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

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:03 PM

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

In 1917 and 1918, close to 5 million Americans served in World War I, and Mr. Buckles, a cordial fellow of gentle humor, was the last known survivor. "I knew there'd be only one someday," he said a few years back. "I didn't think it would be me."

Mr. Buckles, a widower, died on his West Virginia farm, said his daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, who had been caring for him there.

Flanagan, 55, said her father had recently recovered from a chest infection and seemed in reasonably good health for a man his age. At 12:15 a.m. Sunday, he summoned his live-in nurse to his bedroom. As the nurse looked on, Flanagan said, Mr. Buckles drew a breath, and his eyes fell shut.

"We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation's history," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said of Mr. Buckles, whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. "But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated."

As time thinned the ranks of those long-ago U.S. veterans, the nation hardly noticed them vanishing, until the roster dwindled to one ex-soldier, embraced in his final years by an appreciative public.

"Frank was a history book in and of himself, the kind you can't get at the library," said his friend Muriel Sue Kerr. Having lived from the dawn of the 20th century, he seemed to never tire of sharing his and the country's old memories - of the First World War, of roaring prosperity and epic depression, and of a second, far more cataclysmic global conflict, which he barely survived.

Mr. Buckles, who was born by lantern light in a Missouri farmhouse, quit school at 16 and bluffed his way into the Army. As the nation flexed its full military might overseas for the first time, he joined 4.7 million Americans in uniform and was among 2 million U.S. troops shipped to France to vanquish the German kaiser.

Ninety years later, with available records showing that former corporal Buckles, serial No. 15577, had outlived all of his compatriots from World War I, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared him the last doughboy standing. He was soon answering fan mail and welcoming a multitude of inquisitive visitors to his rural home.

"I feel like an endangered species," he joked, well into his 11th decade. As a rear-echelon ambulance driver behind the trenches of the Western Front in 1918, he had been safe from the worst of the fighting. But "I saw the results," he would say.

He saw the world

With his death, researchers said, only two of the approximately 65 million people mobilized by the world's militaries during the Great War are known to be alive: an Australian man and a British woman, 109 and 110 respectively.

Mr. Buckles said he was just a naive schoolboy chasing adventure when he enlisted Aug. 14, 1917, after the United States joined a war that had been raging for three years, with millions dead. "I knew what was happening in Europe, even though I was quite young," he told a Washington Post reporter when he was 105. "And I thought, well, 'I want to get over there and see what it's about."

After the armistice, he traveled the globe as a purser on commercial ships and was caught in Manila when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. He endured 38 months of cruel deprivation as a civilian prisoner during World War II before being freed in a daring military raid.

In 1953, he and his wife bought a cattle farm with a Colonial-era stone house near Charles Town, W.Va., and there Mr. Buckles quietly spent the rest of his life, his doughboy tunic hanging in a closet. As his generation passed away, he held fast as a centenarian, doing daily calisthenics and immersing himself in books and newspapers.

Then, on Feb. 4, 2008, a Florida man who had been in Army basic training when hostilities ended in November 1918 died at 108. As best as the VA could determine, that left only Mr. Buckles, who warmly indulged people's growing fascination with him.

He was an honored guest on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and in the Oval Office. School children, history buffs, journalists, younger veterans, and even Britain's defense secretary visited him at the farm, admiring him like a museum piece.

"Well, I guess I'm famous now," he said slyly. Not surprisingly, some were quick to declare him "a hero" - a notion he dismissed as sentimental.

The VA, established in 1930, does not have complete records from World War I. But amid all the attention Mr. Buckles received, no one surfaced claiming to have also served in the U.S. military before the armistice. Mr Buckles's secret to longevity: "When you think you're dying," his son-in-law once heard him quip, "don't."

Letters from strangers, some seeking autographs, arrived at his home in stacks. He signed as many as he could until a frail hand forced him to stop. And despite the ailments of age, he went on championing his favorite cause: a proposal to refurbish the District of Columbia's neglected World War I monument and rededicate it as a national memorial.

Appearing before a U.S. Senate panel in 2009 in support of the idea, Mr. Buckles greeted lawmakers and others as they filed toward him in a reverent procession. With his old Army ribbons pinned to his blue blazer, he seemed a memorial in his own right to a dimly remembered catastrophe that left an estimated 16 million people dead worldwide.

'I was just 16'

Wood Buckles - his given name, recorded in the family Bible before birth certificates were required in his home state - was born Feb. 1, 1901, on his parents' farm in Bethany, Mo. He said destiny seemed to side with him early, in 1903, when he and his brother Ashman fell deathly ill together with scarlet fever.

Ashman, 4, succumbed; Mr. Buckles pulled through and experienced a century. Few others born during the McKinley administration lived to have a Facebook page, as he did.

"My father took newspapers," he told the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project a decade ago. "I read about the war."

The tangle of alliances and volatile rivalries among Europe's old empires, the diplomatic deceits and blunders that ignited the conflict in 1914 were hard for an adolescent to sort out. But the din of rabid patriotism surrounding America's entry into the war in April 1917 stirred his imagination, Mr. Buckles said.

"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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