CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Numbers come precisely from the agile mind and nimble tongue of Frank Buckles, who seems bemused to say that 4,734,991 Americans served in the military during America's involvement in the First World War and 4,734,990 are gone. He is feeling fine, thank you for asking.
The eyes of the last doughboy are still sharp enough for him to be a keen reader, and his voice is still deep and strong at age 107. He must have been a fine broth of a boy when, at 16, persistence paid off and he found, in Oklahoma City, an Army recruiter who believed, or pretended to, the fibs he had unavailingly told to Marine and Navy recruiters in Kansas about being 18. He grew up on a Missouri farm, not far from where two eminent generals were born — John "Black Jack" Pershing and Omar Bradley.
"Boys in the country," says Buckles, "read the papers," so he was eager to get into the fight over there. He was told that the quickest way was to train for casualty retrieval and ambulance operations. Soon he was headed for England aboard the passenger ship Carpathia, which was celebrated for having, five years earlier, rescued survivors from the Titanic.
Buckles never saw combat but "I saw the results." He seems vague about only one thing: What was the First World War about?
Before leaving England for France, he was stationed near Winchester College, where he noticed "Buckles" among the names that boys had carved in their desks. This ignited his interest in genealogy, which led him to discover that his ancestor Robert Buckles, born in Yorkshire on May 15, 1702, arrived at age 30 in what is now West Virginia.
After Cpl. Buckles was mustered out of the Army in 1920 with $143.90 in his pocket, he went to business school in Oklahoma City for five months, then rented a typewriter for $3 a month and sent out job applications. One landed him work in the steamship business, which took him around the world — Latin America, China, Manchuria. And Germany, where, he says, in 1928 "two impressive gentlemen" told him, "We are preparing for another war."
Behind glass in a cabinet in his small sitting room are mementos from his eventful life: a German army belt with a buckle bearing words all nations believe, "Gott Mit Uns (God Is With Us)." The tin cup from which he ate all his meals, such as they were, during the 39 months he was a prisoner of the Japanese — because he was working for a shipping company in Manila on Dec. 7, 1941.
Widowed in 1999, this man who was born during the administration of the 25th president recently voted in West Virginia's primary to select a candidate to be the 44th. His favorite president of his lifetime? The oldest, Ronald Reagan.
Buckles is reading David McCullough's 1776. That date is just 18 years more distant from his birth than today is.
This Memorial Day, Buckles will be feted back in Missouri, at the annual parade and fireworks in Kansas City. Perhaps he will journey to Bethany, to the house on whose porch he sat at age 3, 104 years ago.
He was born in February 1901, seven months before President William McKinley was assassinated. If Buckles had been born 14 months earlier, he would have lived in three centuries. He has lived through 46 percent of the nation's life, a percentage that rises each morning when he does.
On June 28, 1914, an assassin's bullet in Sarajevo killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The war that followed took more than 116,000 American lives — more than all of America's wars after the Second World War. And in a sense, the First World War took many more American lives because it led to the Second World War and beyond.
The First World War is still taking American lives because it destroyed the Austro-Hungarian, Romanoff and Ottoman empires. A shard of the latter is called Iraq.
The 20th century's winds of war blew billions of ordinary people hither and yon. One of them sits here in a cardigan sweater in an old wood and stone house on a rise on a 330-acre cattle farm. In this case, and probably in every case, the word "ordinary" is inappropriate.
George Will's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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