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Last Doughboy Seeks WWI Memorial on Mall

Dec 3, 2009 – 9:48 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Dec. 3) -- Frank Buckles, the only surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, was wheeled into a Capitol Hill hearing room Thursday to urge senators to sanction a memorial to his long-gone comrades on the National Mall.

When the politicians were done posing for pictures and testifying to his patriotism, the room went quiet as they waited for the 108-year-old former doughboy to speak.

"What am I supposed to say?" Buckles softly murmured.

Tell them why the District of Columbia World War I Memorial should be rededicated as a national memorial, his daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, whispered into his hearing aid.

"Oh, it is an excellent idea," Buckles declared.
Frank Buckles
Alex Brandon, AP
Frank Buckles, who at 108 is the last surviving American veteran of World War I, appears at a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday.

Frank Buckles, who at 108 is the last surviving American veteran of World War I, appears at a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday.

Sen. Mark Udall, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees national parks, beamed. "I'm tempted to adjourn this meeting right now," the Colorado Democrat said.

He did not, as there were others waiting their turn to testify against rededicating the neglected, tumbledown memorial that honors 499 District residents who died in the "Great War." But by then, the scrum of cameras was gone.

Buckles, who lives on a farm in Charles Town, W.Va., with his daughter and her husband, has become the still-living symbol of World War I. There may be grander World War I memorials elsewhere. And some D.C. residents may not appreciate having their "little memorial" -- as Flanagan calls it -- taken over. But few can resist "the last man standing," as his home-state senator, Jay Rockefeller, calls Buckles.

Before Buckles stopped giving interviews, the media flocked to his farm to be regaled with war stories. Buckles, who joined the Army when he was just 16, has been honored at the White House and the Pentagon. He was granted special permission by President George W. Bush to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery not far from his old commander, Gen. John Pershing.

About a mile from the D.C. memorial is one dedicated to Pershing, who was commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Although the memorial is on a well-trodden tourist path near the White House, Flanagan says it isn't on the more central National Mall and doesn't commemorate all 4.7 million Americans who served.

There is something special about being on the Mall. When the "war to end all wars" proved otherwise, memorials to Vietnam, Korea and, belatedly, World War II were built there. Still, "there was no historical representation" for World War I, Flanagan said. The modest D.C. memorial with its classic Doric columns was overshadowed and overlooked.

World War I deserves to be honored in the "memorial triangle" of the Mall, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

"I don't think there can be any better place," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

But local activists, including the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, oppose legislation supported by the World War I Memorial Foundation, of which Buckles is the honorary chairman. They note that legislation before Congress would not only refurbish the monument but would add an "appropriate sculptural or other commemorative element" to the existing structure -- a violation of a law that bans new construction on the Mall.

Paul Strauss, a "shadow" senator elected by District of Columbia residents, welcomes $7.3 million in stimulus funds set aside by the Obama administration to restore the original memorial but respectfully opposes the bill named for Buckles.

"That monument was dedicated and set forth specifically to honor the D.C. residents who died in that war without a vote," said Strauss, referring to the District's lack of representation in Congress. "To have it diluted or diminished or co-opted in any way -- there's certainly nothing wrong with building a World War I memorial for everybody -- but I don't think you should take away D.C.'s special monument for veterans who held a special status."

An official of the National Park Service testified that the federal government opposes designating the D.C. monument or any other as the official national World War I memorial until it conducts a study of all contenders.

Perhaps the strongest competitor for bragging rights is the 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial and National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Less than 100 miles from the Missouri farm where Buckles grew up, the memorial was dedicated in 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge and designated by Congress as a national symbol of World War I in 2000.

Brian Alexander, the memorial's president, said the Kansas City tower, unlike the D.C. gazebo, was always "outward looking" -- military commanders from the five Allied nations and Gen. Pershing himself were at the groundbreaking. And Alexander noted that the family of Sgt. Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier of the war, supports the Kansas City memorial. The Medal of Honor winner's great-granddaughter was at Thursday's hearing.

Buckles was in the ambulance corps and never saw action in France. He said the D.C. memorial "should not interfere with the one in Kansas City," which he has visited and which his daughter calls "exquisite."

But when he visited the D.C. memorial for the first time last year with David DeJonge, who met Buckles while photographing the last World War I veterans and now is on the foundation board, he became convinced that his war should be honored on America's front yard like all the other conflicts of the 20th century.

And while Buckles isn't sure he'll make it to the dedication of whichever memorial is eventually designated as "national," he is looking forward.

"I'll be 109 the first of February," he said. "And I don't have any aches or pains."
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