Richard Rubin’s new book recalls the lives of America’s final veterans of World War I
CHARLES TOWN — What about the veterans of World War I?
[cleeng_content id="578770749" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]
That’s the question Richard Rubin said he asked himself in 2003 when he heard a radio broadcast that noted World War II vets were dying at a rate of about 1,000 a day.
The question took him on a several-years’ journey around the country and to interviews with the last surviving American doughboys, including Charles Town’s Frank Buckles, who was the United States’ last living veteran until his death in 2011.
This week, publisher Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt releases Rubin’s record of those conversations — “The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War.”
In a special chapter on Buckles entitled “The Last of the Last,” Rubin describes him as one of the most remarkable men he’s ever met and as a “man for the 20th century.”
“He was the perfect union of man and time,” Rubin said in an interview from his home in Maine. He notes that Buckles was born one month into the 20th century and had traced an ancestry that stretched all the way back to the settlement of William Penn’s colony in 1732. “His was one of the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever heard.”
Rubin said he interviewed Buckles during numerous visits over several years beginning in August 2003, and soon found himself mesmerized by the scope and detail of Buckles life, of his efforts to enlist in the Great War despite being of tender years and of the serendipities that never seemed to be far from him.
Rubin said he was amazed by the stories Buckles told, of his meetings with famous figures such as Gen. John Pershing — leader of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I — during a visit to Oklahoma City, to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, onetime race car drive Eddie Rickenbacker, John D. Rockefeller Jr., poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In 1924, when Buckles was working on a cruise liner, Japanese diplomat Yosuke Matsuoka befriended him and even took him on a tour of Tokyo. It was Matsuoka who went on to conceive of the idea of a tripartite alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II.
Rubin called Buckles a kind of real-life Forrest Gump.
“He was a very engaged person who really wanted to live every second he was alive and be a part of what was going on,” Rubin said. “I guess there are some people who just attract history.”
Rubin said “The Last of the Doughboys” grew out of a magazine project that he conceived of after learning how few American World War I veterans were still living.
In his book, Rubin also credited his mother for making him aware of WWI veterans. He recalls as a boy riding in a car with his mother when she pointed out the VA hospital in the Bronx and told him that some of the veteran living there served in the First World War.
He writes: “I just stared at her. How could such a thing possibly be true? World War I! It felt so distant, relegated to an era of black-and-white and silence. Back then our allies were a King, a Crown Prince and a Czar and our enemies a Kaiser, an Emperor and a Sultan. How, I wondered, could warriors from such a remote past still be among us?”
Rubin said he has never lost his fascination with that war, during which in one of its most horrific battles, the Somme, 1.3 million men were killed; 14,000 British soldiers in just the first 10 minutes of the battle.
Tracking down the American survivors was not easy.
“It took me months to find the first veteran,” he said, recalling that no database, no help from Veterans Affairs existed. “It took me so long to find one, I got so mad I decided to find them all.”
It was then the book was born.
Rubin said the government of France gave him his first big break. In 1998, French President Jacques Chirac announced France would award the Legion d’Honneur, the country’s highest military award, to all the United States’ surviving World War I servicemen.
Rubin said he found many veterans as he scoured the pages of local newspapers. Reporters in the veterans’ hometowns would write up the news as France made each award; many times, Chirac presented the awards himself.
Rubin said by the time he began searching, only one in 20 of the veterans named on the French list was still living. “I was painfully aware the whole time that I had to move fast,” he said. “These men were not celebrities; they were hiding in plain sight.”
Among the veterans whose stories Rubin got to tell was Arthur Guy Empey, who wrote a book called “Over the Top,” about life for soldiers in the trenches of France; Art Fiala, who loved to talk and never forgot what he said; and William Eugene Lee, who never forgot his friend, Joe Wnuk, killed by an errant shell lobbed into the darkness as he crosed the Meuse River on the last night of the war, Nov. 10, 1918, hours before the armistice was signed.
Rubin remarks with sadness that all the men profiled in his book are now dead. They all lived into their 100s. He said speaking to them was unlike anything he’s ever done.
“So many of them were so very alive,” he said. “To live to be that age — they’re not like the rest of us.”
He said he was glad to be able to tell their stories. Rubin said he hopes his book serves to reawaken interest in World War I, which he believes is little understood by Americans, little appreciated and much forgotten.
“It was their story,” he said. “It was their war.”