Frank Buckles, 107, old-school survivor
May 18, 2008
"I realize now I was very young."
Frank Buckles was 16 and lied about his age to the Army so he could enlist and go to Europe. It was 1917 and the country was facing the "war to end all wars."
Now, at 107, he is America’s last living World War I veteran. At his farmhouse in West Virginia, he looks back at it all — driving ambulances in WWI, working on ships all over the world and surviving WWII in a prison camp — and he laughs.
A serious situation
Well read from a young age, Buckles was very aware of the brooding war. He wanted to go.
"A 15-year-old boy is not scared of anything," he said matter-of-factly.
His family had just moved to Oklahoma from Missouri and Buckles was in high school, working at a bank and living in a hotel. He traveled to Wichita, Kan., to the state fair and visited the Marine recruiting station.
He told the man behind the booth he was 18 and ready to the join the service. "The nice sergeant there told me I wasn’t old enough," Buckles said. "I came back a week later and told him I was 21. He told me I was too light."
Buckles went to a Navy recruiting office but was told he was flat-footed. He took a train to Oklahoma City to talk to Army recruiters. They wanted a birth certificate.
"I said the record of my birth was in the family Bible and I didn’t want to take it down there." It worked.
In August 1917, Buckles, 16, was on his way to Europe aboard the Carpathia, the vessel famous for rescuing passengers of the Titanic five years earlier. Much of the same staff was aboard and Buckles begged for details of the tragedy he had read about.
The boat docked in England, then he was off to France. He signed up to be an ambulance driver, a sure bet on seeing combat. "Everyone wanted to get to France," Buckles said. "That’s where the action was, where the promotions were, where the injuries were."
Because of his work as a bank clerk, the Army wanted to put him at a desk job. Buckles fought the idea and instead drove motorcycles with sidecars, transported VIPs, guarded German prisoners and drove ambulances in France and England.
"I realized immediately when I arrived to England that this was a very serious situation," he said.
Gen. John Pershing, the American Commander in Europe during WWI, was making rounds throughout the States and stopped in Oklahoma City in 1920. Buckles was home from the war and completed a quick business school course on shorthand and typing. He had read plenty about Pershing’s tenure: his service in the Spanish-American War and the Mexican Expedition. After the war he became the Army Chief of Staff.
Buckles showed up in uniform to a reception for Pershing and ended up being the only servicemember there.
"I gave the general a snappy salute and he sent the sergeant after me to ask me questions," Buckles remembers proudly.
Buckles said Pershing would have noticed the stripes on his uniform sleeves, representing the time he served in Europe.
He also would have seen that Buckles carried riding gloves representing the cavalry. Buckles was not a cavalry man, but Pershing was.
He found out he and Pershing were born about 30 miles apart in Missouri. Buckles on February 1, 1901, on his father’s Harrison County farm, and Pershing in 1860 near Laclede.
"He was all military," Buckles said of his war hero. "No smiling or patting you on the back."
Survival of the fittest
Buckles, who keeps three- and four-pound weights near his chair, studied and taught calisthenics at different times in his life.
After the war and business school, he began a career in shipping, first in Toronto and then in New York City. From about 1924 to 1940, Buckles was at sea traveling to South America and Asia.
In 1940 he accepted an assignment to move cargo for the American President Lines in Manila. He had a job offer in San Francisco and thought he could be back within a year to accept it. "Unfortunately for me, my stay was extended," he said.
The Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941 and Buckles spent three and a half years in Japanese prison camps at Santo Tomas and Los Banos. He was rescued by the 11th Airborne Division on February 23, 1945. A book about the raid rests on a table within arm’s reach at his farmhouse. He would lead the other internees in calisthenics, he said. "Some men starved and others played baseball."
"What is important in an emergency is to know how to survive," he went on. Toronto is where he fell in love with exercise. In New York: "I knew how to survive on a little bit of food," he joked.
Buckles went to San Francisco after he was rescued and within a year and a half was married to Audrey Mayo. They went to Gap View Farm in Charles Town, W.V., in 1954, an area that Buckles’ ancestors had settled in the 1700s. Fifty-four years later, Buckles still lives in the 18th-century stone farmhouse with views of rolling hills. His daughter Susannah and her husband, Michael Flanagan, manage the 330-acre cattle farm. Buckles’ wife died in 1999.
It’s easy to tell Buckles likes reliving his story. Even the most serious situations are spoke of with a smile. He knows the punch lines and waits for everyone else to get it.
He says he maybe should have taken a computer course, but at the same time "it startles me when I go down to Washington and see all those tremendous buildings and see all these young people wasting their time on computers."
Television? He’s not interested unless it’s a big event like the Olympics.
Health? People today "eat too much and there’s not enough exercise." They were probably trained wrong, the former calisthenics leader says. "I never saw an overweight man on my ships."
Cars? There’s too many of them.
"Everyone has an automobile, and not only that, a new one," he said.
Buckles drove his car until he was 102. "Not that I couldn’t have gone on a few more years," he says. He doesn’t care to comment on presidential hopefuls or the military in the Middle East.
"That’s not my war," he says with a smile.