THE GREAT WARRIOR: Last U.S. WWI veteran has seen, survived much

By Fred Brown

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va.- Frank Woodruff Buckles is stooped and bent from his 107 years, but he is not bowed. His spirit glows with the life he has lived.

First and foremost, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Buckles is America's last doughboy.

Of the more than 4 million who served in World War I, called the Great War, he has outlived everyone. His elder, veteran Harry R. Landis, died at 108 in February in Florida.

Buckles is from an era that has almost disappeared into the dust motes of American history.

Woodrow Wilson was president when a teenage Buckles volunteered almost 91 years ago to serve his nation. He has since seen 16 more men enter the White House.

He began making a living long before Social Security. He learned to drive when driver's licenses were not required.

Buckles is a walking historical encyclopedia, with experiences and memories spanning more than a century.

He lives today with his daughter, Susannah Flanagan, on a 330-acre West Virginia cattle farm that's been his home since 1954.

He was honored to serve his country, he says. As for living so long, he says his only thoughts are that it's been nice to see all the changes.

"Longevity has never bothered me at all," he says. "I have studied longevity for years."

Duty calls

The U.S. Marine Corps told 16-year-old Frank Buckles he was too young. The Navy said the Missouri farm boy had flat feet. The Army took him as he was.

"If your country needs you, you should be right there," he says. "That is the way I felt when I was young, and that's the way I feel today."

The United States entered World War I in April 1917. Buckles enlisted in the Army on Aug. 1, 1917. He was sent to Fort Riley, Kan., to train with the 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment.

At the time, an Army sergeant advised him to join the Ambulance Service if he wanted to see France. Consequently, in December 1917, Buckles shipped out to England with 102 soldiers from Fort Riley. They left Hoboken, N.J., on the RMS Carpathia, the vessel that had rescued survivors of the White Star Line's Titanic on April 15, 1912. While sailing, the young man got firsthand stories of the rescue from Carpathia crew members.

In England, at Camp Hospital No. 35, he drove a Ford ambulance and New Douglas and Excelsior sidecar motorcycles, escorting commanding officers of the area. He got to France by escorting an officer who had been left behind by his unit.

He was then sent to various locations, including the Gironde area, St. Andrew, Saintes Sophie, Cognac, Basens, Bordeaux and San Sulpice, where German prisoners were kept.

Although he was far from combat, he witnessed the ravages of war. Beyond that, however, he says little.

World War I concluded Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany. Afterward, Buckles was part of an escort company that returned prisoners of war to Germany.

After he came home to Oklahoma City, where his parents had moved just before he signed up for the Army, Buckles was able to meet Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, who had commanded American forces during the war.

Buckles went to the Skirvin Hotel in 1920 to see the general, who was on a tour of the nation, visiting various cities that produced the doughboys for "The War to End All Wars."

"I gave the general a snappy salute," Buckles says.

He was attending business school at the time. He had pulled out his uniform to wear that day, and Pershing asked the former corporal where he was from.

"I told him I was from Harrison County, Mo. The general said he knew exactly where that was, just 40 miles as the crow flies from where he was born in Laclede, Mo."

The coming conflict

After business school, Buckles went into banking, taking a job in 1921 with the J.P. Morgan firm in New York. Then, his ventures led him to steamships, sailing to exotic ports of the world with the White Star Line, Munson Line and the Grace Line among others.

Of his world travels with the steamship lines - he has a large White Star Line poster on his living room wall - he says it was fun, interesting, and as ship's purser, he had to know the histories and cultures and be able to speak the languages of the nations where the steamship docked.

Today, he continues to speak German, Spanish, which he has spoken since 1923, Portuguese and some French.

From 1936-1938, Buckles' travels took him to pre-war Nazi Germany, where he saw Jesse Owens win the 100-yard dash and three other events, garnering four gold medals against Adolf Hitler's supposedly superior athletes. At the Berlin games, he watched the Fuhrer's reactions in his special box seat as Owens destroyed the German competition.

Buckles spent a good deal of time in German antique shops. He came to know a woman in Hamburg who had "a quite large antique store" where he sipped tea and perused collectibles. She gave him a hint of the Nazi atrocities to come.

