Reporters Notebook: Memories of Frank Buckles

VIDEO: Frank Buckles dies at his farm in West
WATCH Last World War I Veteran Dies at 110

He had us eating out of the palm of his hand and we were enjoying every minute of it. Sitting in a wheelchair before the Pentagon press corps was the then 107-year-old Frank Buckles, America's last living veteran of World War I.

We strained to hear every sound of his faint voice as he regaled us with his stories; meanwhile, being hard of hearing, he strained to hear the questions we were yelling at him from just a few feet away.

The exchange is one of my favorite Pentagon moments which is why it was sad to hear the news today that the 110-year-old Buckles had passed away this Sunday at his West Virginia farm. It was a farm where he had lived out the last half century of his life in relative obscurity until a Pentagon ceremony in March, 2008 honored him as the last living veteran to have served in the US military during World War I.

Buckles had come to the Pentagon to participate in a ceremony dedicating a new photographic exhibit honoring America's oldest-surviving WWI vets.

The display was a series of portraits taken of the last-known living survivors of what was known as the Great War. A photographer had tracked down America's oldest living WW I vets and taken their portraits before time took its toll. By the time the Pentagon ceremony was held, only Buckles remained as America's last "doughboy."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon brass spoke at the ceremony, but when it came time for Buckles to speak you could hear a pin drop in the vast Pentagon Auditorium. "I feel honored to be your humble representative of World War I," he said. "As the years went along and the decreasing numbers of veterans I have found that I was among those who had served, the last ones who had served. And it is an honor to be here to represent the veterans of World War I. I thank you."

After the ceremony was over we gathered around Buckles for an informal news conference.

He told us how as a 16-year-old Missouri farm boy he had wanted to volunteer for the fight in Europe, but had been turned down by both the Marines and the Navy because he was too young. But he hoodwinked an Army recruiter into believing he was older than he was and he was sent to Europe.

"You lied to get into the Army?" we asked. "I didn't lie!" he said with a smile. "Nobody calls me a liar, I may have increased my age."

We were amazed to hear that he had sailed to Europe on the Carpathia, the same ship that in 1912 had arrived first at the scene of the Titanic sinking to rescue survivors from their lifeboats. He recalled how some of Carpathia's sailors present that tragic night had passed on their memories during the voyage.

As an Army corporal he would drive ambulances in the United Kingdom and France. After the armistice, he guarded German POWs and assisted with their transfer back to Germany.

One of his favorite memories was his meeting with the legendary Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing who had commanded American troops during the war. Buckles managed to gain access to a Washington, D.C., reception honoring Pershing. Buckles was so eager to attend he had a specially tailored suit made for the occasion.

In the receiving line Buckles gave Pershing "a snappy salute and passed on." Later, a sergeant sought out Buckles because Pershing had noticed the stripes on his suit jacket that identified him as veteran who had served in Europe. "And another thing he would have noticed was I had my gloves in my hand. And that was unusual to see an enlisted man carrying his gloves. The general always carried his," he told us.

Buckles recalled Pershing asked him where he was born and he replied, "On my father's farm, north of Bethany, in Harrison County, Missouri. And the general said, 'forty miles as the crow flies from Lynn County where I was born.' Another thing the general would have noticed was both had a Missouri accent we were born right near each other."

After the war Buckles would go on to sail the world as a ship's purser before making a fateful decision to take a steady job in the Philippines in 1941.

It was there that he was captured by the Japanese endured 39 months in a notorious Japanese POW camp from which few would emerge. At his West Virginia home, one of his most treasured mementos was the tin cup from which he ate his meals during his imprisonment.

After that experience, Buckles decided to settle down on the West Virginia farm he'd purchased.

In his last years Buckles' new found celebrity saw him heralded as America's last tangible tie to a war that saw nearly five million men take up the uniform to fight. He would even be received in the Oval Office by President George W. Bush.

Today, President Obama issued a statement on Buckles' passing noting that "Frank Buckles lived the American Century."

On that day three years ago we asked him what was different from when he was a young lad. "Well, the transportation's different. Everyone has an automobile," he said. You had to appreciate that he was right, he had seen modernization occur before his very eyes throughout the 20th century.

His advice to this generation was "be in charge of your decision-making, make your own decisions." He added, "Don't be too encouraged by somebody else's because each of us has the right to decide for ourselves. Sometimes you make the right decision sometime sometimes you don't."

He recalled how he had ended up in the Philippines because he had to choose between two jobs. "One of those jobs would have taken me to New York and I didn't' want to go back to New York." The other one took him to the Philippines.

Were you happy with that decision, we asked. "NO!" he said to much laughter, "If I'd made the other decision I would have been down to Buenos Aires and I wouldn't have been in a prison camp."

When the session with reporters wrapped up he said, "It's nice to meet so many young people." You made us feel so young, we joked. " I don't feel any older than you are," he said.

Right he was.