Aging: The Last Doughboy

We don’t think much about WW I these days, but it was a brutal, bloody event that ended up taking an estimated 17 million lives.

By Dave Riley

When I was really young, I mean like four or five or so, every November 11 my Dad took me downtown not long after breakfast to see the Armistice Day parade. That’s what it was called back then — Armistice Day, to celebrate the end of hostilities on the western front of World War I.

His favorite vantage point was on Harlow Street, near the old post office, so that we could see the parade turn left onto Central. My recollection is that the Bangor police department led the way.   On regular duty they looked like a relaxed group but in the parade they marched smartly, arms swinging straight forward and back like an elite infantry unit.   I was in awe.

World War I was called by some the War to End All Wars, but as my Dad and I watched the Armistice Day parade on November 11, 1941, we were less than a month from Pearl Harbor. We don’t think much about WW I these days, but it was a brutal, bloody event that ended up taking an estimated 17 million lives. The conditions were miserable, especially in winter and many soldiers were gassed to death.

This is all a prologue to this week’s subject, Frank Woodruff Buckles who, like many other subjects in this blog, lived to be a centenarian. Simply living to one hundred isn’t nearly as amazing a feat as it once was. In the 20th century the average life span increased thirty whole years, which is greater than the increases in the last 5,000 years of human existence. So as we approach what I still call Armistice Day, let us celebrate Frank Woodruff Buckles not just for living long, which even a heel can do, but for living a full and admirable life.

Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last doughboy, was born into a Missouri farming family on February 1, 1901, and died at his Gap View Farm in West Virginia on February 27, 2011. His passing received considerable publicity in local and national newspapers and on network TV. Mr. Buckles was the last surviving American soldier who fought in World War 1.

“I always knew I’d be one of the last because I was one of the youngest when I joined,” Mr. Buckles told the New York Daily News in 2008, when he was 107. “But I never thought I’d be the last one.”

1239After the war began, Mr. Buckles tried to enlist in the Marine Corps and the Navy, but was turned down by both. The Marines said he was too young — he was sixteen — and the Navy complained that he was flat-footed, a fact which he disputed his entire life. In spite of his small size and youthful age, he managed to enlist in the Army and was soon sent to Europe.

He served as a driver in England and in various locations in France, driving military autos and ambulances. The war’s effects left a lasting impression on him. “The little French children were hungry,” Mr. Buckles recalled in a 2001 interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. “We’d feed the children. To me, that was a pretty sad sight.” He never got close to the action. But, as he told columnist George F. Will in 2008, “I saw the results.”

After the war he went to business school and worked for many years in the steamship industry, eventually being posted to Manila. In an ironic twist, the man who never faced a bullet as a soldier in World War 1 became a civilian prisoner of war in 1942. He spent the next three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp.

“He was only a corporal and he never got closer than 30 or so miles to the Western Front trenches, “ wrote Richard Goldstein in the New York Times, “but Mr. Buckles became something of a national treasure as the last living link to the two million men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France in ‘the war to end all wars.’

“Frail, stooped and hard of hearing but sharp of mind, Mr. Buckles was named grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington in 2007. He was a guest at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day 2007 for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He was honored by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon and met with President George W. Bush at the White House in March 2008.”

Early in life he met General John Pershing and in his later years he was presented with France’s Légion d’honneur by French President Jacques Chirac.

When he died in February of 2011, Mr. Buckles was 110. On a nippy Tuesday morning, as a line of mourners passed by, Mr. Buckles body lay in repose in the Memorial Amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery. Later in the day, he was buried there with full military honors.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.