America said farewell to its last Doughboy when former Army Corporal Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away February 27, 2011, in his Charles Town, West Virginia, home at the age of 110.
Buckles was the last surviving American World War I veteran, a group that once stood nearly 5 million strong. A true patriot until his death, Buckles spent his most recent years pushing Congress to create a national WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“When he became the last living American veteran of World War I, he recognized his role as representative of all those who served, fought, and died in the Great War and felt that it was his duty to do so, just as strongly as he felt the call to enlist and help fight that war, with all the other American Doughboys,” his daughter Susannah Flanagan said in a statement after his death.
Buckles would travel back in time with anyone who would listen to the story from long ago about a 15-year-old boy eager to join the military.
“I wanted to be where the action was,” Buckles recalled during an interview with OnHPatrol at his home in 2009. “At 15, you aren’t afraid of anything.”
Buckles was turned down twice by the Marine Corps in Wichita, Kansas—once for being too young and then again for not being heavy enough. He also tried to enlist in the Navy, but was told he was flat-footed.
Young Buckles pushed on. After a train ride to Oklahoma City, he finally got a break with the Army. A captain asked for his birth certificate. Buckles explained that birth records were not made in Missouri at the time he was born and that the record was in his family Bible. Buckles, then 16, was sworn into the Army on August 14, 1917, at Ft. Logan, Colorado.
During World War I, the Army was in great need of ambulance drivers, especially in France. Buckles was quick to volunteer for the duty, as that was exactly where he wanted to be stationed.
“France!” he exclaimed. “That’s where the action was!”
Shortly thereafter, Buckles was accepted and sent to Ft. Riley, Kansas, for training in trench casualty retrieval and ambulance operations. In December 1917, Buckles traveled overseas with his 102-person unit, the First Ft. Riley Casual Detachment, aboard the Royal Mail Ship Carpathia—the same ship that rescued victims of the Titanic in April 1912.
Buckles grew antsy while waiting for his assignment in Winchester, England, however, and decided to take his fate into his own hands. He recalled one night where he watched as another unit passed through on its way to France. While no one was watching, Buckles jumped in at the end of the line and followed the unit to France.
“My problem was getting to France,” he said, chuckling, with a twinkle in his eye. “I solved that problem on my own.”
Buckles held various assignments while in France, which led to a job in a prisoner-of-war escort company that took prisoners back to Germany.
After two years overseas, he arrived back in the United States aboard USS Pocahontas in January 1920. The young war veteran wasn’t too excited about being home. He had to find work, and at the time it was hard for war veterans to get a job. After four months of business school in Oklahoma City, Buckles moved to Toronto, Canada, where he held a series of jobs, including one with the Canadian branch of the White Star Line—the same shipping line that operated Titanic.
His civilian work would later take him back overseas during World War II, where he spent more than three years as a prisoner of war in Manila.
Through his travels and war experiences, there is one person Buckles will never fail to mention: Army General John Pershing, the man who led the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The two met face-to-face at a reception for Pershing in post-war Oklahoma.
Pershing took notice of Buckles and the two discovered they had more in common than either expected. In fact, they grew up within 30 miles of each other in Missouri.
In September 1946, Buckles married Audrey Mayo, and in January 1954 the two moved to Gap View Farm, in Charles Town, West Virginia. He continued to work on his farm up until his final years—even driving his tractor until the age of 106.
Buckles was laid to rest on March 15, 2011, in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. His body laid in honor at Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater Chapel. Buckles’ daughter, Susannah Flanagan, wanted her father to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, but Congress failed to approve that plan as politicians disagreed over how best to honor Buckles and the other nearly 5 million veterans who served in World War I.
“In recent years, various Members of Congress have proposed to honor all the military veterans of World War I by honoring the last of those veterans to die. As fate would have it, that turned out to be my father,” Flanagan said in a statement. “While Papa was still living, it was suggested that he lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol as a final, formal tribute to all the veterans of World War I.
“Papa consented to this because he understood that, as the last living World War I veteran, he was expected to represent all of the World War I veterans,” she added. “He looked upon this as his final duty, which he took very seriously.”
The news of the death of America’s last Doughboy was heard around the world, but those close to him, especially in his home state of West Virginia, were the ones touched most by his passing.
“It has been my privilege to call Frank Buckles a friend and fellow West Virginian,” Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) said. “Mr. Buckles fought for our nation’s freedom, and continued to fight to ensure that he and the more than 4.3 million Americans who served in the first Great War are honored with a fitting tribute through a national memorial. That is a fight that I will continue.”
“We thank Frank Buckles and all of our military men and women for their service, and we are sincerely grateful,” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). “My thoughts and prayers—along with those of all West Virginians—go out to the entire Buckles family.”
In his final years, Buckles was hesitant to give advice to current service members.
“Soldiers today have a lot of advantages,” he explained in 2009. “I don’t think they need my advice.”
As a decorated war veteran, a former prisoner of war, a husband, father, banker, and former Army corporal, Frank Buckles has served several important roles in life.
More importantly, he lived to share his experiences and lessons.
When On★Patrol asked Buckles about his longevity, he replied, “Being able to handle a situation no matter how adverse it might be.”
And that, without knowing it, is the advice he passed on and the legacy that survives from the can-do spirit of the Doughboys.
Ashley Bernardi is a Virginia-based freelance writer.