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Wednesday 20 November 2019

Frank Buckles

Last surviving US veteran of the First World War and a witness to history

FRANK Woodruff Buckles was born on a farm near Bethany, northwest Missouri on February 1, 1901, seven months before the assassination of President William McKinley.

At the time of his birth the US had five states and 220 million people fewer than it has today. Its army, in 1917, was about the 18th largest in the world, behind those of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. Frank saw his first automobile aged five and his first aeroplane at the Illinois State Fair in 1907.

At 15 he delivered a string of horses to Oklahoma, landed a job at a bank and moved into a hotel. Though only 16 in 1917, when America entered the First World War, he was determined to enlist, succeeding at the fourth attempt after convincing an Army recruiting sergeant "on the family Bible" that he was 18.

Buckles was longing to see action and joined the ambulance corps as the fastest route to the Western Front. He sailed across the Atlantic in the Carpathia (the ship that had picked up survivors from the Titanic in 1912), docking in Glasgow in December 1917.

After some months as a general driver in Winchester he was shipped over to France, where he drove wounded soldiers to the nearest hospital. If he never made it to the front lines it was not for want of trying. After the war ended his unit escorted prisoners of war back to Germany. He returned to the US in January 1920.

Buckles returned to Oklahoma for a while, then moved to Canada and eventually New York. There he found a job with a steamship company which took him around the world -- to Latin America, China and Europe, including Germany, where in 1928 "two impressive gentlemen" told him: "We are preparing for another war."

In late 1941, while in Manila on business, Buckles was captured by the Japanese. He spent the next three-and-a-half years as a civilian internee in prison camps. "The bad part was the starvation," he recalled, and he eventually emerged weighing less than seven stone.

After the war Buckles returned to the US, married, bought a cattle farm in West Virginia and settled down to a life of contented obscurity. For most of the rest of his life not even his closest neighbours knew he had served in the First World War.

That was until 1999, when he was invited to Paris to be awarded the Legion d'honneur by French President Jacques Chirac, and American newspapers began to take an interest in what, in America, has often been called the "forgotten war". In 2008, Buckles was honoured at a special ceremony in Washington by President George W Bush.

As the remaining veterans of the conflict succumbed to old age and illness, interest in Buckles's experience grew. As of 2007, only three US veterans were still alive, and by mid-February 2008, Buckles was the only one left. When asked how it felt to be the last survivor he replied "I realised that somebody had to be, and it was me." Fiercely independent into his 110th year, Buckles attributed his extraordinary longevity to good genes and daily calisthenics.

According to The Washington Post, only a 109-year-old Australian man and a 110-year-old British woman are now believed to survive from the estimated 65 million people who served in the 1914-1918 war.

Frank Buckles's wife Audrey died in 1999. Their daughter survives him.

Sunday Independent

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