Saturday, March 5, 2011

R.I.P. Frank Buckles, 1901 – 2011.

Frank Buckles is dead.

The name might not mean anything to you, but Buckles is someone whom I have been following for the past few years as the last known living American veteran of World War I. Some two million Americans fought overseas in World War I (while another 2.7 Americans served in the Allied Forces during the war); Frank was the last – the final living witness of the epic event in which a young, idealist America made its way onto the global stage where it would play out the rest of its subsequent history.

But with all of this grandiose end-of-an-era junk, it’s easy to forget that Frank Buckles was a man – and one with a unique combination of strength, determination, and cleverness that helped him overcome the fact that he almost didn’t even get to serve in World War I at all.

Born on February 1, 1901, outside of Bethany, Missouri, a 16-year-old Buckles was inspired by a recruitment poster to join the Marines, who rejected him for being too young and underweight. Buckles then tried to join the navy, who rejected him for being flatfoot. Finally, in the summer of 1917, Buckles lied about his age and was enlisted into the army; well over eight decades later, Buckles told Defense Secretary Robert Gates that it was the only lie he ever told.

He sailed to Europe in the Carpathia, the boat that had rescued the Titanic survivors five years before. Buckles eventually volunteered to be an ambulance driver, which he had been told was the fastest way to get to the action. Although Buckles never got more than around 30 miles way from the frontlines, he helped to feed hungry French children and was awestruck by the relentless determination of the French soldiers in vivid memories that he would carry with him far into his old age.

He also experienced things that were unique to his time – specifically, witnessing British veterans from the Crimean War (which was fought in the 1850s) before being stationed in France, and talking with General John J. Pershing at a party after he got back home. (One imagines that if he’s not the last living person to have met Pershing, he must be in the last five or so…)

After the war, he worked for White Star – the shipping company that owned both the Titanic and the Carpathia – and spent much of his career traveling around on business. He was on one such business trip to the Philippines in December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and took over the area. Buckles was imprisoned for over three years by the Japanese, eating his meals out of a tin cup he kept into his old age, and dropping some 50 pounds before being liberated by an American airborne unit in 1945. In the following decade, Buckles retired from the business world, and ran a cattle farm, where he would work until his early 100’s.

By that time, Buckles was becoming known as the country’s foremost advocate for World War I, serving as the honorary chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation, which seeks to refurbish the long-forgotten District of Columbia War Memorial, built in the 1930s, and establish it as the National World War I Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., alongside ones for Vietnam and the Korean War, each of which suffered less American casualties than World War I.

Although arguably the most epic event in modern world history, Buckles’ fight has been a tough one, as World War I has been overshadowed by World War II to the point that it has become little more than a hazy place-keeper between the Civil War and World War II in popular memory. Most of this has to do with timing. Because World War I was fought over two decades before World War II, there were always less veterans around to keep it at the forefront of people’s minds, especially once you consider that the World War II generation’s children were the baby boomers, the largest generation that our country had yet seen.

Technical limitations also play a large part. Unlike World War II, where we have video footage and photographs of the storming of Normandy and Iwo Jima, there is comparatively very little footage of World War I, and of that footage, only a small amount is of actual battle. Finally, our nation’s level of involvement (or lack thereof) played a major part. World War I was primarily a European war, which the Americans jumped into relatively towards the end. Compared to America’s central place in World War II, its role in World War I was tangential at best. And even when President Wilson famously declared it “the war to end all wars,” the people were primarily interested in retreating back to their native soil for a more isolationist approach to world affairs.

But the die had been cast. Like it or not, World War I was the Pandora’s Box that established America on the global stage, setting the course of its history ever since. World War II may have been the more decisive conflict in terms of America’s role and the modern world it directly shaped, but it is like the Godfather II or The Empire Strikes Back – a sequel that arguably betters the original, but will first and foremost remain just that, a sequel. Its name looks us right in the face, but our “Greatest Generation” culture has caused us to single it out as a singular event, whereas it is more accurate to think of World War II as World War I, Part II. All of the tensions left unresolved by World War I (primarily the treatment of the Germans) set the stage for the better-remembered war, but for me, World War I stands above it because it is just that: the First World War. All of the trials and tribulations of our modern world – from war and peace to the United Nations to the global economy to our definitions of freedom and our self-appointed role as the world police – comes directly out of our less-than-two-year involvement in a war that was largely a stalemate between the two sides.

So where does this leave Frank Buckles? At 110, he was the last soldier of the battlefield, the final American participant in its first global epic. In 2009, Buckles made one of his final public gestures when he wrote a special Memorial Day letter to the American Veterans Center and the National Memorial Day Parade. In it, he reflected upon his service during the Great War:

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.

