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The Last Doughboy…

Frank Woodruff Buckles was a tenacious young man.

He looked young, even for his 16 years. But, he was determined to join the fight. It seemed as if civilization itself hung in the balance, and the world was aflame with war. He would not be left out of it. So, he lied to his first recruiter, a nice man who admonished him to go on home before his mother missed him. Frank, though, didn’t give up. He kept up the ruse until he “told a real whopper” to another recruiter, saying he was 21. They accepted Frank on the spot.

Now, this was the high summer of 1917, ninety-three years ago. Woodrow Wilson was president. A tiny infant, named John Fitzgerald Kennedy was barely four months old. Ronald Reagan was six. Frank himself was born the year Wilbur Wright had made his first successful glider flight, and a powered airplane was still two years away. Frank’s world was just emerging into the very dawn of the wondrous modern age, but in August of 1917, the only thing that mattered was The Great War.

Frank Buckles shouldn’t have worried too much that the fight would be over in Europe before he got there: After all, the twentieth century would go on to be the most murderous in the long annals of human history. There was a lot of fighting ahead.

Frank succeed in fibbing his way into the Army, with the Marines passing on the young lad because of his slight weight. But, he eventually made it to Europe as an Ambulance driver and motorcycle-driving communications liaison. After the war, Frank even met the legendary General “Black Jack” Pershing in Kansas, of all places, where he was invited to attend the dedication of a memorial there.

In the early 1940’s, Frank worked for a shipping company in Manila, and was captured and held as a prisoner by the Japanese for almost four years. He made his way home to West Virginia, and took up other pursuits as a typical American, where he lives, to this day, as the last surviving World War One veteran.

Years ago, “Armistice Day” was replaced with “Veterans Day”. Today is “Veterans Day”. But, Mr. Buckles remembers the day that Armistice,the Day the Guns Fell Silent, on the eleventh minute, of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of November, 1918. He is also the last living link to poignancy of the simple poem written by John MaCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Ninety-Three years is a long, long time ago. But, to Frank Buckles, as with all of us, those ninety-three years are simply a part of the thread of his life. His memories aren’t those of sepia-tinged, grainy, stilted silent movie reels. His memories are living, flesh and blood. He saw the horror, the destruction, the utter ruinous waste of war. And, like so many young men of his time, he simply came home, and went on with his life.

All of my days, the Veterans of World War One were old men, with white and thinning hair, unsteady as they walked with their canes in the Memorial Day parade. But, these old men were once so young, so strong, so filled with passion that they fibbed and schemed to fight with all of their strength for the nation they loved.  Now, we are down to One: Frank Buckles’ life was a masterful one, long and well lived. I will remember our Last Doughboy, today, on Armistice Day.

Thank you, Mr. Buckles, for your service. The poppies still grow at Flanders Field.

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