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Frank Buckles the Passing of an Old Soldier
Death of An Old Soldier
March 24, 2011
...old soldiers never die; they just fade away... so said General Douglas MacArthur as he concluded his speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on April 19, 1951
It is true that, following their response to our country’s call to defend our land and freedom, our soldiers shed their uniforms and attempt to resume their lives having done their duty.
However, as time passes and their numbers dwindle, the few remaining veterans of a war, especially a major war like World War I, suddenly become a lone living link to a major era of our history and, like a meteor, glow brightly in the public spotlight for a short time.
Among the Longest Living Veterans of World War I
This has been the case with Frank Woodruff Buckles, a World War I Army Corporeal who died on February 27, 2011 almost a month after celebrating his 110th birthday. Frank Buckles was the last surviving American veteran of World War I and, at the time of his death, one of only three surviving veterans of that war. The other two being Claude Choules of Great Britain who served in the British Royal Navy and now lives in Australia and Florence Green of Great Britain who served in the British Woman’s Royal Air Force.
These three, along with Canadian military veteran John Babcock, who died on February 18, 2011, all joined late in the war while they were in their mid-teens (Buckles at age 16, Babcock at age 15, Choules at age 15 and Green at age 17) and none served in actual combat. However, Buckles was an ambulance driver at the front and Choules was at sea aboard a Royal Navy warship.
The last combat veteran to pass on was the British Army veteran Harry Patch who died on July 25, 2009. Patch served at the front lines fighting in the trenches in France. It should be noted that while none of the four mentioned above who were still alive at the beginning of February 2011 served in actual combat, only two, Babcock and Green spent the war in relative safety in England.
Choules was serving at sea aboard a warship and could have found himself in the line of fire had his ship encountered the enemy during the time he was aboard.
And, serving at the front in France as an ambulance driver, Buckles may not have been in the direct line of fire but certainly saw first hand the horrors of battle on the bodies of the casualties he drove back to the field hospital.
It should also be remembered that while about 6.8 million soldiers lost their lives to enemy fire, another 2 million or more died of disease which, until World War I had been the major cause of death in war.
Buckles Had to Lie About His Age and Try 3 Times Before He Was Finally Allowed to Join the Military
Frank Buckles was born on February 1, 1901 on his family’s farm in Bethany, Missouri. His family later moved to Oklahoma where Buckles grew up. He was a sixteen year old high school student in 1917 when the United States entered World War I.
Like many young men in that era, Buckles wanted to join the action and serve his country. While visiting the state fair in nearby Wichita, Kansas, he stopped by the Marine recruiting office and told the recruiter he wanted to join. When asked his age, he lied and said he was 18 years old. The recruiter said he was sorry but the rules required that recruits had to be 21 or older to join.
This didn’t stop Buckles who returned a week later and this time told the recruiting sergeant that he was 21. He was initially accepted but, when they weighed him for his physical he was turned away because he didn’t meet their minimum weight requirement. Turning to the Navy, he again lied about his age but ended up being turned down because he was flat footed.
He next attempted to join the Army where he again lied about his age saying that he was 21. When the skeptical recruiter asked for a birth certificate, Buckles told him, truthfully, that birth certificates were not issued in Missouri when he was born and his only record was an entry in the family Bible. Maintaining his bluff, he asked if the recruiter wanted him to bring in the Bible.
Because the Army had the greatest manpower needs, its recruiters tended to not question volunteers too closely and this one simply decided to accept Buckles at his word. It would probably have been easier if Buckles had claimed to be 18 which was the legal enlistment age for the Army.
Eager to get to the action overseas as soon as possible, Buckles accepted the advice of a fellow soldier and volunteered to be an ambulance driver. He was accepted and ended up driving ambulances as well as delivering messages via motorcycle and doing work in warehouses in both England and France. It appears that his work in France was at a distance from the front so he was probably out of harm’s way in terms of being exposed to enemy fire.
While he missed the action as a fighter on the front lines, he performed valuable support service. It should be remembered that in most modern wars those engaged in direct combat activities at the front tended to be a minority of those in the military and these fighting few relied heavily on the services of those in back providing support.
Frank Buckles Describes His Life at Sea
Discharged After the War, Buckles Saw the World and Spent World War II as a Prisoner in a Japanese POW Camp
Following the Armistice in 1918, Buckles, like most of the other American troops, remained in Europe until it was evident that all sides would agree upon a peace treaty and officially end the war. During this time Buckles was assigned to help with the return of German prisoners of war. He was discharged from the Army at the end of 1919 and returned to the United States in January 1920.
He first went home to Oklahoma, but his travels in the Army had introduced him to the world beyond rural Oklahoma so he was soon off to Canada where he worked a various jobs before going to New York where he found work in a bank. After various jobs in banking and advertising he he went work for a steamship company and spent the next couple of decades traveling the world working as purser on various ships.
