The last known American veteran of World War I died Sunday at his home in West Virginia. Former U.S. Army Corporal Frank Buckles was 110 years old. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin had the chance to speak to Mr. Buckles several years ago and filed this remembrance.
"I did not lie [LAUGHTER]. Nobody calls me a liar! [LAUGHTER]”
Mr. Buckles had us laughing that day in March of 2008, when he came to the Pentagon for the unveiling of a set of new portraits of himself and other World War I veterans. He admitted he exaggerated his age, twice, in order to join the Army in 1917, when he was just 15 years old. But with a wink he said that did not make him a liar.
“I had added some years onto my age and was 18. He [the recruiter] said, ‘Sorry, but you have to be 21.’ So I came back later and I had aged. I was 21. [LAUGHTER]”
And he was still lying about his age, just a little bit.
“I do not feel that I am any older than you are,” said Buckles.
In fact, he was more than twice as old as any of the Pentagon reporters who interviewed him that day.
On Monday, anonymous Pentagon workers put white roses and a handwritten note on his portrait. The note reads, "Thank you for your service to our country. May you and your generation rest in peace."
Three years ago, Buckles captivated the crowd from his wheelchair in the Pentagon auditorium, as speakers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, offered their praise and thanks.
“We cherish the memory of those who have passed away," said Gates. "We cherish the chance to say thank you in person to Corporal Frank Buckles. We will always be grateful for what they did for their country 90 years ago, and feel glad, too, for the longevity that they enjoyed on this earth.”
Buckles also was welcomed at the White House that week, by then-president George W. Bush.
“It has been my high honor to welcome Mr. Buckles, and his daughter, Susannah, here to the Oval Office," said Bush. "Mr. Buckles has a vivid recollection of historic times. And one way for me to honor the service of those who wear the uniform in the past and those who wear it today is to herald you, sir, and to thank you very much for your patriotism and your love for America.”
Buckles wanted to serve when World War I broke out, and his lie to the recruiter made it possible. Shortly afterward, at age 16, he deployed to Europe as an ambulance driver. He saw the horror of war close up, ferrying the wounded from the trenches to primitive field hospitals. Later, he drove German prisoners back to Germany.
Buckles left the army in 1920 and years later he went to work for a shipping company in the Philippines. When World War II broke out, he and other Americans there were put in prison camps by the occupying Japanese forces. Although he was not a soldier at that time, he spent more than three years in the notorious Los Baňos prison. The cup he ate out of for all that time is in the background of his 2008 portrait, which now hangs with eight others along one of the Pentagon’s many corridors.
In a statement issued Monday, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle praised Buckles, saying he continued to serve America until his death, as the Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. The Obamas said they join the Buckles family “in celebrating a remarkable life that reminds us of the true meaning of patriotism and our obligations to each other as Americans.”
In one sense, Frank Buckles was not much different from millions of other World War One veterans. With his enthusiasm to serve and his longevity, however, it certainly was possible to say about him what he said about that Pentagon ceremony three years ago.
“Really, it was remarkable. I enjoyed every minute of it here.”
Related video story by D. Block (November 2008)