'Our last living link' to WWI

Veteran Frank Buckles, a West Virginian who turns 108 today, "never thought I'd be the last."

0201_wwi_400
Frank Buckles, the last living American WWI veteran, wearing his WWI uniform hat and clutching the cup he used as a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII at his home in Charles Town, W.Va. on Jan. 27, 2009. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Frank Buckles, the last living World War I veteran, died Sunday at his home in West Virginia. Here's a story from 2009 about Buckles by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Tom Infield and photographer Laurence Kesterson.

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - World War I took place so long ago - in a lost world of cavalry horses and biplanes - that it's a little startling to meet Frank Buckles in the flesh.

The last known U.S. military veteran of World War I, Buckles turns 108 today.

On Tuesday, as a winter storm moved in from the west, he sat in a nice blue blazer in a warm corner of his day room, surrounded by history books. Outside, white wisps blew across the pale stubble on the 330-acre cattle farm where he settled quietly in 1954 after what already had been a life's worth of adventure in not one but two wars and as a commercial seafarer. Beyond lay the river town of Harpers Ferry and the Civil War battlefield at Antietam.

Buckles said he had always known he would grow quite old. His father lived to be 97. He had a sister who was 104. Other relatives on his mother's side lived to be 100.

The national World War I veterans group, of which he is the commander and sole member, used to publish a newsletter. Each issue counted down the number of old doughboys still around. As the number got smaller and smaller, "I realized I'd be one of the last," he said, "but I never thought I'd be the last."

He grinned slowly and added, "Of course, if it has to be somebody, it might as well be me."

On Nov. 11, the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs recognized Buckles as "our last living link" to that war. Buckles met President George W. Bush at the White House last year and was feted at the Pentagon.

He seems to have enjoyed the attention, but he isn't eager to talk about the sadness and melancholy that must come with being the last of 4,734,991 American military personnel during the war, in 1917 and 1918.

"Being the last is sort of a negative thing because it means all your buddies have gone before you, so he doesn't dwell on that," said Muriel Sue Kerr of Mount Vernon, Va., the longtime director of Buckles' veterans group and the granddaughter of a World War I veteran.

Until he was in his 70s, Buckles each month smoked a pound of pipe tobacco and a box of cigars that he ordered from a shop in San Francisco.

He drove a car and a farm tractor until he was 102.

He's still in good health - "for a man my age," as he put it. A couple of years ago, his only child, Susannah, 53, moved in with him. His son-in-law built two new rooms on the ground floor of his 250-year-old house so he doesn't have to climb stairs anymore.

As he sat in his favorite chair, his shaggy hair combed across his scalp, an eagle-head cane leaning against the wall, Buckles had to concentrate hard to hear the questions in an interview. His answers came with pauses to catch his breath.

He enjoyed telling the old, old stories - the funny ones, mostly. Like the time he tried to teach his father how to drive a Model T Ford on the Oklahoma farm where he grew up. On the way back to the house after a spin, his father forgot himself and yelled, "Whoa!" The car crashed through the gate.

If anyone could be said to embody the history of America, Buckles might be it.

He can remember talking to his grandmother, born in 1817. His grandmother, in turn, could remember talking to her grandfather, who had been in the Revolutionary War. The first Buckles came from England to Philadelphia in 1702 and married into a Quaker family in Bucks County. The clan moved to the upper Potomac River region in 1732, the year of George Washington's birth.

Frank Woodruff Buckles was born Feb. 1, 1901. When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, he was 13. He was still just 16 in 1917 when the United States entered the war against Germany, on the side of Britain and France.

He tried to join the Marines, but was rejected as too young. He tried the Navy, then the Army. He lied that he was unable to produce his birth certificate, and the Army let him in.

In December 1917, he sailed for Europe aboard the ocean liner Carpathia, converted into a troop ship. The Carpathia had rescued survivors of the Titanic 51/2 years earlier.

After landing in England, Buckles worked as a military driver. He had to finagle his way to France. He never saw combat - "not close," he said - but he was at least in the war theater. He was a corporal when he got home.

Having seen Paris, he couldn't be kept down on the farm. He moved to New York City, where he worked for a bank. In another brush with history, he attended the Sunday Bible class at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church led by John D. Rockefeller Jr., heir to the Standard Oil fortune.

Banking was boring for him, so he decided to go to sea. He spent the 1920s and '30s sailing three oceans as a ship's officer. He hit ports up and down both coasts of South America, and visited the town of Vilcabamba in Ecuador's "valley of longevity," where people were said to live to be 110 or even 115. "I saw that I could live to be 100," he said.

In 1940, he boarded a ship bound from San Francisco to the Philippines. He was in Manila when the Japanese attacked there a few hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese invaded, he was among Western civilians taken prisoner.

He was held for 31/2 years at the Santo Tomas and Los Baños internment camps. He wouldn't talk much about that time, except to say, "There was no mercy as far as the Japanese were concerned." He once saw three men, British and Australian, nearly beaten to death.

Food became scarce as the Japanese began to lose the war. At Los Baños, on the campus of an agricultural university, the prisoners found a scale. Buckles discovered that he had lost almost a third of his 140 pounds. "When I got down to 100 pounds," he said, "I quit weighing."

Buckles still has the chipped metal cup from which he ate his beans and rice.

On Feb. 23, 1945, six months before the end of World War II, U.S. and Philippine forces liberated the Los Baños camp.

Buckles, who had led daily fitness exercises in the camp, was almost the only one of 2,100 survivors who didn't go directly to a hospital when they landed back in San Francisco, he said. Instead, he checked into a hotel.

He discovered that while he had been gone, his paychecks from his shipping company had been piling up at the Crocker Bank.

"I was starving, but I had money in the bank," he said.

"The average man who got paid off, I can imagine what he did," he said. "He bought a new automobile or used that money right off."

But Buckles let the money ride. He kept it invested with the bank. Come a January day nine years later - "it was snowing like this," he said - he visited the Charles Town farm and was able to buy it.

Until not long ago, he said, few people in the area knew he was a World War I veteran. He had no reason to mention it.

But as veterans dwindled to a few, he started to attract interest from journalists, history buffs and autograph-seekers. He now even has a Web site, www.frankbuckles.org.

In September 2006, portrait photographer David DeJonge of Grand Rapids, Mich., set out to photograph all of the remaining World War I veterans. He had 15 names on his list. By the time he got started, four men had died. Others faded away as his work progressed.

Last March, nine DeJonge portraits, including one of Buckles, were hung in a corridor of the Pentagon.

With Buckles beside him, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said: "The First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States. There is no big memorial on the National Mall. Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades. Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in."

Having experienced two wars up close, Buckles watched from afar as the United States fought in Korea and Vietnam.

He now watches as his country makes war in Iraq and Afghanistan - mystifying realms of satellite-guided bombs and unmanned aerial vehicles that not even Jules Verne or H.G. Wells could have conjured in the books Buckles read as a boy.

Speaking of Iraq, he commented: "We shouldn't have got into that damned war."

But he hastened to add that his opinion didn't matter.

"Why do I get the authority to speak for anybody?" he said. "I can't do that."

 


Contact staff writer Tom Infield

at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.