"One day, I came in and she was on the telephone. She was quite pale. She told me that I wouldn't believe what was going on. She was being watched. She said she would not be able to invite me for tea again.

"She was a nice Jewish lady," he says.

He left Hamburg Aug. 31, 1938.

Seafaring men, he says, "are different from other people. We have many friends."

Consequently, he says, even though official news of the building war machine in Germany was hard to get, he knew long before World War II began that something was brewing.

German visitors on his steamship would tell him of Hitler's campaign to bolster his political and military might.

"Some of our German passengers on the ship would be crying. The Brits were the same way," says Buckles. They were crying, he says, because they realized a new war was about to break out across Europe, with Hitler at the head of the goose-stepping parade.

Prisoner of war

In 1940, Buckles, then with American President Lines, was posted in Manila. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and then invaded the Philippines, Buckles and about 2,000 other civilians became non-military victims of the war.

He spent more than three years at Japanese POW camps, first at the city's University of Santo Tomas and then at Los Banos, a town on the island of Luzon some 40 miles southeast of Manila at the former University of the Philippines Agricultural School. It had been converted into an internment camp.

How he was able to keep himself from dying of hunger is an entire chapter in his life.

He volunteered to dig ditches for the garbage, he says. Some of it sustained him.

"I was an expert at such things," he says, looking out through a window onto the rolling land of his farm.

"If you are looking to the future, you had to keep in good shape to function at Santo Tomas," he says.

Right from the beginning of his imprisonment, Buckles says he volunteered to lead calisthenics. It, too, helped him survive. So did being tough. When he was a boy, he says, he'd slept on a wood floor "to toughen up for the Army."

During the last months before his liberation, Buckles says, many of the civilian POWs wasted away before his eyes.

"In the Philippines in those last months, it was perfect starvation. They had planned to starve us to death," he says.

He and the other survivors were rescued by the 11th Airborne Division of the U.S. Army on Feb. 23, 1945.

A man at peace

Time has been kind to Cpl. Buckles. He has a nice crop of white hair, his hearing is not that bad, he wears glasses only to read, has all of his teeth, and his memory is as crisp as the mornings on his cattle farm. He continues to read voraciously, and doesn't watch television. He doesn't even own one.

And, yes, he continues to exercise. He still does 50 sit-ups a day and lifts weights three times a week. He walks without the aid of a walker around his historic home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places; a portion of the dwelling was built in the 1700s. His excursions are aided only by handrails that have been installed waist-high along the walls of his home.

"I have exercised all my life," he says, despite the fact that in his youth - say, in his 50s and 60s - he smoked a pipe and cigars.

"And I miss them today," he says with a chuckle.

"Papa never smoked all day," says daughter Susannah Flanagan, who is 52 years old. "No," she says, "Papa was too much of a gentleman to smoke all day. He would enjoy a pipe or cigar after dinner."

Buckles is a widower. His wife, Audrey, whom he met in California in 1946, died in 1999. The couple moved in 1954 to the West Virginian panhandle, to Gap View Farm, where his ancestors - some of whom he says go back to the Mayflower - had put down roots on land Robert Buckles settled in 1732.

Audrey Buckles died the same year he was awarded the French Legion of Honor by French President Jacques Chirac.

Buckles says he feels ancient only "when I try to walk."

His aunt once told him to make himself ready to live a long life. He had to prepare, she said, for the long years ahead, and how age would chip away at the body.

His father's mother lived to be 96, and his father's sister was 104 when she died. He also has cousins who lived past 100 years.

A few years ago, he met regularly with a group of World War I and other veterans and was still farming. Now, he is the only one left from his era in the veterans group.

Although he no longer works, his daughter says he refuses to put "retired" on his income tax form.

"I don't know anyone my age," he says, his eyes glinting in the afternoon sun shining through a window in a room near his bedroom and kitchen.

He is the last of America's doughboys, a title he says he is honored to hold. This past March, President Bush welcomed him to the White House.

And even though he has been afforded the tribute of being buried in Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps our nation's most prestigious resting place, he says he wants to put that off for a while.

There are still changes to see for Frank Buckles.