Frank Buckles, last known U.S. World War I veteran, is laid to rest at Arlington

March 15, 2011

A lowly corporal of long ago was buried Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery, ushered to his grave with all the Army’s Old Guard solemn pomp.

Frank Woodruff Buckles lived to be 110, the last of nearly 5 million U.S. veterans of a dimly remembered war — a generation now laid to rest.

In a late-day chill, after hundreds of strangers had paid their respects in public viewings since the weekend, soldiers carried the former doughboy’s flag-draped coffin partway up a knoll and set it on polished rails above his plot, a stone’s toss from the grave of his old supreme commander, Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing.

A chaplain commended his soul to God; rifle volleys cracked; a bugler sounded taps below the gentle rise. With flags at half-staff throughout the U.S. military and government, it was a fine send-off for the country’s last known veteran of World War I, who died peacefully Feb. 27 in his West Virginia farmhouse.

Yet the hallowed ritual at grave No. 34-581 was not a farewell to one man alone. A reverent crowd of the powerful and the ordinary — President Obama and Vice President Biden, laborers and store clerks, heads bowed — came to salute Buckles’s deceased generation, the vanished millions of soldiers and sailors he came to symbolize in the end.

Who were they? Not the troops of “the Greatest Generation,” so celebrated these days, but the unheralded ones of 1917 and 1918, who came home to pats on the back and little else in an era before the country embraced and rewarded its veterans. Their 20th-century narrative, poignant and meaningful, is seldom recalled.

“I know my father would want me to be here,” said Mike Oliver, 73, a retiree from Alexandria, leaning on a cane near the cemetery’s amphitheater hours before the burial. Inside, a hushed procession of visitors filed past Buckles’s closed coffin in the chapel.

“I’m here for Mr. Buckles, and I’m here for what he represents,” Oliver said. On his left lapel, he wore a tiny gold pin, the insignia of his long-dead father’s infantry division in World War I, the Army’s 80th. “I’m here to say goodbye to my dad,” he said.

Buckles, who fibbed his way into the Army at 16, was a rear-echelon ambulance driver in war-ravaged France, miles behind the battlefront. More than 116,000 Americans died, about half in the fighting, most of the rest from illnesses, in the nation’s 19-month engagement in a conflict that scorched Europe for four years.

Now the veterans who survived are gone. What’s left is remembrance — the collective story of 4.7 million lives, an obituary for a generation.

A financial struggle

Arriving stateside in 1918 and 1919, many of them scarred in mind and limb, they were met by a postwar recession and joblessness.

A lot of veterans thought that they were owed a boost, that they ought to be compensated for the good civilian wages they had missed. But lawmakers, year after year, said no.

“Oh, the YMCA did give me a one-month free membership,” Buckles recalled when he was a very old fellow. Except for the $60 that most veterans got from the government when they mustered out, the YMCA gift was “the only consideration I ever saw given to a soldier after the war,” the last doughboy said.

What he and other veterans finally received, in 1924, were bonus certificates redeemable for cash in 1945. And Congress had to override a veto to secure even that.

With the 1920s roaring by then, the young veterans tucked away their certificates and went about their lives. Buckles became a purser on merchant ships, traveling the globe.

Then the Depression hit, and their generation’s legacy took on another aspect, one of activism that helped propel a reshaping of the nation’s social landscape.

Thousands of ruined veterans were left with nothing of value but the promise of eventual bonuses. In 1932, while Buckles was at sea, a ragtag army of ex-servicemen descended on Washington with their wives and kids to lobby for early redemption of the certificates, and a disaster ensued that would long reverberate.

Living for weeks in a sprawling shantytown on mud flats in Anacostia and in tents and hovels near the U.S. Capitol, the dirt-poor “Bonus Army,” numbering more than 20,000, defied orders to disperse. So the White House unleashed the military.

