Frank Woodruff Buckles doesn’t get out as much as he used to, and he doesn’t have particularly big plans for his birthday tomorrow.
But then, he is turning 110.
You read that right: 110.
For those who may not know, here is perhaps an even more stunning fact about Buckles: He’s the last known American veteran from World War I, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and one of only three survivors worldwide recognized for direct service during the war. The others, as British subjects, served in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
“He’s an unbelievable person,” said David DeJonge, a Michigan photographer and president of the World War I Memorial Foundation who is making a documentary of Buckles’ life and has become his spokesman.
Buckles lives on his West Virginia farm, near Charles Town, with his daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, and round-the-clock caregivers. As you might expect, he is at almost 110 not in a condition to do cartwheels or make long speeches, but DeJonge reports that Buckles “continues to have great daily discussions with his daughter and caregivers.” He occasionally wrestles with illness but is “a fighter and continues to pull through,” DeJonge said.
“His daughter reports he’s in great spirits and looking forward to his 115th,” DeJonge said with a laugh.
I visited Buckles last year at his farm. We chatted about one of his favorite people, Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. How many people can you talk to who actually knew Pershing when he was leader of the U.S. forces in Europe in World War I?
When they met, Buckles was still a kid; he’d grown up on a farm in Missouri and fibbed about his age so he could enlist in the Army at 16 and head off to war. Pershing noted Buckles’ Missouri dialect and asked where he was born. Buckles told him. Pershing’s reply: “Thirty-three miles, as the crow flies, from where I was born.”
“I had great respect for Pershing,” Buckles said. “He was real tough. He didn’t have a smile on his face, but that was all right with me.”
Seeking the quickest route to the western front, Buckles joined the ambulance service and shipped to England in late 1917. He arrived in France a few months before the shooting stopped in November 1918. After the war, he escorted prisoners of war back to Germany.
World War II was a more painful experience, though he was no longer in the military. He was working as a civilian in the steamship business in the Philippines when he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner at Los Baños for more than three years.
Through fate and good health, Buckles has become the modern face of The Great War, and he has lent his voice to the call to restore and rededicate the World War I Memorial in Washington.
DeJonge met Buckles four years ago as he began work on a documentary about the last U.S. survivors of the war. Within a matter of months, Buckles was the last one, and DeJonge began spending considerable time with him, conducting interviews on camera “to get every ounce of memory out of him,” DeJonge said.
DeJonge has several hundred hours of interviews and other footage he hopes to transform into a documentary, “Pershing’s Last Patriot.” Actor Richard Thomas, of “The Waltons” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has agreed to provide the narration, said DeJonge, who is trying to piece together the funding for the documentary, as well as a proposed larger-than-life bronze statue that has been designed by Pennsylvania sculptor Gregory Marra. The planned statue depicts Buckles with Pershing’s riderless horse, and, depending on available financing, could be placed near Buckles’ home in West Virginia.
DeJonge has had the privilege of accompanying Buckles to such places as Pershing’s home in Missouri, the Pentagon and the White House for a visit with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office.
“Being corrected on history when we were in the West Wing,” DeJonge said with a laugh.
“I saw that very famous painting of George Washington crossing the river, and I said, ‘Mr. Buckles, look, there’s George Washington crossing the Potomac.’ He said, ‘I believe that’s the Delaware.'”