ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
World War I Veteran Reflects on Lessons
Monday, November 12, 2007
One by one, members of the small crowd on a hilltop at Arlington National Cemetery approached the man who had beaten all the odds.
Some saluted him. Others shook his hand, had their pictures taken with him or patted him on the back, as if touching one of the last surviving veterans of World War I would be like touching history itself.
Frank W. Buckles, 106, knows the feeling. Having lived through the Great War and imprisonment in a Japanese camp in the Philippines during World War II, Buckles said his most vivid memory from those years was meeting Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing after World War I.
"He noted that we both had the same Missouri accent," Buckles recalled with a laugh. Buckles told the general that he had been raised near Bethany, Mo., and the general replied: "That's 40 miles as the crow flies from where I was born."
Yesterday, Buckles's service was honored in a Veterans Day ceremony to remember Pershing, who commanded U.S. forces in World War I. The ceremony at Pershing's grave, organized by the Military Order of the World Wars, was one of several in the area as crowds converged on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and smaller groups gathered at various statues and memorials.
In Section 34 of the cemetery, where Pershing was buried on a rise overlooking the graves of men he led, organizers honored Buckles as one of three known surviving U.S. World War I veterans.
Sitting in a wheelchair with a military field cap on his head and a heavy blanket across his lap, Buckles recalled lying about his age to a Marine recruiter at a fair in Kansas to enlist when he was 16. On his arrival in France, he said, he was touched by the sight of so many people wearing black armbands in memory of loved ones who had already died.
Asked what he thought about attending a service for his duty while the United States is engaged in armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Buckles replied: "I'm no authority, but I'm not in favor of war unless it's an emergency."
As a teenager, Buckles was eager to enlist. He had been raised on a farm and took a job at a bank in Oklahoma after delivering some horses there. After the Marines rejected him as too young and the Navy told him he had flat feet, he signed on with the Army, claiming that Missouri did not print birth certificates when he was born. He enlisted Aug. 14, 1917.
Eager to see action, he joined an ambulance corps and sailed to Europe on the Carpathia, the ship that had rescued survivors from the Titanic in 1912. He never did make it to the front lines, but he saw firsthand the brutal consequences of war. His last assignment was caring for German prisoners of war, and he emerged from the war as a corporal.
He moved to Canada, where he found work as a purser on a White Star Line steamship and accepted an assignment to help expedite cargo shipments in World War II. He was in Manila when the city fell to the Japanese and spent three years and two months in Japanese camps.
Conversing, especially on a raw November afternoon, has become difficult for Buckles, who has a hearing aid in each ear. When taps sounded yesterday during the annual ceremony, Buckles lifted his right hand, his fingers not quite able to straighten, in a salute. Then his daughter, Susannah Flanagan, turned his wheelchair so that he could see the military representatives of several nations, including France, Canada and the United Kingdom, lay wreaths at Pershing's grave.
Asked what he credited for so long a life, Buckles said exercise was important, noting that he had kept up a daily habit of calisthenics even during his imprisonment by the Japanese.
He added: "The desire to live. To survive."