Frank Buckles, who lied about his age to get into uniform during World War I and lived to be the last surviving U.S. veteran of that war, has died, a spokesman for his family said Sunday. He was 110.
Buckles, who later spent more than three years in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines during World War II, died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Charles Town, W.Va., family spokesman David DeJonge said.
Buckles marked his 110th birthday on February 1, but his family said he had slowed considerably since last fall, according his daughter Susannah Buckles Flanagan, who lives at the family home near Charles Town, West Virginia.
Buckles visited a string of military recruiters after the United States entered the “war to end all wars” in April 1917. He was repeatedly rejected before convincing an Army captain he was 18. He was actually 16½. Buckles served as a U.S. Army ambulance driver in Europe during the war.
He came to prominence in recent years, in part because of the work of DeJonge, a Michigan portrait photographer who had undertaken a project to document the last surviving veterans of that war. Buckles would have wanted people to remember him as “the last torchbearer” for World War I, said DeJonge
DeJonge found himself the spokesman and advocate for Buckles in his mission to see to it that his comrades were honored with a monument on the National Mall, alongside memorials for veterans of World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
On Nov. 11, 2008, the 90th anniversary of the end of the war, Buckles attended a ceremony at the grave of World War I Gen. John Pershing in Arlington National Cemetery.
Buckles made history when he was back in Washington a year later to endorse a proposal to rededicate the existing World War I memorial on the National Mall as the official National World War I Memorial.
He had met with then-President George W. Bush at the White House, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon. “The First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States,” Gates said at the time.
“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.”
Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, Buckles, after World War I ended, took up a career as a ship’s officer on merchant vessels. He was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II and held prisoner of war for more than three years before he was freed by U.S. troops.
Never saying much about his POW experience, Buckles instead wanted attention drawn to the plight of the D.C. War Memorial. During a visit to the run-down, neglected site a few years ago, he went past the nearby World War II memorial without stopping, even as younger veterans stopped and saluted the old soldier in his wheelchair as he went by.
Renovations to the structure began last fall, but Buckles, with his health already failing, could not make a trip to Washington to review the improvements. The National Park Service is overseeing efforts that include replacing a neglected walkway and dressing up a deteriorated dome and marble columns.
Flanagan, his daughter, said preliminary plans began weeks ago, with the Military District of Washington expressing its support for an honors burial at Arlington, including an escort platoon, a horse-drawn casket arrival, a band and a firing party.
“It has long been my father’s wish to be buried in Arlington, in the same cemetery that holds his beloved General Pershing,” Flanagan wrote as she began to prepare for the inevitable in a letter she sent to home-state U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.
In addition to graveside ceremonies, a proposal from U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, calls for a memorial in the U.S. Capitol, where Buckles’ casket would be displayed with honors.
Just before his 108th birthday in 2009, Buckles told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he always knew he’d live a long life: His father died at 97, a sister at 104. And other relatives on his mother’s side of the family hit the century mark.
As for living long enough to be the last U.S. military veteran of World War I, he grinned and said, “If it has to be somebody, it might as well be me.”
Buckles’ family asks that donations be made to the National World War I Legacy Project to honor Frank Buckles and the 4,734,991 Americans that he served with during World War I. [Frank Buckles and Wiki via CNN, LA Times and Air Force Times]