Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Last American WWI Veteran

My friend Ted sent me a link to a CNN story about Frank Buckles, who at 107 years old is the last surviving American veteran of World War I. The story was about a news conference Buckles plans today because he is "hoping to turn a run-down local (WWI) memorial on the National Mall into something in keeping with other, permanent monuments to Americans who've sacrificed in other wars."

It reminded me of driving thorough Brittany and Normandy with my mother and members of my French family in 1972. We took the back roads; I don't think there were anything but back roads then. In every little village we entered, it seemed, there was a town square with a monument to the village's World War I dead. And on each monument the names went on and on, covering all sides of the stone marker with long lists. I read years ago that 1 in 12 Frenchmen were killed in the Great War.

Mr. Buckles has had quite a life!
Being an ambulance driver, Frank didn't see combat but he saw plenty of casualties. And after the armistice, he delivered German POWs back to the Fatherland, a foreshadowing of his own fate 20 years later.

After two years in the Army, Frank went out to see the world and worked for the White Star Line of Titanic fame. For the next 20-years, he lived the life of a merchant seaman.

By 1941, the shipping business had taken Frank to the Philippines. On December 8th, he and millions of Filipinos experienced their own horrific version of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese invaded the islands. Ironically, although Frank served in only one world war, he suffered in two.

For the next three and a half years, Frank was a prisoner of war. It was a harsh, brutal experience. Frank ended up at Los Baños, a former university campus that had been converted into an internment camp for more than 2,000 civilians. He kept himself and his fellow prisoners mentally sharp by focusing on the physical: every day, he led the group in rigorous calisthenics. Finally, in 1945, the Los Baños prisoners were rescued in a daring raid by paratroopers from the 11th Airborne Division. When Frank emerged from Los Baños, he was 100 pounds lighter than when he entered.

More here.

The Library of Congress has video and audio interviews of Buckles.

There's a lot of resistance these days to changing the National Mall from a vast open space into a series of museums and war memorials. But I hope we can find some way, somewhere, to create an appropriate national monument to the Doughboys.

One more thing. Mr. Buckles -- thanks.

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