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Last U.S. World War I veteran Frank W. Buckles dies at 110

Frank W. Buckles died early Sunday, sadly yet not unexpectedly at age 110, having achieved a singular feat of longevity that left him proud and a bit bemused.

"I was just 16 and didn't look a day older," he once wrote. After Navy and Marine Corps recruiters shooed him away - "they'd take one look at me and laugh" - the Army, expanding massively, inducted Mr. Buckles, who swore without proof that he was old enough to join.

A sergeant insisted that he needed a middle initial, Mr. Buckles recalled. So he adopted an uncle's name, Frank Woodruff Buckles, and never stopped using it.

"Every last one of us Yanks believed we'd wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home before harvest," he said. "In other words, we were the typical cocky Americans no one wants around until they need help winning a war."

In December 1917, as his Army detachment steamed for Europe on the British liner Carpathia, Mr. Buckles said, crewmen shared stories of the grim dawn less than six years earlier when their ship had been the first to reach survivors of the Titanic. From England, he said, "I was anxious to get to France, and I used several methods, including, I should say, pestering every officer of influence in the place."

A lifetime later, recalling the scorched French countryside from the comfort of his den, he spoke of the weary, grateful German POWs, some of them teenagers like himself, who he helped repatriate after the vast bloodletting of the world's first industrialized war.

One gave him a souvenir, a soldier's belt with a buckle inscribed, "GOTT MIT UNS" [God with us], which he kept for the rest of his years.

In war and peace

The nation's official toll from 19 months of war: 116,516 deaths, about half in battle, most of the rest from illnesses, mainly the 1918 influenza pandemic.

After his discharge, Mr. Buckles said, he paid for typing and shorthand classes and took a clerical job with a steamship line - a generation before the first G.I. Bill would make college and home ownership possible for millions of returning World War II vets.

He weathered the Depression at sea on his purser's salary, regularly making port calls in newly Nazified Germany. He saw Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Summer Olympics, he said, and watched Jesse Owens anger the dictator by sprinting to victory in Berlin's Reichssportfeld.

Then, in December 1941, he was working in a shipping company's Manila office when Japanese invaders landed in Luzon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Three years, two months," he said of his captivity in the Philippines, eventually at a notorious camp in Los Banos. There, under pitiless Japanese guards, hundreds of Allied civilian and military internees lived in squalor, subsisting on often wormy rations.

"The starvation was so bad . . . it is surprising that any of us survived," said Mr. Buckles, who was among 2,147 Los Banos prisoners liberated Feb. 23, 1945, in a risky assault by U.S. paratroopers and Filipino guerrillas.

American commanders in the fight to retake the Philippines had ordered the rescue mission, 25 miles behind Japanese lines, fearing that the guards would begin massacring the captives before the main U.S. ground advance reached the camp.

Mr. Buckles turned 44 that winter, suffering from the aftereffects of beriberi, dysentery and dengue fever. Deciding he had had enough adventure, he said, he worked in sales for a West Coast paint company after marrying in 1946. Then he settled on his 330-acre Gap View Farm, driving a tractor past his 100th birthday until the years finally caught up with him.

His wife, Audrey Buckles, died in 1999 at age 78, after which Flanagan, their only survivor, moved to the farm to help care for her father.

Because Mr. Buckles served just one hitch in the Army and returned from France with no wounds or medals for bravery, he was eligible under Arlington National Cemetery protocols only for inurnment in a vault for cremated remains. In March 2008, however, the Bush administration ordered a rare exception for an old corporal of the so-called war to end all wars, and for the passing of living memory.

Mr. Buckles wanted a grave site at Arlington and a traditional white marble headstone. And he will get his wish.

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