'Last torchbearer' of WWI dies

'Last torchbearer' of WWI dies

March 1st, 2011 in Opinion Times

Frank Buckles, the United States' last surviving World War I veteran, died Sunday at his home in West Virginia. He was 110, and said not long ago that he wanted people to remember him as "the last torchbearer" of the more than 4.7 million people who joined the U.S. military in 1917-1918. Those who know his story likely will do so.

After several rejections, Buckles succeeded in enlisting in the Army when he was 16 1/2. What was the hurry?, he was asked. "A boy of (that age), he's not afraid of anything. He wants to get in there," he said. Buckles served overseas, mainly as a driver and clerk. After the armistice, he remained in Europe to help repatriate prisoners of war to Germany. He returned to the United States in 1920 to resume civilian life.

He found his calling in the shipping industry. That led him to involvement in World War II. While in the Philippines on business in 1941, Buckles was captured by the Japanese. He spent over three years in prison camps. "I was never actually looking for adventure," Buckles recalled. "It just came to me."

In recent years, Buckles traveled to Washington to serve as grand marshal of the national Memorial Day parade and to urge creation of a World War I memorial on the National Mall. The old soldier viewed that campaign as his last mission. He asked about progress on the project weekly, a family spokesman said. The memorial merits completion. Buckles and the millions of other Americans who served in World War I deserve as much.

There are no French or German veterans of World War I alive. Indeed, there are only two remaining surviving veterans of World War I. Both are British.

Claude Choules, 109, now lives in Australia and said it was an "honor" to be the last British man standing. He enlisted in the Royal Navy at 15, served on the battleship HMS Revenge and witnessed the German Imperial Navy's 1918 surrender.

Florence Green, 110, is the world's last surviving female veteran of World War I. She joined the newly founded Women's Royal Air Force in 1918, and she served as a waitress. She is one of the 10 oldest people in Britain, where she still lives. Her wit remains intact. When asked what it felt like to turn 110, she said, "It's not much different to being 109."

Buckles' death and his burial later this week at Arlington National Cemetery closes an important chapter in the nation's history. The Army veteran, serial number 15577, was the last living link to those who wore the nation's uniform in what subsequent events proved to be the incorrectly named "War to End all Wars." His passing is truly the end of an era.