View Full Version : Boy soldier now war's last man

03-02-08, 07:47 AM
Article published Mar 2, 2008

Boy soldier now war's last man

Frank Buckles was born in Missouri in 1901. But he told folks he was older.

He had a wireless radio, and he'd fiddle with it, listening to news of the war -- the Great War, before they were numbered -- and imagining his own heroics.

At 16 he enlisted. He went first to the Marines, saying he was 18. The sergeant said to come back at 21.

He returned a week later. He went to the same station, and he saw the same sergeant, who that time said he didn't weigh enough.

The Navy said he was flat-footed.
The Army said, "Sign here." Maybe they believed Buckles, who'd insisted his only proof of birth was written in a Bible back home. Or maybe they just needed him. Nearly 117,000 Americans would die in the course of the war.

Buckles landed in the ambulance corps. He rode to Europe on the RMS Carpathia, the ship that picked up the survivors of the Titanic.

He worked as a military chauffeur. He rode a motorcycle with a sidecar.

He guarded German prisoners.

"They'd go out to work, and there'd only be one guard with them, and when the day was over, they'd return," he said in a session with the Veterans History Project, which is part of the Library of Congress. "And this particular time, this American soldier -- it must have been his payday or something, because while they were working, he sat down.
"To have a cafe in France all you need is a chair and a table and a bottle of wine," he said. "And when the time came to leave, he was pretty well under the influence of the wine. So the picture I got was of a German smoking his pipe, a wheelbarrow, and the soldier in it. Behind him is another German with the soldier's rifle, taking him back to the camp."

Buckles quit the Army on Nov. 12, 1919. He left with $143.90.

He found work in the shipping business. It took him to the Philippines, where on Dec. 8, 1941 -- the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor -- the Japanese captured him.

Buckles spent three years in a prison camp. He lost 100 pounds.

He was liberated in 1945. He bought a farm in West Virginia. He drove that tractor until he was 104.
He is 107 now. He sits in his wicker chair, and he smiles at his visitors, who come to West Virginia more often now that Harris Landis has passed.

More than 4 million Americans served in World War I. Frank Buckles is the only one left -- our last chance to get that history firsthand.

So the writers line up. They ask him to remember, to show the photo of the soldier in the wheelbarrow, and to once more conjure the story that goes with it.

Buckles tells them what he can.

"The pictures that come back to me, they're pleasant things," he said to the Veterans History Project. "The unpleasant things ... I don't remember those. I forget those purposely."
Let's not forget him. Let's stand and thank him while we still can. Because too soon we will be left with just pictures in a drawer, or in books, with no thread to connect them.

ROBB FREDERICK can be reached at 870-1733 or at robb.frederick@timesnews.com.