W.Va. Man Among Last of WWI Vets
Thursday, July 5, 2007; 2:11 AM
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Frank Buckles is 106 now and not as spry as he used to be. But try to help him from a chair to his feet, and he will bellow a loud, clear "No." Ninety years after the headstrong teenager lied his way into a uniform, then the European theater of World War I, the older version of that boy remains fiercely independent, determined to live life on his terms, at his pace.
That means to learn about Buckles, you'll need to sit a spell _ to hear stories of a lifetime that hardly seems possible today, to hear stories of a war that few are still able to tell.
More than 4.7 million Americans joined the military from 1917-18, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says only three survive. For decades, Buckles sat in the living room of his stone farmhouse in a scenic corner of West Virginia and read issues of a military magazine called The Torch, watching that list dwindle.
"Soon, I was able to say, 'Oh my gosh, I am going to be one of the last,'" he says.
Buckles is the youngest of the known survivors; the others are 107-year-old Harry Landis of Sun City Center, Fla., and 108-year-old J. Russell Coffey of North Baltimore, Ohio. None of the three saw action.
John Babcock, 106, from Spokane, Wash., served in the Canadian Army.
Buckles moves slowly now, his small frame stooped. Both ears require mechanical assistance, but his mind is sharp, with names and numbers from the early part of the 20th century slipping readily from his tongue.
He speaks Spanish and German, even surprising a visitor of Filipino descent with a warm send-off in Tagalog, a remnant of 3 1/2 years spent as a civilian prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II.
And his eyes twinkle when he's joking.
His living room is full of mementos, commendations and photos, including one of French President Jacques Chirac presenting Buckles a Legion of Honor medal in 1999.
But his military service was just a moment in time, an escapade from an era when a boy with a quick mind and convincing tale could talk his way into anything.
Buckles was born Feb. 1, 1901, near Bethany, Mo., and raised on a farm. At 15, he delivered a load of horses to Oklahoma, landed a job at a bank and moved into a hotel.