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America’s last World War I veteran

My great-uncle was a proud veteran of the First World War and used to be a member of an organization called the Veterans of World War I Association. I know that because when I was visiting with his family sometime in the late 1960’s I saw one of their publications and asked about it. Even then, the “Great War” as he occasionally still called it, seemed a long time ago. That was over forty years ago and back then many of these doughboys were still healthy and many, like my Uncle Harley, were still working.


Uncle Harley passed on in 1982. As for the organization that he and at one point tens of thousands of his fellow veterans had belonged to it was growing older. Indeed, as age was taking its toll, even by the 1980’s, there was a realization that the time when there would be no more World War I veterans wasn’t all that far away; something that though inevitable is still sad to contemplate. As the organization dwindled to just a handful of members, its modest expenses - there was no more office or staff - were handled by its former executive director.
At the close of the first decade of the 21st century, of the four and a half million Americans mobilized for the First World War, only one remains. He is Frank Buckles. I am sure he never imagined when he joined up 93 years ago that he would be the last one left. But, it’s a role, even at 109 that he takes seriously.
At the tender age of 108, and at the invitation of Virginia’s Senator Jim Webb, Frank Buckles was perhaps the oldest person to ever testify before a Congressional Committee. He was asking the Senate to restore the District of Columbia’s World War One Veterans Memorial and to make it a “national” First World War Veterans memorial.
The D.C. Memorial, located on the National Mall, was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1931. President Hoover presided over the event. But, in the years that followed, as other conflicts came and went, the memorial, behind an ever growing curtain of trees and brush, seemed to fade away. Only the most curious tourists ventured to see it, and when they did, what they found was a badly neglected memorial. There was water damage to the small structure, the marble work was stained, and the clock, a centerpiece to the memorial, had long since stopped working.
But thanks to Buckles, some stimulus money, and Jim Webb’s prodding, the D.C. memorial is coming back to life. The trees and brush that have blocked its view for so long have been trimmed. Restoration experts have assessed the state of the memorial and are already working on fixing it. The Park Service would like to complete the memorial restoration while America’s last living World War I veteran is still with us. That may, or may not, be possible. Mr. Buckles is said to be in failing health. However, he had said repeatedly, that the hope of seeing the rededication of this memorial is keeping him going.
There is a bill pending before Congress to designate the memorial on the national mall as a national World War I Memorial. Because of its location in the nation’s capital and being so close to the other major war memorials – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Women in Military Service Memorial – this designation seems particularly fitting. However, nothing in Washington is ever that simple.
There is a competition of sorts with the World War I memorial in St. Louis. The St. Louis memorial is an extensive facility and museum and some members of the Missouri Congressional delegation fear that having a new national memorial on the Mall might take away from their status as a national memorial. This seems silly, and certainly having two “national” memorials, one a simple marble remembrance on the National Mall, and the other, a more comprehensive visitors experience in the middle of the country, should present no problem. But so far, the legislation hasn’t moved forward.
American involvement in the First World War, by comparison to other conflicts, was relatively short, but that didn’t mean we weren’t heavily engaged. With 4.5 million men mobilized there was nothing half way about our commitment. Also, and perhaps most telling, is that in this first of many fights for freedom in the 20th century, 120,000 Americans were killed and 205,000 were wounded. These young men, and all who served with them, deserve to be remembered in their nation’s capital. Senator Webb’s bill, and the gentle plea of a lone Corporal in that war, Frank Buckles, deserves to be honored.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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