Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


WORLD WAR I VETERAN FRANK BUCKLES

WORLD WAR I VETERAN FRANK BUCKLES

The following article appears in the student study guide for Heroes, and is intended to help audience members learn more about the production.

Almost 5 million American served in World War I, which lasted from November of 1918 until June of 1919. Of those almost 5 million, the last survivor is Frank Buckles, currently 108 years old and a resident of Charles Town, West Virginia. Born in 1901, Buckles joined the Army in 1917 (after being rejected by the Marines and Navy) at 16 ½ when he lied to a recruiter about his age. According to Buckles, Missouri didn’t produce birth certificates in those days, and the only way to verify his age was to check the family Bible. Since Buckles was at the recruiting center in Oklahoma City, there was no way for the Army to verify his age, so they took him. Thus began his journey and some amazing brushes with history.

Frank Buckles

In December of 1917, Buckles boarded the Carpathia (the same ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic) and headed to England. He spent his time driving dignities around the country and was eventually transferred to France where he drove cars, ambulances, and guarded German prisoners of war. He never set foot in any of the infamous World War I trenches. He finally returned home in January of 1920, where, by chance, he met General John Pershing at a reception in Oklahoma City. General Pershing was the commander of US forces during World War I, and the only man besides George Washington to be promoted to the rank of General of the Armies (this is a rank above a 5-star General). General Pershing had grown up just 40 miles from Buckles boyhood home. 

He eventually moved to New York City, where he worked for a bank and joined a Sunday Bible class led by John D. Rockefeller Jr of Standard Oil. Eventually he bored of banking, and became a ship’s officer, and sailed over much of the world. In 1940 he boarded a ship for the Philippines, and was captured when the Japanese invaded Manila. Buckles was held prisoner for 3 ½ years in internment camps. Food was scarce, and eventually he dropped to only 100 pounds. While he was imprisoned, he was still being paid by the shipping company, and the checks piled up in the bank. When he returned home he invested the money, and in a few years was able to purchase 330 acre cattle farm in West Virginia. He also got married and had a daughter.

Frank Buckles in 2007

For decades, Frank Buckles lived a quiet existence on his farm, with few people even knowing he served in World War I. He rarely brought it up. But as the years passed there were fewer and fewer veterans left and people started to track him down for autographs and pictures. He began working with veteran’s organizations, and speaking to students about the First World War. In 2007, he was granted the honor of a burial at Arlington National Cemetery, only the second time that such an honor has been granted to a soldier not killed in action or a recipient of the Medal of Honor or Purple Heart. Today Frank Buckles even has a website, www.frankbuckles.org, and is the Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation, whose goal is to preserve and re-dedicate the DC War Memorial as a lasting national memorial to the veterans of World War I.

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