It’s his eyes, I think, that caught my attention. Or maybe the hint of his grin, that look like he just might break into a smile in the moments after this photo was taken.
In reality, though, it was his story. A quiet man, a farmer, who spent most of his life on a humble farm in West Virginia, never knowing that eventually he would be the last of his kind. A legend. A quiet hero.
Frank Buckles passed away in February 2011, marking the end of an era. Ask people of a certain age where they were when JFK was shot, and they can tell you what they were doing at the exact moment they heard the news. More recently, the tragedies of the Challenger explosion, the Oklahoma City bombing, and September 11th mark points of national remembrance, where the nation stops and collectively catches its breath, together, before continuing down its separate and varied roads.
So where were you when Frank Buckles passed away? Did you feel the shift of time, the closing of a door of history? Most people didn’t, for he died as he had lived – quietly, with only others making a fuss. The people I asked just wanted to know who Frank Buckles was. For many years, very few people knew his whole story, the full scope of his experiences. When interviewed as part of the Veteran’s History Project in 2001, Buckles noted that he didn’t talk about his experiences often, as “it’s best for anyone who’s been in the military service if he’s had some disagreeable experiences. It’s best for him to talk about it and get it out of his system and then forget it. Course I didn’t talk about it.”
Born in February 1901, Frank Buckles left home at 16 to join the American Expeditionary Forces fighting in what at the time was called The Great War. Years younger than the legal age for service, Buckles became an ambulance driver and a guard for German prisoners. When the war ended and he returned to the United States, he was still only 18 years old.
During the 1930s, he worked for the White Star steamship line, which is how he ended up in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Taken prisoner, Buckles spent more than three years as a prisoner of war. Is it any wonder then, that what he wanted most after that was simply to live a quiet life on his farm, leaving both wars behind him.
And so he did, until recent years, when he became an activist for an important cause, that of preserving the stories and the memories of men like himself, those who fought in what became World War I. In his later years, he became the voice representing the cause of creating a national memorial for World War I on the Washington Mall, one to keep company with the ones already there for World War II, Vietnam, and Korea. A local memorial exists, honoring the local men and boys of the District of Columbia who fought in the Great War. Some argue that having a National World War I Museum is enough, that another memorial on the mall would be redundant. Besides, there are many memorials sprinkled throughout Europe, the true theater of that war. But Frank Buckles felt differently. And as the voice of a true generation, perhaps his should be given a bit of extra credence in the debate.
For with the death of Frank Buckles a few weeks ago, the U.S. has reached the end of an era. There are no more Doughboys. He was, indeed, the last of his kind, and the end of an era.
For more information about Frank Buckles, please visit the Veteran’s History Project site, which contains several interviews with Frank Buckles, as well as photographs (including the two on this page) and copies of relevant documents pertaining to his service. Other sites which contain further information include: the Official Frank Woodruff Buckles site, where you can contribute to the efforts to create a national memorial; the Pershing’s Last Patriot movie site; and a video made by Sean Dunne.