Thursday, February 28, 2008

World War I - The Last Surviving Soldier

At 16, Frank Woodruff Buckles was itching to enlist in the Army. He wanted to go to Europe and fight in the Great World War. After convincing officials that he was actually 21, his commanders sent him to France where he drove ambulances, and motorcycles, sometimes with a dignitary in the sidecar. After Armistice Day he was charged with escorting prisoners of war back to Germany.

That was 1917, a very long time ago. Now Buckles has the distinct honor of being the last surviving American WWI soldier. At the spry age of 107 he has much to look back on and talk about.

He's been interviewed many times by most every magazine and archival entity with an interest in veterans. The Library of Congress's Veterans History Project maintains extensive audio and video interviews with him.

Not only did Buckles serve in WWI but he survived 3 years in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. In 1940 he went to Manila to accept a job with a shipping company. He was captured by the Japanese when they invaded the Philippines and nearly starved to death before his rescue in 1945.

Buckles is a true American hero. He has an incredible memory and loves to talk about his earliest childhood memories listening to voices from the cradle in his family's kitchen. He vividly remembers meeting General "Black Jack" Pershing in 1920. He jokes that he's probably the last person alive who personally knew the man.

When Mr. Buckles dies we will lose a living touchstone to history. World War I was the last war fought without modern methods of bearing witness. There are virtually no film reels, only a few battle photographs, a smattering of reliable front line news reports, and much of what exists was either produced under strict censorship or made as propaganda. Case in point, Frank has only 3 photos of himself in uniform during that time - all are formal portraits.

Even with all he's given to his country, the United States has no formal plans to mark the passing of its last WWI veteran. Great Britain plans to hold an elaborate ceremony in Westminster Abbey when the last of its 3 remaining vets passes away. Canada and France, each with one remaining WWI veteran, plan to hold state funerals.

So why is our government so ambivalent where Mr. Buckles is concerned? I don't know but I'll quote Phil Budahan, director of media relations for the Department of Veterans Affairs, "Frankly, we're trying to keep the focus on the living."

Shame on you, Mr. Budahan. I hope your department changes its mind and when the time comes we honor this man in the way he truly deserves.


Anna said...

Lisa great reminder, sometimes we forget, that there will be no more witnesses or those who fought in the war. To go back to WWW I wow, I am amazed how you dig that story out. My grandmother lived through some of it in Europe, it was cool to listen to her stories from those times, they were a bit different than those during WWW II if comes to tech stuff - for example using horses, and also just normal living style where class diffirentiation existed, meaning lower to upper class people. Lisa again, thanks for this great reminder! Anna :)

Kristyn said...

Great post, Lisa. His age and memory are amazing... I can't remember what I had for breakfast. :)

It's terrible that our country isn't planning to honor him the way he deserves! I can understand wanting to focus on the living in a time of war, but my goodness, this person is the last connection we have to WWI! He certainly deserves some recognition for his contribution to American history. You've done a beautiful job of offering him a bit of that recognition. Thank you for sharing this.

Lisa McGlaun said...


Where in Europe did your grandmother live? I used to love to talk to my grandparents about what life was like when they were young. I still remember all of the stories they would tell.

Best Wishes,

Lisa McGlaun said...


I got so outraged when I read that Veteran's Affairs is not going to do anything for Mr. Buckles. You know, maybe he doesn't care. I don't know. I know I don't much care about how my funeral service goes but I think as a country it is important for us to properly honor those who have served so bravely. Here's our chance. We should take it...if not for Mr. Buckles for ourselves and the spirit of our country.

Sorry to get on my

Best Wishes,

Lupideloop said...

Wonderful and really very interesting post!!

A big congrats to Mr Buckles and best wishes!

Hopefully the authorities realise the importance of marking the service this person gave to the world as a whole, and in marking his service they will be honouring all those millions of others who died for this cause!

Lisa McGlaun said...

Thanks Mike,

I think considering what other countries are doing for their last WWI veterans we should do the same or at least something similar. We owe him that much.

Best Wishes,

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa
I think it's abhorrent that someone who is the director of media relations for the Department of Veterans Affairs says, "Frankly, we're trying to keep the focus on the living." That truly blows me away. In Canada he would have been fired shortly afterwards for such an inane remark. (The military man in me is incensed.)
Truly an excellent article Lisa. As all your posts are.
I was thrilled when Mike told me he had invited you into The Society of Midnight Wanderers...and even more thrilled when you accepted. Sorry I'm late with officially welcoming you in but I've been sick the past few days (still am but decided not to shirk my duties) I would have done it sooner. Never the less, welcome aboard! I've added you to the membership roster on my site and so has Mike.
You don't have to do anything if you don't want to. This badge is a mark of recognition by your peers for your excellent writing. That's it. If you know of anyone you feel that should be part of the Society let Mike or I know so we can update our rosters and officially welcome them into the fold.
Lisa, again, I'm thrilled you accepted and it was nice to be in contact with you again. Welcome aboard :-)

Anna said...

Hi Lisa, I was born I in Poland, but the twist is that I am Ukrainian. During the war when the borders changed, lot of Ukr stay in the same area, or where spread around to the empty places left by Germans. Most of Germans moved to their new borders. Another twist is that recently we have discovered, that I may have 12% of Polish blood, lol. And now that I am married to Italian, my children one day will have another spice added, lol. Thanks, Anna :)

Peter said...

Hi! What a fantastic tribute and thank you for highlighting this great soul.

This article reminds me of my uncle that died in France WW1. He was only 17 at the time. Correction, he was far younger as he lied to get in.

The story goes that his mother dreamt that he was going over the top when he was hit by a shell not far from the trenches.

She later found out that is how he died.

"Lest we forget"


Lisa McGlaun said...


Thank you! I'm honored to take part. I'm glad you are well, sorry to hear that you were sick. Thanks for adding me to the blog rolls. I'll be adding the same list to my site very soon. I want everyone to know who these great writers are.

I got so mad when I read that quote too. That's why I wrote about Mr. Buckles. I think it's a disgrace.

Best Wishes,

Lisa McGlaun said...

Wow Anna,

You are truly a global citizen. I want so badly to visit Europe one day soon. There is so much of this world I haven't seen and I feel my world view is lacking because of it.

Thanks for sharing your heritage with me.


Lisa McGlaun said...


Wow...sometimes dreams are prophetic and sad. Thank you for telling me about your uncle. Hope all is well with you down under...:)


Kali said...

Thanks for posting this, Lisa. Mr. Buckles is an incredible human and looks fantastic at such a ripe old age. God Bless him!