The Last Doughboy

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

In the movie “Up in the Air,” Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a twenty-ish entry-level exec, and career businessman Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) are on a marathon trip for their employer, hop-scotching from Omaha to St. Louis to Miami to Wichita and beyond.  At one point Natalie is on the cell phone with her boyfriend, who is apparently jealous of his girlfriend’s long distance trek with Bingham.

“No,” Natalie protests to her boyfriend. “I don’t even think of him that way.  He’s old.” In the background, Bingham, who certainly doesn’t think of himself as old, grimaces as Natalie’s unintended dart punctures his ego.

Moral: Old is a relative term.  When you’re ten, anyone over fifty is ancient.  But when you turn fifty, you refer to yourself as middle aged, not old.  For several years, I played golf with six guys in their seventies and eighties, plus one guy, Fred, who was ninety-four.  We referred to him as “the old guy.” Presumably the rest of us were kids.

Just this past week I came upon some startling statistics about what constitutes being old. CTV, the Canadian English-language TV network, says that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about half a million centenarians in the world. Really! Half a million!  Of those, nearly 100,000 live in the U.S., and by 2050 that number will jump to 1.1 million.  Are you a baby boomer?  Then here’s an even more mind-blowing stat. Researchers at Boston University predict that some three million of you boomers will live to be 100 or older.

This week’s blog is about a centenarian, and before getting to his story, I wanted to make the point that simply living to one hundred isn’t nearly as amazing a feat as it once was. In the 20th century the average life span increased thirty whole years, which is greater than the increases in the last 5,000 years of human existence.  So let us celebrate this week’s centenarian not just for living long, which even a heel can do, but for living a full and admirable life. 

Frank Woodruff Buckles was born into a Missouri farming family on February 1, 1901, and died at his Gap View Farm in West Virginia on February 27, 2011. If the name is familiar it is because his recent passing received considerable publicity in local and national newspapers and on network TV. Mr. Buckles was the last surviving American soldier who fought in World War 1.

“I always knew I’d be one of the last because I was one of the youngest when I joined,” Mr. Buckles told the New York Daily News in 2008, when he was 107. “But I never thought I’d be the last one.”

After the war began, Mr. Buckles tried to enlist in the Marine Corps and the Navy, but was turned down by both.  The Marines said he was too young — he was sixteen — and the Navy complained that he was flat-footed, a fact which he disputed his entire life. In spite of his small size and youthful age, he managed to enlist in the Army and was soon sent to Europe.

He served as a driver in England and in various locations in France, driving military autos and ambulances. The war’s effects left a lasting impression on him. “The little French children were hungry,” Mr. Buckles recalled in a 2001 interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. “We’d feed the children. To me, that was a pretty sad sight.” He never got close to the action. But, as he told columnist George F. Will in 2008, “I saw the results.”

After the war he went to business school and worked for many years in the steamship industry, eventually being posted to Manila. In an ironic twist, the man who never faced a bullet as a soldier in World War 1 became a civilian prisoner of war in 1942.  He spent the next three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp.

“He was only a corporal and he never got closer than 30 or so miles to the Western Front trenches, “ wrote Richard Goldstein in the New York Times, “but Mr. Buckles became something of a national treasure as the last living link to the two million men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France in ‘the war to end all wars.’

 “Frail, stooped and hard of hearing but sharp of mind, Mr. Buckles was named grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington in 2007. He was a guest at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day 2007 for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He was honored by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon and met with President George W. Bush at the White House in March 2008.” Early in life he met General John Pershing and in his later years he was presented with France’s Légion d’honneur by French President Jacques Chirac.

When he died in February, Mr. Buckles was 110.  On Tuesday morning, as a line of mourners passed by, Mr. Buckles body lay in repose in the Memorial Amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery. Later in the day, he was buried there with full military honors..

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