WASHINGTON, D.C. – Nearly two years after the death of America’s last World War I veteran, Charles Town resident Frank Buckles, plans are moving ahead to recognize those who served in the Great War.
But longtime supporters of the project are expressing outrage and dismay that Buckles’ name has been stripped from the effort.
Buckles, a Missouri native who moved to Jefferson County to farm in the 1950s, spent the final years of his life pushing for a national monument to recognize the sacrifices of Americans in the war that ended Nov. 11, 1918.
But the bill that U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., twice introduced to create a World War I memorial in Washington, D.C., no longer bears the name of Buckles, who died just weeks after he turned 110, on Feb. 27, 2011.
Buckles dodged questions about his age to enlist at 16, then went on to outlive 4.7 million other Americans who served.
Another version being considered by the Senate no longer calls for a memorial on the National Mall as Buckles sought.
David DeJonge, who has spent years working on a documentary of Buckles’ life and who serves as president of the WWI Memorial Foundation, said he is disgusted by the latest twists that have unfolded in Congress.
“Tragically, all the good efforts of Frank Buckles, Senator Rockefeller and millions of Americans have been crushed,” DeJonge said Wednesday. “The sacrifice of 116,516 Americans and the blood shed by those patriots are now kicked into a D.C. no man’s land.”
DeJonge places much of the blame on Rockfeller’s colleagues, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, and Roy Blunt, a Republican from that state. Missouri is home to the Liberty Memorial at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.
A bill fast-tracked late on Dec. 20 calls only for the creation of a centennial commission that would consider how to appropriately commemorate the Great War. The 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict will begin in 2014.
The bill moved forward from the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Rockefeller has no seat. Rockefeller first introduced the Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act in 2009, then reintroduced it earlier this year with U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia.
“Frank Buckles was a true American patriot and a West Virginia treasure,” Rockefeller said.
A spokesman said Rockefeller does support the creation of the commission so the United States can begin planning for the centennial.
DeJonge said he hopes higher-level national leaders to step in and ensure the creation of the memorial Buckles envisioned. “We’re looking to the president and other politicians to offer a better solution to fulfill Frank’s dream,” DeJonge said on Wednesday.
Buckles devoted the last few years of his life to campaigning for greater recognition for his former comrades, enlisting Rockefeller to his cause.
Buckles wanted to see the District of Columbia War Memorial rededicated to include the wording ”National World War I Memorial.”
Though Buckles supported the Missouri museum and its mission of education, he also believed there should also be a place in D.C. for people to pay their respects.
But his idea has been thwarted by legislation limiting construction of monuments and memorials in the capital. “This is a very public and historic decision,” DeJonge said, “and we feel that an overwhelming public poll would show that America would agree this memorial needs to be approved and on the mall.’”
Buckles was laid to rest March 15, 2011, in Arlington National Cemetery after hundreds of people, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, paid their respects.
His gravesite has views of the Washington Monument, the Capitol dome and the Jefferson Memorial. At the crest of the hill sits the grave of Gen. John Pershing, under whose command Buckles served, along with a plaque commemorating the 116,516 Americans who died in World War I.
Born in Bethany, Mo., on Feb. 1, 1901, Buckles was raised in Oklahoma. He served as an ambulance driver in England and France and did not see combat. After Armistice Day, he helped return prisoners of war back to Germany.
He returned to the United States in 1920 as a corporal. During World War II, Buckles was working as a civilian for a shipping company in the Philippines when he was captured as a prisoner of war. He spent more than three years in Japanese prison camps.
A compromise bill to establish the centennial commission passed the Senate late last week by unanimous consent.
Calls to McCaskill’s office in D.C. and Missouri were not returned Wednesday.
– Staff writer Marla Pisciotta and The Associated Press contributed to this report.