He didn’t seek the spotlight, but when Frank Buckles outlived every other American who’d served in World War I, he became what his biographer called “the humble patriot” and final torchbearer for the memory of that fading conflict. Buckles enlisted in World War I at 16 after lying about his age. He died on his farm in Charles Town, nearly a month after his 110th birthday. He had devoted the last years of his life to campaigning for greater recognition for his former comrades, prodding politicians to support a national memorial in Washington and working with friend and family spokesman David DeJonge on a biography. When asked in February 2008 how it felt to be the last survivor, Buckles said simply, “I realized that somebody had to be, and it was me.”
Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, Buckles visited a string of military recruiters after the United States in April 1917 entered what was called “the war to end all wars.” He was repeatedly rejected before convincing an Army captain he was 18. More than 4.7 million people joined the U.S. military from 1917-18. By 2007, only three survived. Buckles went to Washington that year to serve as grand marshal of the national Memorial Day parade. Unlike Buckles, the other two survivors were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended, and they did not make it overseas. When they died in late 2007 and 2008, Buckles became the last so-called doughboy – and a soft-spoken celebrity.
In spring 2007, Buckles told The Associated Press of the trouble he went through to get into the military.
“I went to the state fair up in Wichita, Kansas, and while there, went to the recruiting station for the Marine Corps,” he said. “The nice Marine sergeant said I was too young when I gave my age as 18, said I had to be 21.” Buckles returned a week later.
“I went back to the recruiting sergeant, and this time I was 21,” he said with a grin. “I passed the inspection … but he told me I just wasn’t heavy enough.” Then he tried the Navy, whose recruiter told Buckles he was flat-footed.
Buckles wouldn’t quit. In Oklahoma City, an Army captain demanded a birth certificate. “I told him birth certificates were not made in Missouri when I was born, that the record was in a family Bible. I said, ‘You don’t want me to bring the family Bible down, do you?'” Buckles said with a laugh. “He said, ‘OK, we’ll take you.'”
Buckles served in England and France, working mainly as a driver and a warehouse clerk. An eager student of culture and language, he used his off-duty hours to learn German, visit cathedrals, museums and tombs, and bicycle in the French countryside.
After Armistice Day, Buckles helped return prisoners of war to Germany. He returned to the United States in January 1920.
After the war, he returned to Oklahoma, then moved to Canada, where he worked a series of jobs before heading for New York City. There, he landed jobs in banking and advertising. But it was the shipping industry that suited him best, and he worked around the world for the White Star Line Steamship Co. and W.R. Grace & Co.
In 1941, while on business in the Philippines, Buckles was captured by the Japanese. He spent more than three years in prison camps.
“I was never actually looking for adventure,” he once said. “It just came to me.”