I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live to be a hundred. What a milestone that would be! However, my imagination kept returning to other questions. What would it be like to live where all of my generation had passed from this life? What would it be like to be the only one alive who had experienced certain events in history? Would I be lonely?
One man in history caught my attention when he died at the age of 110 years and 26 days old. That man was Frank Woodruff Buckles. He was born on February 1, 1901, the son of James C. Buckles and Theresa J. Buckles. The family lived in Bethany, Missouri where they earned their living by farming. Frank was one of five children. There must be something in the gene pool of his family. Buckles recalled talking with his grandmother who had been born in 1817, so she too must have lived a life of longevity. His father lived to be 97.
As a child he was called Wood. When he was only two years old, he and his brother Ashman came down with the dreaded scarlet fever. Young Frank survived, but his older brother four-year-old Ashman did not. He began his education in Nevada, Missouri and continued with it after the family moved to Oakwood, Oklahoma. Later, Frank obtained work in a bank.
As a young man, he dabbled around with amateur wireless radios and enjoyed keeping up with the news. It has been said that he was an avid newspaper reader.
Perhaps it was his heritage of having ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War that caused Buckles to want to enlist when The Great War broke out. He first attempted to join the Marine Corps but was turned down due to his size. He was simply too small. He wasn’t deterred. Buckles tried to enlist in the Navy. However, according to records, he was denied enlistment due to flat feet. He turned to the Army which accepted his enlistment on August 14, 1917, despite the fact that he didn’t really look more than 16 years old. After basic training in Kansas at Fort Riley, he boarded the RMS Carpathia which was being used as a troop ship. You may recall the Carpathia from another historic event. It was the RMS Carpathia that rescued the survivors of the sinking of the Titanic.
Frank took the advice of a sergeant who suggested that he volunteer to work on the front lines as an ambulance driver. He drove ambulances for the Army’s 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment in both England and in France.
Buckles once said, “There was never a shortage of blown-up bodies that needed to be rushed to the nearest medical care. The British and French troops were in bad shape – even guys about my age looked old and tired. After three years of living and dying inside a dirt trench, you know the Brits and French were happy to see us “doughboys.” Every last one of us Yanks believed we’d wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home before harvest. In other words, we were the typical, cocky Americans no one wants around, until they need help winning a war.”
War has a way of taking its toll on a man. Not only did he see death and mangled bodies, Buckles saw what war does to the innocent. He was particularly disturbed by the hungry children. Eight decades later, the aging Buckles could still recall helping feed them.
Following the Armistice in 1918, Buckles spent time escorting prisoners of war back to Germany. It was on this mission that he was given a belt buckle by a German prison. The inscription of the buckle was “Gott mit uns” which translates “God with us.” This gift meant so much to Buckles that he kept it for the rest of his life.
On September 22, 1919, Buckles was promoted to the rank of corporal. Two months later, he received an honorable discharge from service and boarded the SS Pocohantas to head home.
After returning home, Buckles served in the New York National Guard while living in New York City and working in finance. He later embarked on a career as chief purser on ships owned by the White Star, American President, and W.R. Grace companies, both cargo and passenger, that traveled to South American, Europe, and Asia. It was during this time that he first heard that Germany was readying itself for war. While ashore in Germany, he saw first-hand antisemitic actions against Jews. Buckles felt that while Hitler, whom he actually saw once in a German hotel, appeared to building a great nation, was in fact, steering it in a course of destruction. He cautioned some he knew in Germany about his fears for them.
His career of world travel took him to Manila in The Philippines. When the Pacific War broke out and The Phillippines were invaded, the Great War veteran remained in Manila to help resupply U.S. troops. In 1942, Buckles was captured by the Japanese and was held three years and two months in the Santo Tomas and Los Banos prison camps as a “civilian internee”.
While in prison, Buckles had to survive on a very small ration of mush. The tin cup in which he received this portion each day, he kept with him for the remainder of his life. He shriveled up to less than 100 pounds. Like many of his fellow captives, Buckles developed beriberi from malnurishment. Still, he would not give up. He assumed a leadership role and encouraged other captives to follow him in a routine of calisthenics. The exercise was their hope amid captors who exhibited little mercy. He was, however, allowed to work a small garden, but the vegetables he grew he gave mostly to the hungry children who were also being held as prisoners.
Buckles was freed by Allied forces in February of 1945. His years of travel and time spent in service allowed him to develop many foreign language skills. Before World War II, he had mastered the German, Spanish, Portuguese, and French languages. By the end of World War II, he added to his cabinet of languages, Japanese.
Following World War II, Buckles decided to settle down. He moved to San Francisco and in 1946 married Audrey Mayo. Eight years later, Buckles was drawn to the land of his ancestors in West Virginia. He and Audrey made their home on Gap View Farm, a 330 acre piece ofland..
Buckles and his wife were blessed with a child in 1955, a daughter. They named her Susannah. The family continued working the farm. Rural life suited him. He was active in the community and was even named President of the County Historical Society for a period of time. He was a Freemason and a longtime Shriner, a member of the Osiris Shriners of Wheeling, West Virginia where he held the distinction of “the oldest Shriner in Shrinedom”. He enjoyed genealogy, was a member of the West Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, was active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a life member of the National Rifle Association.
In 1999, Buckles lost his wife and partner in life after 53 years of marriage. Susannah moved back to the farm to take care of her already 98 year old father.
Frail from age, Buckles mind remained sharp. In 2007, he along with actor Gary Sinise led the Memorial Day parade. His story was told that evening on the NBC Nightly News.
In 2008, after the death of 108-year old Harry Richard Landis, Buckles became the last surviving American veteran of World War I. At age 107, he met with President George W. Bush and attended the opening of a Pentagon exhibit about the nine centenarian World War I veterans. In the summer, he visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Buckles, like myself, felt that our nation should memorialize the veterans and those who gave all with a monument. He became the honorary chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. He worked to get legislation passed to refurbish the Washington, D.C. War Memorial and to make it a national memorial. He continued for several years working for this goal. The refurbishment has been completed but we still do not have a national memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor the Americans who sacrificed with their lives during World War I. The issue is held up by controversy.
David DeJonge, Buckles biographer, announced in 2010 that a documentary was being made on the life of Buckles and was expected to be released in 2011. It is entitled “Pershings Last Patriot.’
On February 27, 2011, Buckles, died of natural causes at his home.