It’s the perfect stage on which America’s last World War I veteran is living his final years. Frank Buckles, age 107, lives in a 248-year-old farm house on a hill overlooking 355 acres of rolling West Virginia farmland. Below his front porch is the still active rail line that has linked Washington, D.C. with Pittsburgh and the Midwest since the 1840s, on which Union troops were rushed to defend the nation’s capital.
Buckles’ ancestors came to the area outside what is now Charlestown, West Virginia, in the early 1700s. His home was built in the English colony of Virginia during the French and Indian War and doubtless its stone walls could have withstood an attack. A caregiver greets visitors on the porch, and motions them through the ancient door through a center hall to the back study, where a very alert Buckles sits up straight in his chair. He is surrounded by his books, memorabilia, and photos, including a recent picture of his visit with President Bush. Another photo shows Buckles’ grandfather, born 1818, who recalled to his young grandson memories of his own grandfather, who fought in the Revolution! How many Americans today have talked to someone who conversed with a Revolutionary War veteran? A West Virginia license plate for World War I veterans hangs on the wall. Buckles did not abandon driving until age 102, and the plate is surely the last issued by any state.
When still driving, his arrivals at the local veterans hospital for check-ups were said to have aroused both excitement and bemused alarm. Buckles might have retained his car longer, and gone on using his tractor, had his daughter not interceded. Susannah Flanagan and her husband moved into her father’s house several years after her mother died. There were then still several hundred American WWI veterans alive, and she probably had not expected that her father would become a celebrity, and that she would become his public relations director. Early this year, Buckles officially became the last American survivor out of over 4 million who served in 1917-1918. He is now host to a constant stream of visitors that include public officials, journalists, tourists and history buffs.
“Don’t worry about tiring him out, he’ll tire you out!” a gracious Susannah assures a half dozen visitors on a Sunday afternoon. She passes out a biographic brochure about her father and encourages everyone to sign guest book. An entry from May 2008 includes a signature by George Will, whose national column about Buckles appeared on Memorial Day. That weekend, Buckles was flown in a private jet to Kansas City to dedicate the National World War I Museum. Over the July 4 weekend, Buckles was flown to Mount Rushmore for another ceremony. His travel schedule for the reminder of this year is quiet.
Comfortably clad in sweat pants and a sweater, Buckles at first speaks in a slow, soft monotone. But gathering steam, his voice grows in strength as he recounts stories over 90 minutes. He grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma, joined the army at age 16 by fudging his age, went to England and then France as an ambulance driver, having crossed the Atlantic on the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the Titanic survivors. Buckles never saw combat but did escort German prisoners of war back into Germany after the war. Upon returning to Oklahoma, he attended a reception for the supreme WWI U.S. commander, General Pershing, who recognized from Buckles’ accent that they were both Missouri natives.
Buckles served in the merchant marine and was interned by the Japanese in the Philippines for three years. Although loquacious about his WWI experiences, he declines to elaborate about his experiences under the Japanese. His camp was dramatically liberated by U.S. forces in early 1945. Buckles went to California after WWII, married a woman 18 years younger than himself, and then relocated to his current farm in Jefferson County, West Virginia. He fathered his only child, Susannah, when in his 50s. Always physically fit and mentally active, his good health and many years are no surprise. When asked about a report on Wikipedia that his least favorite president is William McKinley, Buckles insists that is incorrect, since he was only 6 months old when McKinley died and never had reason for a strong opinion. He confirms his admiration of Ronald Reagan and notes his fascination with Teddy Roosevelt. Buckles worked for Kermit Roosevelt, TR’s son, who ran a steamship line between the wars, and Buckles met much of the Roosevelt family. He insists that TR’s branch of the Roosevelts pronounced their last name to rhyme with “shoe,” while FDR’s branch rhymed Roosevelt with “show.”
George W. Bush is the only American president whom Buckles has met, though he did receive a medal from French President Jacques Chirac. While at the White House in March, Buckles at first did not recognize the President. A voracious reader, his eyesight is good, but he almost never watches television. He has read newspapers since his boyhood, which helped to inspire his eager enlistment for WWI. Still savvy, Buckles carefully avoids controversial political comments in his media interviews. The war in which Buckles served ended nearly 90 years ago, and he is one of only about a dozen confirmed surviving veterans out of 60 million who served worldwide. All of the survivors are from the Allied side, the last Central Powers veteran, an Austrian, having died in May. The oldest living veteran is a 112-year-old Englishman. The United States was the last major power to enter WWI, its late entrance serving as the final impetus for Allied victory after four years of trench warfare gridlock. Agile and serene on his bucolic and historic farm, Corporal Buckles may likewise become that war’s final survivor.