|Birth:||1 February 1901|
Bethany, Missouri, USA
|Death:||27 February 2011|
Charles Town, West Virginia, USA
|Age:||110 years, 26 days|
Frank Woodruff Buckles (born Wood Buckles, February 1, 1901 – February 27, 2011) was an American supercentenarian and the last surviving American veteran of World War I. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 at the age of 16 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in Europe.
During World War II, he was captured by Japanese forces while working in the shipping business, and spent three years in the Philippines as a civilian prisoner. After the war, Buckles married in San Francisco and moved to Gap View Farm near Charles Town, West Virginia. A widower at age 98, he worked on his farm until the age of 105.
In his last years, he was Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he advocated the establishment of a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials in Washington, D.C.. Toward this end, Buckles campaigned for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial. He testified before Congressin support of this cause, and met with President George W. Bush at the White House.
Buckles was awarded the World War I Victory Medal at the conclusion of that conflict, and the Army of Occupation of Germany Medal retroactively following the medal's creation in 1941, as well as the French Legion of Honor in 1999. His funeral was on March 15, 2011, at Arlington National Cemetery, with President Barack Obama paying his respects prior to the ceremony with full military honors.
Early life and education
Buckles was born to James Clark Buckles, a farmer, and Theresa J. Buckles (née Keown) in Bethany, Missouri, on February 1, 1901. He had two older brothers, Ashman and Roy, and two older sisters, Grace and Gladys. Several family members lived long lives; he remembered speaking with his grandmother who was born in 1817, and his father lived to be 94. His ancestry included soldiers of the Revolutionary and CivilWars.
In 1903, Frank then known as Wood and his brother Ashman contracted scarlet fever. Frank survived, but Ashman died from the disease at the age of four. Between 1911 and 1916, Buckles attended school in Walker, Missouri. Later, he and his family moved to Oakwood, Oklahoma, where he continued his schooling and worked at a bank. He was an amateur wireless operator, and an avid reader of newspapers.
World War I and interwar years
Five months after the American entry into World War I, Buckles sought to enlist in the armed forces. He was turned down by the Marine Corps for being too small, and by the Navy, which claimed that he had flat feet. He fared better with the Army, which accepted that he was an adult even though he looked no older than his 16 years. A sergeant advised that a middle initial would be helpful, so he adopted his uncle's name, "Frank Woodruff Buckles". Another sergeant suggested that the quickest way to the front lines would be to seek a position driving ambulances.
Buckles enlisted on August 14, 1917, and went through basic training at Fort Riley in Kansas. Later that year, he embarked for Europe aboard the RMS Carpathia, which was being used as a troop ship. During the war, Buckles drove ambulances and motorcycles for the Army's 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment, first in England and then France.
Buckles saw the war's impact on malnourished children in France, and more than 80 years later he could remember helping to feed them. After the Armistice in 1918, Buckles escorted prisoners of war back to Germany. One German prisoner gave him a belt buckle inscribed "Gott mit uns" (English: God with us), which he kept for the rest of his life. Buckles was promoted to corporal on September 22, 1919. Following an honorable discharge in November 1919, he returned to the United States aboard USS Pocahontas.
Early in the interwar period, he attended the dedication of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, in honor of the Americans who died in World War I, and met General of the Armies John Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during the war. Buckles then attended business school in Oklahoma City, and found work at a shipping company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. From 1922 to 1923, he served with the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard in New York City where he also worked in financial services.
Next came a career as chief purser on cargo and passenger ships travelling to South America, Europe, and Asia. In the 1930s, German and British passengers expressed fears about the Nazis, and military officers told him that Germany was equipping for war. Buckles witnessed antisemitism and its effects firsthand while ashore in Germany, and he warned acquaintances in Germany that their country would be brought down by Adolf Hitler, whom he encountered at a German hotel. Employed at sea during the Great Depression, he forwarded an $800 Army bonus to his father who was struggling as a farmer in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl (Buckles provided these details many decades later).
During and after World War II
As of 1940, Buckles had been employed by the White Star, American President, and W.R. Grace shipping companies, and in that year shipping business took him to Manilain the Philippines. After the outbreak of the Pacific War and the invasion of the Philippines, he reportedly remained in Manila to help resupply U.S. troops. He was captured in January 1942 by Japanese forces, and spent the next three years and two months as a civilian internee in the Santo Tomas and Los Baños prison camps.
As a prisoner, he battled starvation, receiving only a small meal of mush served in a tin cup a utensil he kept for the rest of his life. With a weight below 100 pounds (45 kg), Buckles developed beriberi, and led fellow captives in calisthenics to counter the effects of imprisonment. Their captors showed little mercy, but Buckles was allowed to grow a small garden, which he often used to help feed children who were imprisoned there.
