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His was the `war to end all wars'

Frank Buckles, 106, is one of three living U.S. veterans of World War I. He will be the toast of a capital parade.

May 28, 2007|Aamer Madhani | Chicago Tribune

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. — Frank Buckles, frail but sharp, surrounds himself with totems from another time and distant lands.

A china cabinet is filled with military patches, an old wireless telegraph and other knick-knacks he collected while stationed in England, France and Germany. One wall holds a sepia-toned photograph of Buckles as a fresh-faced soldier of 16 posing with the rest of his grim-looking Army unit.

Another showcases commendations from Congress and the West Virginia governor, as well as a photograph of French President Jacques Chirac pinning the Legion of Honor medal on Buckles' jacket.

And, of course, there are his war stories.

From World War I.

The life of Frank Buckles in some ways tracks a timeline in the rise of America as a superpower. World War I brought about the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the United States has been ascendant since. He has been witness to it all -- and is one of very few alive to tell about it.

At 106, Buckles is thought to be one of three living American veterans of World War I, the Department of Veterans Affairs says.

Buckles' voice is raspy, he has difficulty walking and he needs help getting dressed each morning. But his mind is keen and the memories of his two years in Europe during the war remain clear.

Today, Buckles will serve as a marshal in the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, sharing the starring role with actor Gary Sinise.

Buckles said he didn't mind all the attention. It's a salute to his generation, and he just happens to be the only one of his contemporaries available to take a bow. But he said he was a bit concerned over whether he was the right guy for the parade.

"What are you supposed to do when you lead a parade?" he asked.

The other living World War I veterans are Harry Landis, a 107-year-old in Sun City Center, Fla., and Russell Coffey, a 108-year-old in North Baltimore, Ohio.

After the last Navy veteran and the last American woman to serve in World War I died days apart in March, the Department of Veterans Affairs made a public appeal to identify additional veterans of the war besides Buckles, Landis and Coffey. There were no responses.

Although World War I marked the decline of the British Empire and led to the remapping of the Middle East, it has largely become the forgotten war of American history, said Eli Paul, director of the newly opened National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

Paul said the story of "the war to end all wars" had been eclipsed by the "Greatest Generation" of Americans who fought in World War II.

"These World War I veterans raised a generation that did them one better," said Paul, who added that museum visitors regularly commented that they hadn't realize the scope or importance of the war. "They got overshadowed in this country on Dec. 7, 1941, and never got out of the shadow."

For decades, Buckles rarely told people about his war experiences, said daughter Susannah Flanagan, but in recent years he has taken to sharing with historians and other visitors to his 330-acre cattle farm.

Soon after the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917, posters promoting the war effort appeared in the post office in the small farming community of Oakwood, Okla., where Buckles' family lived. Newspapers were filled with dispatches from the front.

Buckles, 16, was eager to join. After several rejections, he convinced an Army recruiter that he was 21. His home state of Missouri didn't keep birth records when he was born. The recruiter took him at his word, and Buckles was on his way to war.

He volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver because he heard it was the quickest way to the front. He spent time in England and France, but he never came close to the front lines. After Armistice Day in 1918, he was assigned to a company that was returning POWs to Germany.

Buckles arrived home in January 1920 with $143.90 in his pocket.

He worked in the shipping industry for years, and when he was in the Philippines on business in 1941, the Japanese invaded and he was taken prisoner of war.

He was held in a prison camp in Santo Tomas and later in Los Banos, where he was among 2,100 internees.

Buckles was among those rescued in a daring parachute mission by the 11th Airborne Division in February 1945.

When he served, he did not get close to the front lines. But in a war in which he was a civilian, he was held prisoner for 3 1/2 years.

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