The last surviving American veteran of World War I lived on nearly four more years. He died Sunday at 110.
At the time we met, Buckles was one of four known surviving U.S. veterans from World War I and the only one still able to give interviews. With time running out -- or so I thought -- I drove over from Washington, D.C., to interview him at his home for USA Today.
It was a no-brainer. Who wouldn't want to read the story of a man who served in the first world war, was a POW in the second and in between turned up, Zelig-like, in the most amazing places, where he met the most famous and interesting people of his day?
But it was not to be. Susannah Buckles Flanagan, the veteran's only child, wouldn't cooperate.
She had her own "family spokesman" with his own ideas -- although at the time she said the book offer could have been more lucrative. And, besides, it was clear she didn't share the publisher's sense of urgency that I interview her father ASAP.
"It's not like Papa is sick and is going to die any time soon," she told me.
Who would have laid odds that she'd be right?
Buckles' story was preserved by the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. His many milestones have been recounted in yellowed newspaper clippings and online. But by the time Flanagan put the kibosh on the project, I had already etched out the chapters in the life of a man whom, as President Barack Obama said today, "lived the American century":
Chapter 1: "My Childhood" Buckles was born Feb. 1, 1901, on his father's farm near Bethany in Harrison County, Mo. His family traced their roots to the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower and he claimed as ancestors a soldier killed in the Revolutionary War and another who received the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. He saw his first automobile in 1905, his first airplane two years later at the Illinois State Fair. When he was 15, his family moved to a farm in Oklahoma and he accompanied a boxcar of draft horses and equipment on his own. Once there, he worked at a bank while attending high school.
Chapter 2: "The World Was Involved in It and So Was I" The patriotic posters began appearing at the post office in tiny Oakwood, Okla., in April 1917 and Buckles, just 16, was determined to enlist in what then was known as the Great War. At a Marine Corps recruiting office in Wichita, Kan., he said he was 18 but was sent away when the recruiter doubted his age. The Navy was next, but it rejected him as flat-footed. He finally convinced an Army recruiter in Oklahoma City to accept him after explaining the only proof of his age in that time -- before the state issued birth certificates -- was written in a family Bible back in Missouri.
Chapter 3: "You're in the Army Now" Buckles was issued serial No. 15577 upon enlisting on Aug. 14, 1917. "I liked the Army right off," Buckles told me, recalling a fondness for calisthenics. He joined the ambulance corps as the quickest way to get to France. Training at Fort Riley, Kan., he learned how to haul wounded soldiers from a trench using his belt as a cinch.
Chapter 4: "Over There" Sailing for Europe in December 1917, Buckles came within view of Halifax, Nova Scotia, just days after the city was destroyed in the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb era when a munitions ship crashed into another vessel. Buckles saw the devastation from the deck of the RMS Carpathia, a converted troop ship that had gained fame in another tragedy when it rescued survivors of the Titanic in April 1912. He whiled away the time listening to the stories of officers and crew who were there.
Chapter 5: "In Country" After biding his time in England, where he drove a motorcycle with a sidecar and crashed the funeral of the wife of the Selfridges department store magnate, the young corporal was shipped off to France. He never made it to the front line but was briefly reported AWOL when he and a buddy traded cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes for a stay at a swanky hotel in Biarritz. After the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, Buckles was assigned to escort prisoners of war back to Germany. He later kept a German soldier's belt buckle, inscribed "Gott mit uns," in a curio cabinet.
Chapter 6: "Coming Home" Buckles sailed home in January 1920, long after the parades for returning soldiers were over. Before collecting $143.90 in muster-out pay, he met Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing at a reception in Oklahoma City. The general, recently returned from commanding U.S. forces in France, asked the young corporal his boyhood home. As Buckles often recounted, when he said Harrison County, Mo., Pershing replied, "Just 43 miles, as the crow flies, from Linn County, where I was born."
Chapter 7: "Sailing the Seven Seas" After the war, Buckles moved to Toronto to take a job with the White Star Line of Titanic fame. During a short stint in New York, he attended a Sunday Bible class led by Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr. -- whose grandson Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia would introduce him at a U.S. Senate hearing some 90 years later. Signing on with another steamship company, Buckles spent the next two decades in the shipping business, mostly in South America. In 1928, he visited Germany and was told by a former Army officer that the country was preparing for another war. "He said, 'We as military officers are very opposed to it, but what can we say?' " Buckles recalled of the conversation five years before Adolf Hitler rose to power.
Chapter 8: "My Second War" In 1940, Buckles went to work for a shipping company in Manila, where he lived the carefree life of an ex-pat, hobnobbing at cocktail parties with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. That all changed when the Japanese invaded the Philippines a day after their attack on Pearl Harbor. Buckles spent 3 1/2 years in two Japanese prisoner of war camps. By the time he was rescued in one of the most daring raids in military history, he weighed just 100 pounds. "Everything he did was an adventure. He wasn't a milquetoast kind of guy who stayed in the states," said Sascha Weinzheimer, who met Buckles while both were POWs and became a lifelong friend.
Chapter 9: "Settling Down" Buckles moved to San Francisco after World War II. In September 1946, he married Audrey Mayo, who grew up on a California ranch. Together they "decided it was time to give up foreign assignments and come back to the land." They bought a 330-acre farm in West Virginia, where his family first settled in 1732. Buckles would record farm activities, meetings and social events and paste newspaper clippings in annual almanacs that would fill an entire bookshelf by the time he became a centenarian.
Chapter 10: "The Last Warrior" In 1999, Audrey passed away. And Buckles and some 1,000 other surviving World War I veterans were awarded the French Legion of Honor by French President Jacques Chirac. Life magazine wrote about him and other journalists soon came calling, including this one. In his final years, Buckles became the public face of a move to designate a crumbling local monument to Washington, D.C., veterans as a national World War I memorial. This autumn, renovations began but by then he was too ill to see his dream become a reality.
Plans for the burial will be announced soon. President Obama has ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff. His casket may lay in the Capitol Rotunda. There will be full military honors at his funeral.
And why not? As Buckles proudly told me that day nearly a century after the guns of the Great War fell silent, "I was a snappy soldier."
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