In Memoriam

Farewell to America’s Last WWI Vet

The great Frank Buckles is in storied company.  

By 3.21.11

America's last World War I veteran was laid to rest with dignity at Arlington Cemetery. Frank Buckles was age 110. 

Sadly, his funeral plans were on hold for most of two weeks, while Congressional leaders resisted pleas for Buckles to lie in repose in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, symbolically representing over 4 million Americans who served in the Great War. Instead, he lay in repose at an Arlington Cemetery chapel, where President Obama and Vice President Biden paid homage briefly before his burial. The ultimate arrangements paid suitable honor to Buckles. But the apparent last minute haggling seemed ridiculous. Since he was the last surviving vet for nearly three years, there should have been plenty of time for pre-arranging the final plans.

Distinctively, Buckles' interment was accompanied by a wide phalanx of "Rolling Thunder" bikers, plus a contingent of uniformed American Indian veterans in full feathered headgear, who performed their own farewell rite. Mentally sharp and fairly active until the end, Buckles took his role as America's final representative of the Great War seriously without taking himself too seriously. Even at advanced age, he gladly accepted invitations to ceremonies (so long as appropriate transportation was provided), including visits to Mount Rushmore and the National World War I Museum in Kansas City when he was age 107. His grave is appropriately close to his former commander, General John "Black Jack" Pershing.

In 2008, I had the honor to visit Buckles at his 250 year old stone farm house on a hill in the West Virginia panhandle. It was a very suitable stage for the last years of an historically iconic figure. Buckles could remember his grandfather, who in turn had recalled to him memories of his own grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran. Memories of two men remarkably spanned the full history of the United States.

World War I veterans were usually overshadowed by the "greatest generation" of far more numerous World War II veterans. And unlike Civil War veterans, the World War I vets never really had their own powerful veterans group that spoke uniquely for them. "Veterans of World War I in the USA" did start in the late 1940s, gaining many members but not a lot of attention, and Buckles was its last de facto "commander." For decades the politically formidable Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) represented hundreds of thousands of Union veterans. And the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) influentially spoke for Southern combatants. In contrast, World War I veterans joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars, founded after the Spanish American War, or the American Legion, founded after World War I. Both would remain open to veterans from all subsequent wars. The last Spanish American War vet died in the early 1990s without fanfare.

Of course the VFW and the Legion continue today, while the GAR and UCV died with their last veterans. GAR annual jamborees at their height attracted many tens of thousands, and the GAR marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in force in 1915 and, in more enfeebled numbers, in 1936. The UCV "invaded" the nation's capital for their own reunion in 1918 and, in much reduced numbers, in 1940. Famously, nearly 2,000 northern and southern veterans, most then in their 90s, met together for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938. Many Americans age 70 and older can still remember aged Civil War veterans as regular features of Independence Day parades and Memorial Day ceremonies. The last GAR reunion, with six ancient veterans, met in Indianapolis in 1949. Ostensibly the last UCV reunion was in Norfolk in 1951. But records now reveal likely none of the three who attended were actually Confederate veterans.

America honored the passing of the purportedly last Civil War veteran in 1959, who was a supposedly 117-year-old Confederate. But actually the last dozen or so final professed Confederate veterans who died in the 1950's were probable imposters who exaggerated their ages in earlier decades, especially during the Depression, to qualify for Confederate pensions from their state governments. As they aged into celebrities, they were trapped in their stories. The last documented Confederate veteran died in 1951 at age 104. And the last documented Civil War veteran was Albert Woolson, who passed in 1956 at age 106, or possibly as old as 109.

Woolson and Buckles were both understated Midwesterners who joined the army as underage teenagers. Both served at the front but neither saw combat. Buckles drove an ambulance, and Woolson was a drummer boy. Both were distinguished final representatives for millions of soldiers who had fallen before them. Both were the final survivors of their armies for about three years. Neither had planned to live in the spotlight, but both did so dutifully.

Unlike Buckles, no significant controversy seems to have accompanied Woolson's funeral. He was interred in a family plot after a Duluth, Minnesota funeral attended by 1,500. President Eisenhower did not attend, though Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey did. Naturally, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung. At Buckles' interment, an army band played "America the Beautiful."

The last World War II veteran will not leave this earth for at least another 25 years or more. Hopefully preparations for his or her send-off will be better settled than they were for the last World War I vet. And hopefully that last survivor will live up to his role with as much aplomb and honor as did Frank Buckles.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.