Frank Buckles, 110, last US WWI vet; survived captivity during WWII

Frank Buckles’s enlistment photo from 1917. Frank Buckles’s enlistment photo from 1917.
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post / March 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Frank W. Buckles died Sunday at age 110, having achieved a singular feat of longevity that left him proud and a bit bemused.

In 1917 and 1918, close to 5 million Americans served in World War I, and Mr. Buckles, a cordial fellow of gentle humor, was the last known survivor.

“I knew there’d be only one someday,’’ he said a few years back. “I didn’t think it would be me.’’

His daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, said that Mr. Buckles, a widower, died of natural causes on his West Virginia farm, where she had been caring for him.

“We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,’’ Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said of Mr. Buckles, whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated.’’

Mr. Buckles, who was born by lantern light in a Missouri farmhouse, quit school at 16 and bluffed his way into the Army. As the nation flexed its full military might overseas for the first time, he joined 4.7 million Americans in uniform and was among 2 million shipped to France to vanquish the German kaiser.

Ninety years later, with available records showing that the former corporal had outlived all of his compatriots from World War I, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared him the last doughboy standing. Mr. Buckles was soon answering fan mail.

“I feel like an endangered species,’’ he joked. As a rear-echelon ambulance driver behind the trenches of the Western Front in 1918, he had been safe from the worst of the fighting. But “I saw the results,’’ he would say.

With his death, researchers said, only two of the approximately 65 million people mobilized by the world’s militaries during the Great War are known to be alive: an Australian man and a British woman, 109 and 110 respectively.

Mr. Buckles said he was just a naive schoolboy chasing adventure when he enlisted Aug. 14, 1917. “I knew what was happening in Europe, even though I was quite young,’’ he told a Post reporter when he was 105. “And I thought, well, I want to get over there and see what it’s about.’’

After the armistice, he traveled the globe as a purser on commercial ships and was caught in Manila when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. He endured 38 months as a civilian prisoner during World War II before being freed in a daring military raid.

In 1953, he and his wife bought a cattle farm with a Colonial-era stone house near Charles Town, W.Va., and quietly spent the rest of his life there, his doughboy tunic hanging in a closet.