Last WWI Veterans Get Their Due

ByDean Reynolds and Elizabeth Stuart

KANSAS CITY, Mo., Dec. 2, 2006 — -- His eyes have seen more than most do in a lifetime. At 105 years old, Frank Buckles is a tough, old bird who lives atop a hill in Charles Town, West Virginia.

He grew up a Missouri farm boy, and like so many in his generation, he is also a veteran -- of World War I. He's now one of just 12 veterans of the "Great War" still living.

Buckles was only 16 when he enlisted. He went overseas in December 1917 on the Carpathia; the same ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic.

Frank and his fellow soldiers fought in a conflict that has long been eclipsed by World War II. But this week, officials at the brand new National World War I Museum in Kansas City are trying to restore the First World War to its rightful place in history.

The $27 million museum, opening today, is fully interactive. One exhibit allows visitors to walk around inside a bomb crater. Another lets them sense the confines of the battlefield trenches that ran from the North Sea to the Alps, and experience the horror of the no-man's land in between.

World War I began in the summer of 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old Bosnian Serb. The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, after Germany intensified submarine attacks on U.S. shipping. President Woodrow Wilson called it "a war to end all wars," and believed the U.S. was entering a struggle to save democracy.

The Great War was the first battled in air. It was also the first to use tanks, the first fought extensively underwater, and the first to have -- and use -- weapons of mass destruction.

In 1915, Germans were the first to use poison gases -- mustard and chlorine gases, in particular. Gases were dangerous to attackers and defenders alike, because the gas sometimes wafted back toward the attackers or engulfed them as they moved into enemy lines.

Saddam Hussein used mustard gas on Kurds in northern Iraq during a campaign known as the Anfal in 1987 and 1988. In one attack on a Kurdish village, mustard gas and Sarin killed 5,000 people and left 65,000 more with diseases, abnormal rates of cancer and birth defects.

Ironically, Iraq was among the independent states created at the end of World War I. In addition, 20,000 miles of new borders were developed by the victors of the war, literally redrawing the world's map.

"That war ended 90 years ago -- well, technically," says Steve Berkheiser, executive director of the National World War I Museum. "But in reality, we're still living with the consequences of it today."

Officials at the museum say looking back on World War I raises questions that easily apply to America's current conflicts.

"Why does a nation go to war?" he asks. "What do you hope to achieve? Have you thought out the intended and the unintended consequences?"

The consequences for the United States in World War I were the loss of more than 125,000 soldiers, and upwards of 234,000 more were wounded. Overall, more than 10 million soldiers and civilians perished from a total of 36 countries.

The National World War I Museum's location in Kansas City is significant. From the end of 1916 through the end of the war, Kansas City's Union Station was a stopping point for more than 767,000 service men and women.

All soldiers who passed through stopped at the Red Cross Canteen, where soldiers enjoyed "candy, coffee, and a smile," all free of charge. The canteen offered first aid and brought ailing soldiers to the hospital; and also doled out cigarettes, doughnuts and postcards. Daily reports and other items from the canteen will be featured at the museum.

Ralph Applebaum designed the museum and devised its mission.

"It's not to provide an answer as much as to send you out a better-informed citizen," he says.

The museum also features more than 49,000 artifacts from World War I, many of which have never before been seen by the public.

Those who visit the museum will learn more about the war that Frank Buckles and so many others fought, that "war to end all wars." It may also bring important lessons to teach the soldiers, and all the rest of us, who follow.

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