Frank Buckles lived an amazing and long life.
He joined the Army at only 16 years old to fight in World War I, and later as a civilian, working in the Philippines, was captured by the Japanese at the outset of World War II. He survived three hellish years as a POW at Los Banos POW Camp before being rescued in a raid by American forces. He passed away on February 27, 2011, at the age of 110.
Buckles was born on Feb. 1, 1901, in Bethany Missouri. He was the youngest of five children and the third boy in the household. His family’s ancestry traced back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. One thing that stood out, however, was that his family genetics were blessed with longevity. As a young boy, he remembered long talks with his grandfather who was born in 1817. His father lived to be 95, his grandmother 96. When he was young he had two aunts that told him to prepare himself for a long life. Both of them lived to be over 100.
When he just a teenager, his family moved from Missouri to Oakwood, Oklahoma, where Buckles went to school, worked in a bank and became an avid wireless operator. With the United States entering World War I, although he was just 16 years old, he tried to enlist. The war, which had started in 1914, was “an important event,” he remembered later. “The world was interested in it. So, I was interested.” The Marine Corps turned him down as being too small, sensing that he was underage; the Navy also turned him down ostensibly for having flat feet, also believing him to be too young. But the Army did not. An Army captain asked him for a birth certificate. “I explained that when I was born in Missouri, birth certificates were not a public record,” Buckles said. “It would be in the family Bible. And I said, ‘You wouldn’t want me to bring the family Bible down here, would you?’ He said, ‘Go on, we’ll take you.'” So, the U.S. Army hurting for manpower accepted the youngster and he joined on August 14, 1917.
Buckles underwent basic training at Ft. Riley, KS. After basic training, he was trained as a motorcycle rider and ambulance driver. Later in 1917, he was among the first Americans who made their way from England to France. He saw first-hand what combat in the trenches did to the men fighting there as he transported them to hospitals in the rear.
There was never a shortage of blown-up bodies that needed to be rushed to the nearest medical care. The British and French troops were in bad shape — even guys about my age looked old and tired. After three years of living and dying inside a dirt trench, you know the Brits and French were happy to see us “doughboys.” Every last one of us Yanks believed we’d wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home before harvest. In other words, we were the typical, cocky Americans no one wants around, until they need help winning a war.
At the war’s end, he helped transport thousands of German POWs back to their homeland. One German soldier gifted him with a belt buckle with the inscription “Gott mit uns” (God with us). It was a gift that he would keep for the rest of his life. Promoted to Corporal just before he was mustered out in November 1919, Buckles returned to the United States and took part in the dedication of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri where he met the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force General John Pershing.
After the war, despite many veterans having trouble finding work, Buckles never was at a loss for one. He worked in NYC, Toronto, then took a job as a ship’s purser, and later he ran the Manila office of the American President Lines when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He and many other Americans, both civilian and military, were taken as prisoners of war.
Buckles was a POW for more than three years in the Santo Tomas and Los Baños prison camps. “When I got down to 100 pounds, I quit looking at the scales,” he said. Like many POWs, he contracted beriberi, a disease caused by malnutrition. To combat the disease, he led a daily calisthenics class for the POWs. “I explained to them,” he recalled, “that we’re under severe circumstances, but you must keep yourself in shape — for when the war is over.”
On February 23, 1945, they were all liberated in a daring raid led by the Army’s 11th Airborne Division and Filipino guerillas. All 250 of the Japanese guards were killed and the combined rescue force liberated 2147 POWs. Buckles had completed his second war and was now 44 years old.
After the war, he returned to the United States and married Audrey Mayo in 1946. The two bought a 330-acre cattle ranch in West Virginia. They raised a daughter, Susanah, and remained in WV. His wife died in 1999. He continued to drive the tractor on his farmland well into his 100s.
Gary Sinise and Buckles led the Memorial Day Parade of 2007; he was 106 at the time. He was later asked to visit the White House as a guest of President George Bush. Buckles thought that it was an interesting visit. “I went to the White House and sat in the Oval Room,” he recalled. “And here came President Bush… and he asked me: ‘Where were you born?’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly the words that General Pershing used.”’
Buckles became the honorary Chairman of the World War I Monument Committee and was an outspoken advocate for the dedication of a monument to honor the men who sacrificed so much during the Great War.
We still do not have a national memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor the Americans who sacrificed their lives during World War I. On this eve of Veterans Day, I call upon the American people and the world to help me in asking our elected officials to pass the law for a memorial to World War I in our nation’s capital. These are difficult times, and we are not asking for anything elaborate. What is fitting and right is a memorial that can take its place among those commemorating the other great conflicts of the past century. On this 92nd anniversary of the armistice, it is time to move forward with honor, gratitude, and resolve.
Buckles died on February 27, 2011, aged 110. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. As was noted by Paul Duggan, a reporter for the Washington Post:
The hallowed ritual at grave No. 34-581 was not a farewell to one man alone. A reverent crowd of the powerful and the ordinary—President Obama and Vice President Biden, laborers and store clerks, heads bowed—came to salute Buckles’s deceased generation, the vanished millions of soldiers and sailors he came to symbolize in the end.