CPL. Frank Buckles

Last known American Veteran from World War I

Cpl. Frank Buckles, America's last known World War I veteran, died Sunday, Feb. 27th at the age of 110.  Buckles died of natural causes at his home in Charles Town, W.Va., according to a family spokesman.

Buckles enlisted at the age of 16 by reportedly convincing an Army captain that he was older.  He was the last living American doughboy to have served in France during World War I and the last of 4.7 million U.S. troops who signed up to fight the Kaiser 94 years ago.  Buckles later spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II after being captured in the Pacific while serving as a U.S. contractor.

Two years ago, Buckles testified at a Senate hearing urging the establishment of a national World War I memorial on the mall.  "I think it's an excellent idea," said Buckles about the possibility of a national memorial to remember the Great War.  "There should be no question about it," he said Dec. 3, 2009, in front of a session of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, subcommittee on national parks.  Three years ago, Buckles was at the Pentagon March 6, 2008, to help Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren unveil a new portrait exhibit that featured nine World War I veterans.

Photographer David DeJonge had set out in 2006 to help America remember the war by documenting remaining World War I veterans.  By the time he could finance the project, four had died.  Five more died within weeks of their sessions.  "For those of us here today, we will forever put the face of Corporal Buckles on the Great War," said Geren.  Wearing the Legion of Honor he was awarded by French President Jacques Chirac, Buckles simply thanked the room on behalf of his fellow World War I veterans and received a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd.

Buckles enlisted Aug. 14, 1917 and his serial number was 15577.  He was only 16 when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 and Buckles had to lie about his age several times to enlist -- although he insists "lie" is too strong a word.  He was rejected by the Marines because he was too small and by the Navy because he had flat feet.  An Army recruiter in Oklahoma finally took him after Buckles said the only record of his birth was in the family Bible in Missouri.  "The Army sergeant was dubious about my age," Buckles said in a 1988 interview.  "He called the captain in and the captain asked me some questions.  I explained that at the time I was born, there were no public records.  The only records were in the family Bible.  But I wouldn't expect to bring the family Bible down to the recruiting station."  So he joined the First Fort Riley Casual Detachment and sailed for Europe on the HMS Carpathia, a ship that had rescued the survivors of the Titanic in 1912.  "The Carpathia was a ship that went to the rescue of the Titanic," Buckles said, "which I had read about as a boy and was very interested in."

An old sergeant had told Buckles that the fastest way to get to the action in France was to join the ambulance corps, as ambulance drivers were desperately needed at the front, but to Buckles' dismay, his unit was rerouted and he found himself in Winchester, England, driving officers on a motorcycle with a side car.  After pestering everyone he could think of and several unsuccessful schemes to simply fall in line and board a troop ship across the channel, Buckles eventually made it to France, but never near the trenches.  As an ambulance driver, he saw plenty of casualties, but never any combat.

He did get to see Paris, however. "We went out to the Eiffel Tower," Buckles said, "and of course you couldn't get into the Louvre in those days.  And you could get into the Notre Dame cathedral -- and I saw Paris before we went to Bordeaux."

After the war, Buckles helped escort hundreds of German prisoners of war home before returning to Oklahoma and meeting Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of U.S. forces during World War I. Buckles said the meeting was one of the highlights of his life.  "After I'd given the general a snappy salute and passed on," Buckles said Pershing asked him to come back.  "He knew about the four gold bars on my sleeve, which indicated I'd been in Europe two years," Buckles said, adding that he probably also recognized his Missouri accent.  Buckles was born on a farm in in Harrison County, Mo., and Pershing was born in Linn County, just 43 miles away.

Buckles was in Manila when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941.  He had turned down a job in Buenos Aires and expected to be in the Philippines for only six months working as a shipper.  Instead, during three years of incarceration, he nearly starved as he ate each small, mush-like meal from a tin cup the size of a coffee mug.  Buckles said he lost more than 50 pounds in the prison camp and he kept the tin cup as a remembrance of his struggle.


The total number of casualties in World War I, both military and civilian, was about 37 million: 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded.  The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 6.8 million civilians.  The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million.  Unlike most (if not all) conflicts that took place in the 19th century and before, the majority of military deaths in World War I were caused by combat as opposed to disease.  Improvements in medicine as well as the increased lethality of military weaponry were both factors in this development.

CPL Frank Buckles FindaGrave memorial