Back From Battle, a Generation Kept Fighting
Sunday, November 12, 2006
It was getting toward dusk, the sun headed down on yet another day in the very long life of Frank Woodruff Buckles.
He had come to see the grave of Gen. John J. Pershing, on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery. Buckles once shook the great soldier's hand, chatted with him in Oklahoma City, 1920, after the war. Now he sat in a wheelchair on a small stage near the headstone and waited for the ceremony to begin: Veterans Day again.
He's a few months shy of 106, the youngest of 13 known U.S. veterans of World War I still living. When the fighting stopped 88 years ago yesterday, there were 4.7 million Americans in uniform. Now, a dozen men and a woman are left.
They are the last, Buckles and the others -- the end of the generation that parented the Greatest Generation, the adults of the Depression who struggled to feed the children who would grow to win that other world war, the big one everybody remembers.
The World War I generation, largely forgotten, left a peacetime mark on the last century, too, a legacy of 1930s activism that helped alter the nation's social and economic landscape -- although none of the 13 survivors is known to have taken part.
"The Skivin Hotel," Buckles recalled recently. He said it in a raspy, labored voice, his best voice these days. That was the hotel where he met Pershing, who had commanded the American Expeditionary Forces, including Buckles, in France during the war. "After I passed the general, he had his sergeant call me back. He said he wanted to talk to me."
Buckles, a farm boy who had lied his way into the Army at 16, was in uniform that day, though he had mustered out. "He asked me where I had served, what I had done. Then he asked me, 'Where were you born?' I says, 'Harrison County, Missouri.' He says, 'That's 43 miles as the crow flies from Linn County, where I was born.' "
In a blue blazer and black beret, Buckles came to Arlington yesterday from his West Virginia farm with his daughter and some friends for the annual wreath-laying at Pershing's grave, his first visit in 30 years. Colonels and majors and corporals and men in foreign uniforms shook his hand. They snapped photos and bent down, trying to chat. Children walked up and asked him to autograph their programs. It took a while, but he signed.
Veterans Day again. He said he might come back for another.
"I don't see why not."
The conflict had been raging overseas for nearly three years when the United States entered the war in April 1917. After a long buildup in France, Pershing's AEF began large-scale fighting in spring 1918, and the war ended in November.
Chris Scheer, a Department of Veterans Affairs official, started a list of living World War I vets last year. "Not to be morbid," he said, "but we wanted a countdown list."