Frank Buckles: The last American survivor of the First World War

No one knows quite why American soldiers were once known as "doughboys". But Frank Buckles was indisputably the very last of them – the sole American still alive who went to Europe to fight in the First World War, after the US entered the conflict in 1917.

Like so many others, the 16-year-old farm boy from the Midwest was inspired to join up by a recruiting poster, but his first attempts were unsuccessful. When he told the Marines he was 18 but had forgotten his birth certificate, they laughed and suggested he go home before his mother noticed he was missing. The Navy rejected him, too, saying he had flat feet. So Buckles went for broke with the Army, saying he was not merely 18, but all of 21. It worked.

After preliminary training at Fort Riley in Kansas, he left for England in December 1917, aboard the RMS Carpathia, the ship that five years before had rescued survivors from the Titanic, and secured assignment to France as an ambulance driver. Buckles did not see action – indeed, he was never within 30 miles of the frontline – but as he liked to say later, "I saw the results." He had especially vivid memories of the French soldiers as they prepared to return to battle, spending their last night of leave in a village cafe.

"They had very little money," he told an interviewer from the Library ofCongress, "but they were drinking wine and singing the Marseillaise withenthusiasm. And I enquired, 'What is the occasion?' They were going back to the front, they told me. Can you imagine that?"

When the armistice that did end the "War to End All Wars" was signed in November 1918, Buckles helped repatriate German prisoners, many of them scarcely older than himself. He returned to the US with the rank of corporal, and in 1920 was discharged.

His initial plan was to go into business. Buckles took typing and shorthand lessons, and briefly worked in a bank. But he quickly became bored, and went to work for shipping companies and travelled the world. On a port call in Germany in the 1930s, he would claim, he saw Hitler in a hotel lobby.

The Second World War, however, was less kind to him. In December 1941, Buckles was in Manila when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and then landed in the Philippines. He was taken prisoner and spent the next three years in filthy internment camps, including the infamous Los Banos. He was finally liberated in February 1945, ravaged by disease and weighing barely seven stone, by his own admission "astonished that any of us survived."

This time Buckles did settle down. He returned to the US, married, and in the mid-1950s bought a small cattle farm in West Virginia. There he would spend the rest of his life, driving his car and tractor until he was well over 100.

As the decades passed and the doughboys' ranks gradually thinned to near- vanishing point, Buckles became a listed national monument, a living link to America's great wars of the first half of the 20th century. He gave countless interviews, and was fêted at the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Almost to the end he fought for his special cause, the creation of a dedicated federal memorial in Washington DC fit to honour the 4.7m Americans who signed up for the First World War and the 2m who went to Europe.

In 2008, the George W Bush administration bent the rules of protocol to permit Buckles – a mere corporal who had served barely a year in a combat theatre and had never actually fought – to be buried with full military honours in Arlington Cemetery, in a grave with a traditional white marble headstone, alongside some of the country's greatest heroes. "I knew there'd be only one some day," Buckles said as his life drew towards its end. "I didn't think it would be me."

Frank Woodruff Buckles, soldier and farmer: born Bethany, Missouri 1 February 1901; served US Army 1917-1920; married 1946 Audrey Mayo (deceased; one daughter); died Charles Town, West Virginia 27 February 2011.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone