It’s been nearly a year since the death of Frank Woodruff Buckles, who balanced a quiet life on his 330-acre cattle farm in Charles Town with worldwide attention as the United States’ final World War I veteran.
The Missouri native had turned 110 just weeks before he quietly passed away Feb. 27, 2011, at his Gap View Farm.
Just this month, the very last of those involved in WWI left us. The person believed to be the war’s final surviving vet – Britain’s Florence Green, who worked as a waitress in the officers’ mess hall as a member of the Royal Air Force in the final days of the conflict – died Feb. 4, just 15 days before she would have marked her 111th birthday.
For Buckles, his incredible long life and robust health always took second place to an honor deserving of even more tribute: here in the United States, he was the last of his kind, this great nation’s final doughboy, the last living soldier sent by the U.S. to help fight the War to End All Wars.
I first learned of the man in 2004 as a new reporter to the area. Long a student of the Great War, I filed it away in my mental Rolodex that here in the Eastern Panhandle lived one of a select fraternity, a dwindling number. I recall hoping I’d have the chance to meet him, perhaps to talk to him awhile.
When I learned he had been an ambulance driver during the war, I wondered if he’d ever read poet Robert W. Service’s collection, “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.”
From “Young Fellow My Lad”:
“Where are you going,
Young Fellow, My Lad,
On this glittering morn of May?
“I’m going to join the colours, Dad;
They’re looking for men,
“But you’re only a boy,
Young Fellow, My Lad;
You aren’t obliged to go.”
“I’m seventeen and a
And ever so strong, you know.”
Buckles was just 16 when he enlisted. He apparently disliked news accounts reporting that he’d lied to recruiters about his age. A Washington Post story published after his death used the word “bluffed” to describe his prevarication. I liked that.
It was 2009 when I finally got my wish to meet the man. I’d been asked to go to Buckles’ house where students from Creekwood Middle School in Kingwood, Texas, had arrived to present him with a check for $13,553.83 to help remake as a national memorial the dilapidated D.C. War Memorial, a bandstand put up in 1931 by the District of Columbia to honor the 499 city residents who perished in World War I.
On that March day, before Buckles was brought out to meet the young Texans, a handful of reporters were given a few minutes to bend his ear.
I recall extending my hand and he took it. I recall the sound of his voice, a low rumble in a quiet room peopled by a half dozen others straining to hear but also to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged by someone who we knew to be a living, breathing memento of history.
A photograph from 1917 shows Buckles the doughboy, his jaw set square against the Guns of August, so wanting to go to war, but it’s the photograph from that March 8 edition of The Journal that serves as my recollection of the man, small and frail, a black beret atop his withered head, a scarf around his neck, his gnarled hand holding that of 13-year-old Seth Whitt.
Buckles in 2008 had become the honorary chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation, and it seemed to me then this effort to remake that old neglected bandstand into a national memorial honoring all the veterans of this little-understood war, the first wherein which the scale of the weaponry had outmatched the scale of the men waging it, couldn’t have found a better foot soldier.
The day before Veterans Day in 2010, Buckles took his cause before Congress, becoming the oldest person ever to testify before the body.
“We still do not have a national memorial in Washington, D.C., to honor the Americans who sacrificed with their lives during World War I,” Buckles told lawmakers. “I call upon the American people and the world to help me in asking our elected officials to pass the law for a memorial to World War I in our nation’s capital.
“These are difficult times, and we are not asking for anything elaborate. What is fitting and right is a memorial that can take its place among those commemorating the other great conflicts of the past century.”
Buckles would have been pleased with the Nov. 10, 2011, ceremony that gave the public its first official look at the secluded bandstand’s completed restoration. But more work remains, explains Edwin Fountain, one of the directors of the WWI Memorial project.
“Frank Buckles felt very strongly that a national memorial is needed and his efforts, his life brought so much attention to the cause,” Fountain said. “What we want to do now is simply add another feature to that site so that people who come visit it can also feel like they’ve paid respect to all America’s veterans of World War I.”
Leaders in Congress are weighing whether to overrule D.C. leaders’ efforts to keep control of the memorial; Washington’s mayor Vincent C. Gray, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and others oppose HR 938, which would rededicate the D.C. War Memorial as a national memorial to all WWI vets.
In his efforts to see a national memorial for his fellow soldiers, Frank Buckles spent his final years with his eyes on the future, and it’s certainly fitting and right for the country to honor those who fought with a national WWI memorial.
Future generations must not lose sight of the war in which some 70 million fought – and some 9 million died – between its start on July 28, 1914, and the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
Allow World War II its Stonehenge of states and Vietnam its wall of names, each memorial fits perfectly the marks left by their respective conflicts, but a simple, humble bandstand bespeaks a young nation on the cusp of a great war, a decade into its own century, and who better to be put to work restoring it but a small, blanket-draped man, almost a century removed from the strapping youth who’d gone to join the colours, and ever so strong?
That’s what I took from one afternoon with Mr. Buckles – that his final years remaining were not just his, but this country’s too, that they helped form a recollection of a place we’d been to a much younger nation and triumphed in the trying to make the world a better place, and he’d made of his last years a pilgrimage to see a nation’s time and its sacrifice Over There remembered.
And now, as the centennial of the start of the Great War nears, this cause is left in the hands of those who took note of the work and sacrifices of Frank Woodruff Buckles, and who want to see his hard work remembered for generations to come.
—Robert Snyder is managing editor of the Spirit of Jefferson. Portions of this column originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Panhandle magazine. Christine Miller Ford contributed to this article.