Frank W. Buckles died Sunday, sadly yet not unexpectedly at age 110, having achieved a singular feat of longevity that left him proud and a bit bemused.
In 1917 and 1918, close to 5 million Americans served in World War I, and Buckles, a cordial fellow of gentle humor, was the last known survivor. "I knew there'd be only one someday," he said a few years back. "I didn't think it would be me."
His daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, said Buckles, a widower, died of natural causes on his West Virginia farm, where she had been caring for him.
"We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation's history," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said of Buckles, whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. "But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated."
There were 4,734,991 Americans who served in the military during World War I.
When 108-year-old Harry Landis died in Sun City Center on Feb. 4, 2008, Buckles became the war's last U.S. veteran.
Buckles, who was born by lantern light in a Missouri farmhouse, quit school at 16 and bluffed his way into the Army. As the nation flexed its full military might overseas for the first time, he joined 2 million U.S. troops shipped to France.
Ninety years later, with available records showing that former corporal Buckles, serial No. 15577, had outlived all of his compatriots from World War I, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared him the last doughboy standing. He was soon answering fan mail and welcoming inquisitive visitors to his rural home.
"I feel like an endangered species," he joked, well into his 11th decade. As a rear-echelon ambulance driver behind the Western Front in 1918, he was away from the worst of the fighting. But "I saw the results," he would say.
With his death, researchers said, only two of about 65 million people mobilized by the world's militaries during the Great War are known to be alive: an Australian man and a British woman, 109 and 110, respectively.
Buckles said he was just a naive schoolboy chasing adventure when he enlisted Aug. 14, 1917, after the United States joined a war that had been raging for three years. "I knew what was happening in Europe, even though I was quite young," he said when he was 105.
After the armistice, he traveled the globe as a purser on commercial ships and was caught in Manila when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. He endured 38 months as a civilian prisoner during World War II before being freed in a military raid.
In 1953, he and his wife bought a cattle farm with a Colonial-era stone house near Charles Town, W.Va., and there Buckles quietly spent the rest of his life, his doughboy tunic hanging in a closet. As his generation passed, he held fast, doing daily calisthenics.
He was a guest on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and in the Oval Office. School children, history buffs, journalists, younger veterans, and even Britain's defense secretary visited him at the farm.
"Well, I guess I'm famous now," he said slyly.
Buckles' secret to longevity: "When you think you're dying," his son-in-law once heard him quip, "don't."
Wood Buckles — his given name, recorded in the family Bible — was born Feb. 1, 1901, on his parents' farm in Bethany, Mo. He said destiny seemed to side with him early, in 1903, when he and his brother Ashman fell deathly ill together with scarlet fever.
Ashman, 4, succumbed; Buckles pulled through and lived a century. Few others born during the McKinley administration lived to have a Facebook page, as he did.
"My father took newspapers," he told the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project a decade ago. "I read about the war."
The din of rabid patriotism surrounding America's entry into the war in April 1917 stirred his imagination, Buckles said.
"I was just 16 and didn't look a day older," he once wrote. After Navy and Marine Corps recruiters shooed him away — "they'd take one look at me and laugh" — the expanding Army inducted Buckles, who swore without proof that he was old enough to join.