But that’s what makes America special – as much as we want to avoid war, we’re ready to sacrifice everything if that’s what it takes to make sure the bad guys don’t win. America’s entry into the war was decisive. Just 19 months after the first Yanks arrived, the guns fell silent.

There is a certain kind of power that goes along with witnessing. A similar idea can be found in Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic, when he recounts an exchange from 1993 in which Bob Dylan speculates upon the difference between himself and slightly younger artists like Bruce Springsteen. “They weren’t there to see the end of the traditional people,” Dylan said. “But I was.”

“What was he saying?” Marcus asks, before reflecting:

He might have been saying that as in 1963 he watched [Dock] Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Clarence Ashley, Buell Kazee, Sara and Maybelle Carter – “the traditional people,” standing on the Newport stage, for Dylan’s cryptically perfect phrase, both as themselves as a particularly American strain of fairy folk – he had learned something about persistence and renewal. Or he might have been saying something simpler, and harder: I saw a vanishing. He was present to witness an extinction, to see the last members of a species disappear. Thus it was left to him to say what went out of the world when the traditional people left the stage.

Marcus goes onto argue that through performance, one can play the role of someone signing a death certificate: “You were to certify that a certain race of people had vanished from the earth, which was also a way of testifying that they once had been large upon it – and as a result of your witnessing, what traces these people might have left behind were lodged in you.” He continues to the next step: “It’s a possibility that instantly raises its own question. What will go out of the world with you?”

It’s a powerful question, and one that speaks to witnessing and surviving, as well as, I believe, responsibility. Marcus was writing about southern folk musicians who came of age in the 1920s, as they were rediscovered by Dylan’s generation in the 1960s: “cut off by the cataclysms of the Great Depression and Second World War, and by a national narrative that had never included their kind, they appeared now like visitors from another world, like passengers on a ship that had drifted into the sea of the unwritten.”

As can be heard in the most striking song of this era, Geechie Wiley’s utterly bizarre “Last Kind Word Blues” from 1930, these people lived in a time where the First World War was behind them like a desert in the rear-view mirror. In the song, the singer uses otherworldly verses to conjure a land in which death looms everywhere and isolation is a way of life; when she sings of her lover’s last kind words – which are that if he dies in “the German War,” be sure to send his body back to his mother-in-law – it resonates deeply not just because it depicts a woman who is isolated from her lover by war and death, but because its singer is herself isolated in the strange time between the world wars.

But if the generation that came of age between the wars seemed out of place and archaic, the existence of a person who actually fought in the war – a real man, an actual soldier, alive and lucid in America – felt nearly inconceivable. Yet until 12:30 AM on Monday, February 28, such a person existed, the ultimate witness to not just his life and times, but America’s; he could remember when the Titanic sunk and how he sailed to Europe a few years later on the ship that rescued its survivors, he could remember the gruesome carnage of the French and British in World War I and the near-starvation faced while imprisoned by the Japanese in World War II; he was retired by the time Elvis made his first record in 1954, a senior citizen by the time Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a septuagenarian by the time Nixon resigned from office, a centenarian by the time of the September 11th attacks, and a supercentarian by the time of his death, after which the country’s first African American president ordered all federal flags to be flown at half-mast.

With Frank Buckles goes an entire era, way of life, and history. World War I is now completely cut off from us as Buckles was the final veteran in this hemisphere to serve in the war. The only other people alive who served in any capacity are Claude Choules, who served in Britain’s Royal Navy, and Florence Green, who was a member of Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force; Buckles was the final living World War I soldier in the world.

In the middle of an interview with the Library of Congress from 2001, Buckles paused a moment to reflect upon his mystic chords of memory:

Oh, and when I think about these things, remember, I've never told anybody about my experiences except my daughter Susannah and wife Audrey. And I never talked to people about it, because people didn't know I had been in the Army. But the pictures come back to me, they're pleasant things. The unpleasant things I don't remember those, I forget those purposely.

He was a living witness, the final of his kind, a good man who lived long enough to see the world change and have a small hand in doing so. One is tempted to turn to the highbrow quotes of military leaders and great men, but I most think of the character of Dilsey, the African American servant from The Sound and the Fury, a book written by William Faulkner, who himself was only about four years older than Buckles: “I’ve seen the first and the last…I’ve seen the beginning, and now I see the ending.”

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To learn more about Frank Buckles and what you can do to help the WWI Memorial foundation, please visit:

To see the full transcript of the 2001 Library of Congress interview from which many of Buckles’ quotes were taken, visit:

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