Corporal Frank Buckles during WWI
Frank Buckles, sole surviving American WWI veteran
At 11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the armistice to end World War I went into effect. Corporal Frank Buckles, as America's last surviving veteran of that war, serves as the honorary chairman of the WWI Memorial Foundation to honor those who served in the "War to End All Wars."
THROUGH David J. DeJonge, president and co-founder of the WWI Memorial Foundation, Britannica's Student News Net was able to interview Frank Buckles for Veterans Day 2008. Combined with Frank's 2001 interview that was included in the Library of Congress, LOC, Stories from the Veterans History Project, his story is a gift of history and life experiences that are as relevant today as they were 90 years ago.
Frank Buckles was born on February 1, 1901 in Harrison County, Missouri. He was sixteen when he first attempted to enlist in the Marines at the Kansas State Fair in 1917 but in those days, the minimum age was 21. Not to be deterred, Buckles tried to enlist two more times until he was finally successful when he signed up with the regular Army in Oklahoma City. He really wanted to go to France so he was told to try and get assigned to the Ambulance Corps that was training at Fort Riley, Kansas.
"I was interested in the war. I'd been reading newspapers since I was a child, and I was a wireless amateur, and the war was interesting to me," Frank said in his 2001 LOC interview. At 107, Frank still feels the same way. "Today it is very important that we know something about the rest of the world," Frank said to Student News Net this week through David DeJonge.
Frank was assigned to the First Ft. Riley Casual Detachment after basic training. Frank points out that 'casual' meant that the unit was unassigned. In December 1917, Frank deployed for Winchester, England aboard the Carpathia, the ship that came to the rescue of the Titanic passengers in 1912. Frank recalls that some officers and crewmembers on the Carpathia were part of the Titanic rescue effort.
"I cannot recall all of the details of it. I have done so much reading and reference to the Carpathia and through the report of the captain of the Carpathia, Sir Arthur Ralston- his information was exactly as it would have been written in the ship's log book. It covers the whole story in 28 pages. The crewmembers were still very emotional about what they saw. The people who came aboard from the Titanic were quiet and nobody was shouting and they were very sad over their relatives and those who had died," Frank said during the Student News Net interview.
Now closer to France in England but not quite there yet, Frank used all of his resources to get to France, including a failed plot to just join in a line of soldiers ready to leave for France!
He eventually reached France as a motorcar/ambulance driver in the Bordeaux and Gironde regions in 1918. The war was now winding down but unforeseen even by the best military planners was the Word of the Day ferocity of the 1918 influenza virus that exploded on the world resulting in a pandemic.
Frank said he did not have much contact or background knowledge of the flu that year but does recall one experience that could be related. "I drove an ambulance, taking patients to the hospital and I remember the Lt. When I told them that I was terribly sleepy and tired and he said why don't you just go in and here is an empty bed and why don't you just go sleep in there. I went in the hospital and prepared for bed and talked to the soldier who was in the bed next to me and the next morning when I awakened and was talking to him he was dead. That is when I realized that some of the deaths were unexpected," Frank said in the Student News Net interview.
When the war came to an end, Frank remained in France and was assigned to take German prisoners back to Germany. He recalls one humorous incident, told during his 2001 LOC interview, when the guard who was in charge of watching the German prisoners had a little too much wine at a French cafe. "All you need is a chair and a table and a bottle of wine," Frank said. Frank has a vivid picture of what followed. A German prisoner smoked the guard's pipe and placed him in a wheelbarrow. Another prisoner walked behind the wheelbarrow with the guard's gun and they returned him to camp!
Frank went on to have a successful career with a steamship line so his work outside of the military continued to take him all over the world. On December 8, 1941, Frank was in the Philippines expediting American cargo on the American Presidents Line. Frank was then held as a Japanese prisoner in the Philippines for over three years until the end of World War II. He vividly remembers the starvation during those years.
As many veterans, Frank did not speak of his war experiences to anyone outside of his immediate family. But in 1999, French President Jacques Chirac awarded all remaining World War I veterans the Legion of Honor and included Americans. A reporter from Life Magazine in Paris came to the United States and wrote a story on Frank so his story became public.
From his 2001 LOC interview, Frank imparts some wisdom for other veterans from his life experiences. "It's best for anyone who's been in the military service if he's had some disagreeable experiences... to talk about it and get it out of his system and then forget it," Frank said. Frank now lives on a farm in West Virginia with his family.
To read the complete transcript of Frank's 2001 interview with the Library of Congress, visit www.frankbuckles.org where there is a link to the Library of Congress.