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This Day in History: The Last WWI Veteran

On this day in 1901, Frank Woodruff Buckles is born. He became best known for his longevity: He was the last living American veteran of World War I. He passed away in 2011, just a few weeks after his 110th birthday.

 

Think of everything he saw during his century of life!

 

When he was born, cars were a recent invention—and airplanes were still in the future. He lived through two World Wars, the moon landings, and the beginnings of the Information Age. Personally, he held jobs in banking and advertising. He traveled the world working for steamship companies. He once ran into Hitler while climbing the stairs in a hotel. He ran a cattle ranch. He was a soldier. 


“He’s Forrest Gump with class and IQ,” a co-founder of the WWI Memorial Foundation says. “He lived half of American history.”

 

Buckles was just 16 years old when the United States entered World War I. “I wanted to get out and do something,” he later said. He wanted to go to France.

 

“I went to the state fair up in Wichita, Kansas,” he described, “and while there, went to the recruiting station for the Marine Corps. The nice Marine sergeant said I was too young when I gave my age as 18, said I had to be 21.”

 

Buckles returned a week later. “I went back to the recruiting sergeant, and this time I was 21. I passed the inspection . . . but he told me I just wasn’t heavy enough.”

 

He tried the Navy next, but the Navy recruiter thought he was too flat-footed. Buckles decided to try again in Oklahoma. An Army recruiter there asked for his birth certificate.

 

“I explained that when I was born in Missouri, birth certificates were not a public record,” Buckles later grinned. “It would be in the family Bible. And I said, ‘You wouldn’t want me to bring the family Bible down here, would you?’”

 

The Army recruiter let him in.

 

Buckles finally sailed for England in December 1917, but he ran into a brick wall there, too: His unit was being held in reserve while others were fighting. “I was still trying to get to France,” Buckles explained, “and I would pester every officer of any rank to  get there.”

 

He heard that volunteering to be an ambulance driver might work. He did so, and he finally made it to France—but he never made it to the front lines.

 

He was disappointed, explaining that “I would have liked to accomplish what I had started out for.” He had a sense of humor about it, though. While never seeing combat, he joked, “Didn’t I make every effort?”

 

World War II was a very different experience, even though Buckles had retired from the Army by then. His job with a steamship company had him in the Philippines on the day that the Japanese occupied Manila. He was among those imprisoned, and he spent more than three years as a prisoner of war until he was freed.

 

There was little food, and the malnutrition he suffered in those months left a lasting mark. He dropped a lot of weight. “When I got down to 100 pounds, I quit looking at the scales,” he said.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was ready for some peace and quiet afterwards. He returned to the States, got married, and had a daughter. He ran a cattle farm—and he spent many of his final years advocating for a national World War I memorial.

 

“I realized I’d be one of the last [WWI veterans], but I never thought I’d be ‘the last,’” he chuckled. “Of course, if it has to be somebody, it might as well be me.”

 

Buckles passed away on February 27, 2011.

 

“We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” the Secretary of Veterans Affairs said. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity, who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow ‘Doughboys’ are appropriately commemorated.”

 

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