Last Doughboy Gets Presidential 'Thank You'

Frank Buckles, 107, honored at White House for World War I service.

ByLuis Martinez

March 6, 2008 — -- Frank Buckles, 107, of Charlestown, W.Va., was honored in Washington today as the last remaining veteran to have served with American forces during World War I.

Buckles met with President Bush at the White House and was honored at the Pentagon as the last of nearly 5 million doughboys who served in the bloody conflict known as "the Great War" -- a war Buckles was so anxious to serve in that that the then-16-year-old fibbed about his age so he could join the Army.

He served as an ambulance driver in the United Kingdom and France.

Sitting in a wheelchair next to Bush in the Oval Office, Buckles heard the president praise his military service and longevity as a link to America's past and present.

"One way for me to honor the service of those who wear the uniform in the past and those who wear it today is to herald you, sir," Bush said, "and to thank you very much for your patriotism and your love for America."

Buckles came to the Pentagon to be part of a ceremony to accept a photo exhibit honoring the last remaining veterans of World War I.

In brief remarks to an auditorium full of military dignitaries that included chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Buckles said he was honored "to be your humble representative of World War I. ... It is an honor to be here to represent the veterans of World War I. I thank you."

Hard of hearing and with labored speech, Buckles later charmed Pentagon reporters many years younger than he by saying, "I don't feel any older than you are."

Buckles told reporters he was not surprised by his longevity because it seems to run in his family. Two of his cousins lived to be 100 and an aunt lived to be 104.

He drew chuckles when asked why he had lied about his age so he could join the Army. With a smile on his face he replied, "I didn't lie! Nobody calls me a liar. I may have increased my age."

He said he had yearned to be in the Army since he was a young teen, but he was only able to join the Army only after he had been rejected in earlier attempts to join the Marines and the Navy.

Though he did not serve in the military during World War II, Buckles was caught in the Philippines working for a shipping company when the Japanese took over the island chain. He became a prisoner of war for the next 3½ years.

At today's Pentagon ceremony, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described Buckles' experience this way: He was "held as a prisoner of war in Manila. He ate his meals out of a single tin cup for 39 months. He still has the cup."

Buckles has another tie to a great historical event -- the sinking of the Titanic. The ship that transported him to Europe in December 1916 was HMS Carpathia, the same ship that four years earlier had rescued Titanic survivors from their lifeboats.

Buckles said some of the officers and men who served on the ship at that time "were quite willing to talk about it. So I've got my stories right here," he said, pointing to his chest.

Buckles' most valued memory of his World War I service occurred when he returned to the states and had a very personal meeting with legendary war commander Gen. John J. Pershing.

Anxious to meet the general, Buckles gained entry to a reception in Pershing's honor. Walking past the general in a tailored uniform he had made for the occasion, he gave Pershing a crisp salute. Pershing quickly sent an aide to bring him back. Buckles suspects the general's attention was probably drawn to the four stripes on his sleeve that identified him as having served two years in Europe.

The general's first words to him: "Where were you born?"

Buckles replied, "On my father's farm, north of Bethany, in Harrison County, Mo."

Pershing then said, "Forty miles as the crow flies from Linn County, where I was born."

Asked what advice he had for this generation, Buckles said today, "Make your own decisions" and don't be swayed by others. He added, "Sometimes you make the right decision and sometimes you don't."

He explained that he had made a fateful decision in 1940 when he took a job in the Philippines over another one in New York because, "I didn't want to go back to New York."

He thought he could work in Manila long enough before any hostilities spread to the Pacific, but "miscalculated" and became a Japanese prisoner of war.

Was he happy that he had made that decision? Once again, with a smile on his face, he answered emphatically, "No!"

The photos of Buckles and eight other veterans will be exhibited at the Pentagon as a reminder of "the war to end all wars." Shot by photographer David DeJonge, the portraits of the nine veterans were all taken when they were age 105 or older.

Only one other veteran who posed for the portraits remains alive. John Babcock, who's 107 and lives in Spokane, Wash., served with Canada's armed forces during World War I.

Babcock became an American citizen in 1946. He was unable to attend today's Pentagon ceremony.

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