Infantrymen, saber-wielding cavalry troops and a half-dozen tanks swept along the avenues below the Capitol, routing the veterans and their families in a melee of blood and tear gas. Then soldiers cleared out the Anacostia shacks and set them ablaze.

Two veterans died, and hundreds were injured. Four years later, after a Florida hurricane killed 259 destitute veterans at a makeshift federal work camp, political support tipped for the bonuses, and the generation that fought World War I finally got a substantial benefit.

“I think mine was $800,” Buckles said of his bonus, equal to $12,000 today. He said he gave it to his father, an Oklahoma Dust Bowl farmer barely hanging on.

The Bonus Army debacle weighed on Congress and the Roosevelt administration during World War II. With 16 million Americans in uniform — more than three times the World War I total — policymakers feared massive unrest if the new veterans got the same shabby treatment that Buckles’s generation had received.

The result, in 1944, was the GI Bill, widely viewed as the most far-reaching social program in U.S. history. It made college and homeownership possible for the great wave of returning World War II veterans, when such opportunities were considered luxuries, and spurred a vast, decades-long expansion of America’s middle class.

Unfortunately for the veterans of Buckles’s era, the bill wasn’t retroactive.

Tuesday’s hours-long viewing in the amphitheater chapel was a consolation. Buckles’s family and members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation had wanted him to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, but the Senate and House leaders said no. The old corporal just didn’t rate it.

So the people came to Arlington to say goodbye.

A generation’s end

When Murial Sue Kerr met Buckles, in the 1970s, she was a secretary at the Alexandria headquarters of Veterans of World War I of the USA, which had a large office staff at the time, scores of chapters across the country and a quarter-million members out of 750,000 surviving veterans of the war.

“The commander,” Kerr calls Buckles, who got that title in 2008 when the only other living member, a Florida man, passed away.

The group was formed in 1948 after millions of World War II veterans swelled the ranks of the American Legion and similar organizations, pushing agendas that were tailored more to their needs than to the needs of the older veterans, Kerr said.

“The World War II guys had business loans, home loans, education, all kinds of things,” she said. “My World War I guys? Nothing. So they said, ‘Okay, you young whippersnappers, we’ll go start our own bunch.’ ”

Which included Buckles, who had been captured by the Japanese while working in Manila at the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific. Although he spent World War II in an enemy prison camp, he was a civilian, so the GI Bill didn’t extend to him.

In 1974, when Kerr was hired, most of the men were retirees.

“Every year they’d come to Washington, bus loads of them, and testify before Congress,” she recalled. They wanted money for eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures. “And a little pension,” she said. “Good ol’ H.R. 1918 — it was a bill they were always putting in to give them $50 a month. But, of course, it never, ever passed.”

Just a lot of memories now — the lobbying, the quarterly magazine, the big annual conventions in Hot Springs and Daytona Beach. Time ran out for all but the heartiest of the Veterans of World War I of the USA, and they died fast. By 1993, when the office shut for good, Kerr, then in her 40s, was the only staff member left.

And occasionally she got phone calls from some of the few remaining members, whose frail voices broke her heart.

“The typical sad things you’ll hear from the elderly,” she said. “I had one of my guys, he was absolutely in tears. He was from Nevada, and his new nurse wouldn’t cut the crust off of his sandwich.”

They were buried with honors Tuesday as scores of somber onlookers crowded the hillside, a distant generation borne to the grave with the last old veteran, who was cared for lovingly by his family to the end.

In the waning afternoon, the soldiers of the burial detail strode in formation up the avenue from the grand marble amphitheater to Section 34 of the cemetery, escorting the horse-drawn caisson with Buckles’s metal coffin, the procession slow and deliberate, like the march of time.

After the prayer and the echoes of the bugle and the rifles had faded, the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, knelt before Buckles’s daughter, seated by the grave, and handed her a tri-folded American flag. He whispered words of comfort, then stood and walked away.

No more doughboys now.

So long. Rest in peace.

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