Frank Buckles was in Manila in the Philippines on December 8, 1941 when Japanese forces attacked and invaded the Philippine Islands hours after their air attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Along with other Americans and foreign nationals who were in the Philippines at that time, Buckles spent the next 38 months as a civilian prisoner of war. While he never served in World War II, he was a victim of that war.
He and 2,146 fellow managed to survive at the Los Banos prison camp until they were in a were liberated in a daring assault by a coordinated team of U.S. Army paratroopers and Filipino guerrillas on February 23, 1945.
Fearing that the Japanese guards would kill the prisoners before the advancing U.S. ground forces could reach the camp, which lay 25 miles inside the Japanese lines, the Army commanders ordered the assault on the camp by guerrilla forces in the area aided by an aerial assault by the paratroopers.
Buckles Marries and Buys a Farm in West Virginia
Buckles returned to the U.S. in 1945. Shortly after that he met and, in 1946, married Audrey Mayo. A few years later the two of them moved to West Virginia where they purchased a 330 acre farm on which he spent the rest of his life. Their only child, a daughter they named Susannah, was born in 1955.
For decades, Frank Buckles was simply an American veteran of World War I who, like most veterans of that war, had spent two to four years early in life in the service of their country. Having done their duty, the returned to civilian life and and focused their attention on home, family and career.
For Most of His Life, Buckles was Simply One of the 55 Million Surviving Veterans of WWI
Frank Buckles was simply one soldier out of the approximately 65 million, mostly men but there were women as well, who had been called to duty in the armed forces of the nations that fought in that war. Of these 65 million, almost 10 million died in uniform leaving close to 55 million as surviving veterans of that war world-wide.
For the USA alone, 4.7 million men, and some women, served in the armed forces of the United States during the war, approximately 2 million of which saw service overseas, primarily in the trenches in France.
When he left the Army in 1920, Frank Buckles could have been considered simply one of the 65 million total who served, or one of the 55 million who survived, or one of the 4.7 Americans who had served in our Armed Forces or, finally, just one of the 2 million Americans who served in the theater of the war in Europe.
Statistically, there was nothing unique about the former the U.S. Army Corporeal Frank Buckles and his service in World War I during most of his life.
Frank Buckles Achieved Minor Celebrity Status After Age 100
By the later part of the first decade of the present 21st century, Frank Buckles’ star began to burn bright in the public eye. By the start of the 21st century most of the 55 million veterans who had survived the conflict had died of old age and other natural causes leaving less than 50 still living world wide.
Having been a global war fought by soldiers from nations all over the world, the veterans of that war were widely disbursed. However, as age and illness began to take its toll on this group, many nations soon found themselves down to a single surviving veteran who soon became the focus of national and even international attention. And, as these sole surviving veterans of their nation’s participation in World War I died, their deaths became national and even international news.
With each death the pool of surviving veterans dwindled making it easier for the media to discover and focus on them.
At the beginning of 2007 America found herself with a mere three living veterans of that war (technically there was a fourth veteran, John Babcock, who, although a U.S. citizen had been born in Canada, had served in the Canadian Army and been stationed in England during the war - after the war he had emigrated to the U.S. and had become an American citizen), of whom Buckles was the only one who had served in Europe as the other two were still in training in the U.S. when the war ended.
Still alert and fit despite his 106 years, Buckles served as the Grand Marshall of the 2007 Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. Following the death of the other two veterans in late 2007 and early 2008, Buckles emerged as the nation’s only surviving veteran of that war and became a minor celebrity as news reporters and TV cameras sought him out for interviews each year on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. He was invited to the White House, gave talks to school children and worked to get the nation to remember and honor the men who had served in that long ago war.
Alert and active until the end, Frank Buckles accepted the role of last surviving American veteran of World War I with humility acknowledging that his fame was simply the result of living longer than any of the others. He strove to remind his audiences of the sacrifices made by his fellow soldiers and of the role they played in that period of the nation’s and world’s history. His major public efforts revolved around the creation of a memorial to those who had served in that war.
Buckles' Death Leaves Only Two Remaining Living Veterans of WWI in the World
Frank Buckles died on the evening of February 27, 2011 almost a month after his 110th birthday on February 1, 2011 and a little over a week after the death of John Babcock, the last Canadian veteran of World War I on February 18, 2011.
With the death of these two men the number of North American surviving veterans of World War I is now zero and for the world only two veterans of that war still survive as of this writing.
Claude Choules a World War I veteran of Britain’s Royal Navy who now lives in Australia and Florence Green a World War I veteran of Britain’s Royal Air Force are the only living survivors of the nearly 65 million people who took up arms to serve their nations during the world-wide conflict that ushered in the 20th century.