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As Long as We Remember...

March 2, 2011

The Humble Patriot

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, from nearby Jefferson County, W. Va., died Sunday. He was 110 years old.


I first noticed that Mr. Buckles had passed away in an Hagerstown Herald-Mail article, written by Dave McMillion, who reported that Mr. Buckles “lived with his daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, at Gap View, the family farm off old West Virginia 9, has been the subject of wide media and congressional attention in recent years.”


Mr. McMillion explained: “A story in the May 30, 2010, edition of Parade magazine on Buckles said he lied about his age in 1917 when he was 16 so he could enlist. The Army sent him to France, where he drove ambulances and motorcycles. After the armistice, he helped return German prisoners of war to their country.


“In 1941, he was working in Manila for the American President Line, a shipping company. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines during World War II, Buckles was captured and spent 3 1/2 years in a prisoner-of-war camp before he was rescued by American forces when they retook the island nation.”


An Associated Press article by Vicki Smith observed: “He didn't seek the spotlight, but when Frank Buckles outlived every other American who'd served in World War I, he became what his biographer called ‘the humble patriot’ and final torchbearer for the memory of that fading conflict.”


The article elaborated: “Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, Buckles visited a string of military recruiters after the United States in April 1917 entered what was called ‘the war to end all wars.’ He was repeatedly rejected before convincing an Army captain he was 18.”


Of the 4.7 million Americans who served in the military during World War I, Mr. Buckles was the last known U.S. veteran of the conflict. Approximately 2 million Americans served in Europe during the war.


According to the Associated Press, “Only two known veterans remain… The survivors are Florence Green in Britain and Claude Choules in Australia…Green turned 110 on Feb. 19, and Choules turns 110 in March.”


A November 11, 2005, a CNN article observed: “More than 10 million troops died before the war ended with Germany's surrender. Of the U.S. troops, more than 116,000 died and more than 200,000 were wounded.”


In The Herald-Mail article it was noted: “In 2008, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., sponsored a bill to allow Buckles, upon his death, to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.”


Many may easily identify with the sentiments expressed by Representative Capito, who said: “Mr. Buckles represents the very best of this country – service, determination and patriotism. He has lived through some of the most historic events in American history, from the Great Depression to two world wars to the invention of the Internet.”


For many, World War I is the stuff of ‘ancient’ history. Perhaps what is fascinating about Mr. Buckles is that he was a living link to a bygone era that most people only know about by reading history books.


In many ways, we are still reeling from the consequences of World War I and the horrifically ill conceived 1919 Treaty of Versailles.


For social and economic historians, 1918 and the end of World War I – and the rise of Arab nationalism that occurred after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – is the intellectual catalyst for revisiting a matrix of complicated social, political and economic events, of which we are still trying to figure out and negotiate the ramifications.


World War I marked the disintegration of the Napoleonic era of world economic and political order manifested by the doomed German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. It was the end of three centuries of European world domination. Europe never recovered. World War II, 20 years later, was the final nail in the coffin.


It was only a miracle that the war did not start with the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, the Spanish American war of 1898, or the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.


Economic-historians understand that World War I – the “Great War,” a designation previously held-out for the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s – was actually the result of almost two decades of “economic warfare” between Europe’s ailing great empires in various stages of economic deterioration and collapse.


The localized conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which eventually sparked the war, was the straw that broke the camel’s back as the empires of Europe sought a military solution to their economic woes.


The world is still reeling from the adjustments caused by the destruction of these empires, especially in the Middle East as artificial national boundaries were formed for many of the nations that to this day cannot get along.


The Herald-Mail reports: “David DeJonge, a Michigan filmmaker, is producing a documentary on Buckles’ life titled ‘Pershing’s Last Patriot: The Story of Frank Woodruff Buckles, America’s Last Veteran of World War I.’”


The Washington Post reports that “because Mr. Buckles served just one hitch in the Army and returned from France with no wounds or medals for bravery, he was eligible under Arlington National Cemetery protocols only for inurnment in a vault for cremated remains.


“In March 2008, however, the Bush administration ordered a rare exception for an old corporal of the so-called war to end all wars, and for the passing of living memory. Mr. Buckles wanted a gravesite at Arlington and a traditional white marble headstone. And he will get his wish.”


Unfortunately it may be argued that much of the world has not learned much from what The Washington Post called “the diplomatic deceits and blunders that ignited the conflict in 1914…”


Hopefully we may learn from the quiet dignity of a humble patriot who served his country and lived and prospered for over a century.


. . . . . I’m just saying . . . . .


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