Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Last Doughboy

The last surviving American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, died Feb. 27, less than a month after his 110th birthday. He served as a U.S. Army ambulance driver in Europe during what was then known as the “Great War,” rising to the rank of corporal before the war ended. During the War, Frank received the World War I Victory Medal, the Army of Occupation of Germany Medal, and was named a member of the French Legion of Honor

He served as a ship's officer on merchant vessels during World War II. Captured by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II, he was held prisoner of war for more than three years before he was freed by U.S. troops. Late in his life, he became a public advocate for a national World War I memorial in Washington comparable to those for veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

More than 116,000 Americans were killed in World War II, many dying of influenza during a 1918 outbreak, and more than 204,000 were wounded, in the 19 months of U.S. involvement in the war. The overall death toll of the war was more than 16.5 million, including nearly 7 million civilians, and more than 20 million wounded.

There are two remaining World War I Doughboys, both English.

Frank Buckles was born Frank Woodruff Buckles on February 1, 1901, to a farming family in Bethany, Mo. He and his family subsequently moved to Oklahom.

Despite his youth, Buckles tried to enlist in the armed forces. The Marines turned him down because he was underweight and underage; the Navy turned him down for being flat-flooted. He finally succeeded in enlisting in the Army in August 1917. Only 16 at the time, the recruiter asked him to provide his birth certificate. Later Buckles said of that event:

“I was just 16,” Buckles told an interviewer, “”and didn’t look a day older. I confess to you that I lied to more than one recruiter. I gave them my solemn word that I was 18, but I’d left my birth certificate back home in the family Bible. They’d take one look at me and laugh and tell me to go home before my mother noticed I was gone. Somehow I got the idea that telling an even bigger whopper was the way to go. So I told the next recruiter that I was 21 and darned if he didn’t sign me up on the spot”

Buckles was sent to Europe on the RMS Carpathia, which had rescued RMS Titanic's survivors five years earlier. While on the Carpathia, Buckles spoke with crew members who had taken part in the rescue of Titanic survivors. During the war Buckles served in England and France, driving ambulances and motorcycles for the Army's 1st Fort Riley (Kansas) Casual Detachment. After the Armistice in 1918, Buckles escorted prisoners of war back to Germany. Following his discharge in 1920, he attended the dedication of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City in honor of those Americans who died in World War I, and met General John Pershing, commander of all United States forces in France during the war.

As of 1942, Buckles worked for the White Star (the line that owned the Titanic) and W.R. Grace shipping companies. Business took him to Manila in the Philippines. He was captured there by the Japanese in 1942, and spent the next three and a half years in the Los Baños prison camp. He became malnourished, with a weight below 100 pounds, and developed beriberi, yet led his fellow inmates in calisthenics. He was rescued on Feb. 23, 1945.

After World War II, he moved to San Francisco, where he married Audrey Mayo in 1946. In the mid-1950s, he retired from steamship work, and bought the 330-acre Gap View Farm in West Virginia, where he raised cattle. His wife died in 1999 and their daughter moved back to the farm to care for him.

Though its origins are undocumented, the term “doughboy” was first used in the 1840s. The most often cited explanation is that it arose during the Mexican–American War, after observers noticed U.S. infantry forces were constantly covered with chalky dust from marching through the dry terrain of northern Mexico, giving the men the appearance of unbaked dough.

Another suggestion is that doughboys were so named because of their method of cooking field rations in the 1840s and 1850s, using doughy flour and rice concoctions baked in the ashes of a camp fire. Still another explanation involves pipe clay, a substance with the appearance of dough used by pre-Civil War soldiers to clean their white garrison belts. The uniforms worn by American soldiers in the World War I era had very large buttons. In addition to that, the American soldiers wore white spats over their boots. The soldiers from allied nations suggested that the Americans were dressed like “Gingerbread Men” and then began to refer to the Americans as “The Doughboys.”

One hundred and ten years is a long life-span. We should all be so lucky. Many decry World War I an unnecessary war. They even decry World War II as an unnecessary war. Adam Smith was very critical of any war as waste of money as well as lives. Such pacific notions, being idealistic, don’t take into account the realities of the world, and do dishonor to the many doughboys who weren’t so lucky as Frank Buckles, dying at 17, 18, and 19 in service of their countries.

We forget that there are defenders and aggressors, who not only don’t care about peace but don’t care how many lives are shed in achieving their objectives. Moammar Qadaffi is one such aggressor. Ahmadinejad is another. So was Hitler. The wars are over; it does no good to blame the defenders for what they might have done to prevent the wars once they began. The only thing they could have done, realistically, is surrender. There may have been plenty they could have done to prevent them while still at peace, but that will hardly bring peace to those who died. We can only learn from the past, not change it. No matter what the causes, the soldiers and sailors died honorably (for the most part) in the service of their country. Tarnishing the country also tarnishes the soldiers who gave their lives for it.

Still Buckles came home and lived a long, long time. When asked about the secret of his long life, Buckles replied: "Hope."

He added, “When you start to die... don't.”

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