A photo exhibit was dedicated at the Pentagon last week, portraits of nine American World War I veterans, all of them more than 100 years old. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The large, vivid photos are remarkable. A man in red with a wide smile, holding his World War I medals mounted in a frame. Howard Ramsey, age 108. A bright-eyed woman in white wearing a veteran's cap, posed in front of a large American flag. Charlotte Berry Winters, age 109. And the youngest of the group, a gentleman with a red, white and blue tie and a fancy cane, posed with his old photos and his history books. Frank Buckles, who just turned 107.
"It is an honor to be here to represent the veterans of World War I. I thank you," he said.
Buckles stole the show at the Pentagon ceremony, attended by several hundred staffers, many of them in uniform, and hosted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "Projects like these are important because in many ways and for many reasons the First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States. Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in as the epic blood struggle we know as The Great War," he said.
Secretary Gates noted that 116,000 Americans died in World War I, more than in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Photographer David DeJonge says he hopes officials like Secretary Gates will see the portraits from time to time, and reflect on the impact of decisions they make. For DeJonge, this was an emotional project, and an emotional ceremony. "I gained nine new friends. And of those nine, seven have died in the past eight to 10 months. I ask not for applause, but for honor for Mr. Buckles and the 4,734,991 veterans that served with him," he said.
DeJonge calls the survivors "icons of America." "Icons who lived quiet, American lives of service of service to our country, icons that walked, fought and experienced one of the most evil wars this planet has seen, icons that stood their ground so each of us could be here today," he said.
Frank Buckles was the only one of those icons who was healthy enough to make it to the Pentagon ceremony, and to the White House for a visit with President Bush. "It has been my high honor to welcome Mr. Buckles, and his daughter, Susannah, here to the Oval Office. 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," he said.
At the Pentagon, Secretary Gates pointed out that Buckles had lied about his age to be able to enlist in the Army when he was just 15 years old. But Buckles took exception to that when a reporter repeated it later. "I didn't lie [laughter]. Nobody calls me a liar!," he said.
Then he told the story. "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," he said.
Frank Buckles deployed to Europe as an ambulance driver at age 16. And maybe he's still lying about his age, just a little bit. "I don't feel that I'm any older than you are," he said.
But he is. In fact, he was more than twice as old as any of the Pentagon reporters who interviewed him after the ceremony.
Asked what advice he would give young people today, Buckles said they should make their own decisions and not be too heavily influenced by those around them. Asked what advice he has for today's soldiers, the 107-year-old veteran said he did not feel qualified to offer any.
Secretary Gates gave these possibly last words of thanks to Buckles and his World War I comrades. "We cherish the memory of those who have passed away. We cherish the chance to say thank you in person to Corporal Frank Buckles. Whoever views this display will, I am sure, feel a connection to Mr. Buckles and his comrades-in-arms. 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," he said.
Photographer David DeJonge has now done portraits of all the known surviving American World War I veterans. But his project is not finished. "I'm expanding the project to the globe and will be pursuing every [WWI] veteran on the face of the planet, every corner. There are 14 left on the face of the planet. We just discovered one in Ukraine. So it's going to be a monumental task," he said.
And he is looking for veterans from both sides of the war. In fact, one of the Americans in the new exhibit, William Seegers, fought for Germany in World War I, before deserting and making his way to the United States. He fought in the U.S. Army in World War II.
Frank Buckles would likely have also fought in World War II, but he was in the Philippines as a civilian when the United States entered the war. He was captured by Japanese troops and kept in the notorious Los Baòos prison camp for more than three years. The cup he ate out of for all that time is in the background of his portrait, unveiled at the ceremony to a standing ovation.
"Really, it was remarkable. I enjoyed every minute of it here," Buckles said.