All of the captives were freed following a raid by Allied forces on February 23, 1945. Before the war he had become fluent in German, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and by its end had learned some Japanese.
After World War II, Buckles moved to San Francisco, and married Audrey Mayo in 1946. Eight years later, the couple bought the 330-acre (1.3 km2) Gap View Farm in West Virginia where they raised cattle. Ancestors named Buckles had settled near Gap View Farm centuries earlier.
In 1955, their only child, Susannah, was born. By then, the world traveller had settled down to a life of farm activities, social events, and serving as an officer (eventually president) of the county historical society. Audrey Buckles died in 1999, and their daughter moved back to the farm to care for him.
After the start of the 21st century, Buckles continued living near Charles Town, West Virginia, and was still driving a tractor on his farm at age 103. He stated in an interview with The Washington Post on Veterans' Day 2007 that he believed the United States should not go to war "unless it's an emergency". He has also stated that, "If your country needs you, you should be right there, that is the way I felt when I was young, and that's the way I feel today."
When asked the secret of long life, Buckles replied that being hopeful and not hurrying were key traits, adding: "When you start to die ... don't". In another interview, the centenarian talked about genetics, exercise, and a healthy diet, but put "the will to survive" above everything else.
Buckles joined actor Gary Sinise in 2007 to lead a Memorial Day parade, and that evening his life was featured on NBC Nightly News. With the death of 108-year-old Harry Richard Landis in February 2008, Buckles became the last surviving American veteran of World War I. The following month, he met with United States President George W. Bush at the White House. The same day, he attended the opening of a Pentagon exhibit featuring photos of nine centenarian World War I veterans, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in attendance. That summer, he visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Buckles was the Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation, which seeks refurbishment of the District of Columbia War Memorial and its establishment as the National World War I Memorial on the National Mall. He was named ABC'sWorld News Tonight's "Person of the Week" on March 22, 2009, in recognition of his efforts to set up the memorial. Those efforts continued, as Buckles appeared before Congress on December 3, 2009, advocating on behalf of such legislation. He did so as the oldest person who ever testified before Congress.
Passage of the legislation remained in doubt, because opponents sought relocation of the proposed monument, or alternatively some benefit for the District of Columbia. As of July 2013, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey was concerned that such a memorial would lead to the National Mall becoming "cluttered". Ultimately, the World War I Memorial was approved for a nearby site, with construction set to begin in 2018.
A Freemason and longtime Shriner, Buckles was a member of the Osiris Shriners of Wheeling, West Virginia, and he became "the oldest Shriner in Shrinedom". Other interests of his included genealogy; he had been a member of the West Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution since 1935, and was active for many years in the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He was a Life Member of the National Rifle Association.
On February 1, 2010, Buckles' 109th birthday his official biographer, David DeJonge, announced a forthcoming documentary about him, entitled "Pershing's Last Patriot", described as a cumulative work of interviews and vignettes. DeJonge estimated a 2011 release for the documentary, and actor Richard Thomas is expected to narrate the film.
In late 2010, Buckles was still giving media interviews and became a supercentenarian upon his 110th birthday, on February 1, 2011.
On February 27, 2011, Buckles died of natural causes at his home at the age of 110 years and 26 days. He was the second-oldest living man in the United States at the time of his death (Walter Breuning died 46 days later).
Honors and awards
For his service during World War I, Buckles received, from the United States government, the World War I Victory Medal and four Overseas Service Bars. He also qualified for the Army of Occupation of Germany Medal due to his postwar service in Europe during the year 1919, and received that medal after it was created in 1941. Buckles did not qualify for the Prisoner of War Medal, because he was a civilian at the time of his imprisonment by the Japanese.
As a resident of Jefferson County, West Virginia, he was involved for many years with the Jefferson County Historical Society (including as President from 1960 to 1964). In 1981, the honor of Emeritus Officer was conferred upon him by that organization.
In 1999, French president Jacques Chirac awarded him France's Legion of Honour, for his service during World War I.
In 2007, the United States Library of Congress included Buckles in its Veterans History Project (VHP). He conducted three oral history interviews, given when he was 100, 103, and 107 years old. Information about Buckles' experiences in both world wars is available from the VHP, including a 148-minute video interview.
In 2008, a section of West Virginia Route 9, which passes by his Gap View Farm home, was named in his honor by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin. The following month, Buckles received the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Gold Medal of Merit at the Liberty Memorial. Also in 2008, he sat for a portrait to be displayed at the National World War I Museum. Buckles received the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry's Knight Commander of the Court of Honour (KCCH) in September 2008.