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Lisa Daniel American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 7, 2008 – Frank Woodruff Buckles lived an unassuming life for 105 years. That was until word got out that he was among the last of a generation that his countrymen only recently seemed to embrace.
In 2006, Buckles’ quiet life on his 330-acre cattle farm outside of Charles Town, W.Va., changed when renowned portrait artist David DeJonge contacted him about being part of a photography exhibit of nine of the known remaining U.S. veterans of World War I.
Pleased to represent those few remaining patriots, Buckles agreed. What followed was close work with DeJonge and more than a year of intense media attention. By the time the exhibit was unveiled at a Pentagon ceremony yesterday -- following meetings with President Bush at the White House and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- Buckles was accustomed to daily media interviews.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Buckles told a crowd of reporters and photographers gathered around him after the Pentagon ceremony. As he had told the audience in the packed auditorium minutes earlier, “I feel honored to be a representative of World War I. As the years went on, I found I was among the last of those who served.”
Buckles was a 16-year-old farm boy from Missouri when he fulfilled a dream of becoming a soldier. It was the spring of 1917, and he began seeing the patriotic posters hanging in his local post office encouraging boys to fight “over there.”
“I was interested in the Army when I was a boy,” Buckles told the reporters in the interview 91 years later. “When I was 12 or 13, I slept on the floor” to prepare for a soldier’s life, he said.
“I knew what was going on in the world,” said Buckles, who still reads daily from his home library full of military and current events titles.
The young Buckles visited a Marine Corps recruiting office at the Kansas State Fair in Wichita in 1917. “I said that I was 18, but the understanding sergeant said that I was too young. I had to be 21,” he wrote in a brief biography offered to reporters.
Determined to serve, Buckles returned to the Marine recruiter and was rejected a second time. He also was rejected by the Navy, he believes, because they were suspicious about his age. He then traveled to Oklahoma City, where he was again rejected by the Navy and Marines. Finally, an Army recruiter took his word that he was 18 -- Buckles told them his small town didn’t keep records of birth certificates and none existed -- and he enlisted on Aug. 14, 1917.
Buckles followed a sergeant’s advice that serving with an ambulance company was the quickest route to France, where the most fighting was. He was sent to Fort Riley, Kan., for training in trench casualty retrieval and ambulance operations. He deployed in December 1917 from Hoboken, N.J., across the Atlantic with 102 men who made up the 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment. They were aboard the HMS Carpathia, the vessel famous for rescuing passengers and crew of the Titanic five years earlier.
Buckles spent several weeks as a driver at a hospital near Winchester, England. He was anxious to get to France, even requesting a meeting with his commanding officer, a colonel, to press the issue. “He explained to me that he, too, wanted to go to France, but had to stay where he was ordered,” he said.
Finally, Buckles was assigned to escort an officer to France. There, he had various assignments at several locations. After Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, he was assigned to a prisoner-of-war escort company to return prisoners back to Germany.
In January 1920, Buckles returned to the United States, without injury, on the USS Pocahontas. He was paid $144, including a $60 bonus. He went to business school and built a career in the commercial shipping industry.
In December 1941, Buckles was a corporate executive with American President Lines in Manila when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. He was held at a Japanese prison camp for three and a half years before being rescued by 11th Airborne Division on Feb. 23, 1945. During his internment, he was fed from a single tin cup, which he still has today and is displayed as a backdrop in DeJonge’s portrait of him.
Following his release, Buckles married Audrey Mayo, and they settled in San Francisco until 1954, when the couple bought the West Virginia farm, near a Buckles ancestral home. Buckles still lives there today with his daughter and son-in-law. He was widowed in 1999.
In reflecting on his military service, Buckles, who left the Army as a corporal in 1920, said his favorite memories are of driving a motorcycle with a sidecar in England and meeting Gen. John J. Pershing, World War I commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, upon his return to the United States. Buckles said he was pleased to discover that he and Pershing grew up on farms 40 miles apart in Missouri.
Buckles rejected a media request to offer advice to today’s soldiers. “I’m not qualified to tell them anything. They know what to do,” he said.
Buckles seemed dismayed at the press attention to his age. Longevity runs in his family and several relatives lived past 100, he said. “I don’t feel I’m any older than you,” he told the press corps of people mostly less than half his age.
DeJonge told reporters that Buckles’ memory is “like a computer.” Asked to describe Buckles, DeJonge said, “He has an incredibly optimistic outlook on life.”