourselves.
In truth, Frank Buckles will live well beyond the age of 110. As our last human tie to the war, he will become symbolic of all the heroes of those days nearly a century ago when the world was a very different place. And the best way to honor him and his comrades is to make the effort to learn a little more about this conflict and the people who so ably defended world freedom.
We will remember Frank Buckles and we thank Frank Buckles. And when we do, we are remembering and thanking all who served such a noble cause, whether their individual names are known to us or not. We remember them all, because Frank Buckles would want it to be so.