The Last Doughboy

As the sole surviving American veteran of World War I, Frank Woodruff Buckles, 107, of Charles Town, W.Va., is the nation's last "doughboy," the only remaining soldier of 4 million men called by President Woodrow Wilson to fight against Germany in 1917.

Although he is slowed and bent by age, Buckles does 50 push-ups in bed "to keep in shape," before preparing to meet the many visitors he receives almost daily in his home.

"I have always exercised," he says from a cushioned chair. Wooden handrails about waist-high around the walls help him walk on his own. Here, Buckles fills his days, greeting visitors and reading the many books filling the room's shelves. Buckles, who has been a member of American Legion Merchant Marine Post 945 in Jefferson Valley, N.Y., since 1931, speaks German, Spanish, French and Portuguese, and reads voraciously. He is also quick to quiz visitors about their own reading habits.

Born in 1901 on his father's Bethany, Mo., farm, Buckles recalls stories about his ancestors' roles in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. In fact, some Civil War battles were fought on the historic 330-acre farm he purchased in 1954, where he lives today. He drove a tractor on the farm up to his 104th birthday.

Buckles was a rosy-cheeked 16-year-old when he volunteered for service, enlisting in the U.S. Regular Army on Aug. 1, 1917, after being turned down twice - once by the Marine Corps and another time by the Navy. The Marines said he was too young, and the Navy said he had flat feet. But the Army took him, youth, flat feet and all.

Buckles was sent to Fort Riley, Kan., to train with the First Fort Riley Casual Detachment and shipped out to England in December 1917 with his unit and 102 other soldiers on board the HMS Carpathia, the famous vessel that rescued survivors of the White Star Line's Titanic sinking on April 15, 1912. While on board, Buckles gathered firsthand stories of the Titanic's rescue from members of the Carpathia crew who had helped in the recovery.

In England, at Camp Hospital No. 35, Cpl. Buckles drove a Ford ambulance, and New Douglas and Excelsior sidecar motorcycles, as an escort for his commanding officers. He eventually got to France by escorting an officer who had been accidentally left behind by his unit. Buckles did not see combat, but he witnessed its results - scenes he hasn't forgotten and doesn't discuss.

After the war, Buckles landed a job with White Star Line Steamship Co. and, in 1940, was posted in Manila while employed by American President Steamship Lines. In December 1941, after Japan invaded the Philippines, Buckles and about 2,000 other civilians became non-military victims of the war. He spent the next three and a half years in Japanese POW camps, first at Manila's University of Santo Tomas and then at Los Banos, a town on the island of Luzon some 40 miles southeast of Manila. He was liberated by the 11th Airborne Division on Feb. 23, 1945, in the famous raid on Los Banos, and returned to the United States, where he married Audrey Mayo of Pleasanton, Calif., in 1946.

In 1954, the couple moved to Gap View Farm in West Virginia's panhandle on land settled by his ancestors. His wife died in 1999, the same year in which Buckles was awarded the French Legion of Honor by then-President Jacques Chirac. This past March, President George W. Bush honored Buckles at the White House.

A proud veteran, Buckles still displays his World War I uniform with all of his insignia, and his dog tags. His memory is as crisp as the mornings on his cattle farm. Meeting visitors and reading are his pastimes today. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't even own one. He feels his age, he says, only "when I try to walk."

Until a few years ago, he met regularly with a group of veterans and was still farming. His only child, Susannah Flanagan, 52, says he refuses to put "retired" on his income tax form.

Buckles says he is honored to bear the title of America's last doughboy. And though he has been afforded the tribute of being buried at Arlington, he says he wants to put that off for a while.

Fred Brown is a retired senior writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel and a freelance journalist living in Knoxville, Tenn.