When Frank Woodruff Buckles, 110, died on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, he was the last known survivor of the 4.7 million Americans who served in World War I. Born in Harrison County, Mo., on Feb. 1, 1901, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army on Aug. 14, 1917. The 16-year-old shipped “over there” in December 1917 and served in England and France as a driver. After the Armistice he repatriated German POWs. He was honorably discharged in November 1919.
‘When the paratroopers started dropping—that was different. Nobody had ever heard of a paratrooper’
Those two years of his young life came to define Buckles in later years. Yet he endured a longer and far greater trial in World War II. In December 1941 Buckles was in Manila, working in the shipping business, when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. He spent the next 39 months as a civilian prisoner of war, wasting down to a 100-pound shadow of his fit prewar self. In a daring raid on Feb. 23, 1945, Army paratroopers liberated Buckles and 2,146 other POWs from the Los Baños internment camp. He was waiting with rucksack in hand.
On March 15, 2011, Buckles was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 2008 Military History spoke with him about experiences as a soldier and as a POW. Following are excerpts of that long evening’s chat in his Charles Town, W.Va., farmhouse.
How does it feel to be the last man standing?
I am a little surprised that I’ve been selected as the one.
When did you think to enlist?
I’d thought about it since I was 3 years old.
At such a tender age?
Well, sure. Don’t boys have any ambition? Don’t they think of anything other than just eating and sleeping?
If you spend your time just thinking about girls, you don’t get anyplace, as far as adventure is concerned.
Where did you enlist?
During summer vacation 1917, a rancher invited me to the [Kansas] State Fair in Wichita. While there, I went around to the Marine Corps recruiter, but he told me I wasn’t old enough. So I took the train to Oklahoma City, where an Army captain asked to see a birth certificate. I explained that in Missouri, birth certificates were not on record and said, “Now, you don’t want me to bring a Bible down here to this place, do you?” He accepted me.
Did you tell anyone in your family?
My grandmother. She spoke very sensibly about it and said she wasn’t at all surprised. Her grandfather had served in the American Revolution and was killed at the Battle of Oriskany.
The first my parents knew about it was when they received a postcard saying that I was on my way to training camp.
Where did you take basic training?
Fort Logan, Colo. I went into the regular U.S. Army, where I was allowed to choose my service. I told them, “I want to go to France.” I was in a hurry. I enlisted in the ambulance service, because the French were begging for ambulance drivers.
The Army then sent me to Fort Riley, Kan., for intensive training in trench retrieval.
What skills did they teach you?
French or British officers would outline what trenches were like. We also tested gas—real gas, too. You had to put on a gas mask.
Were you scared?
Sixteen-year-old boys aren’t afraid of anything.
When did you ship out?
I went to England in December 1917 on Carpathia, the ship that came to the rescue of Titanic. Some of the crew had been on Carpathia when they made the rescue and were quite willing to talk about it.
Carpathia went to Glasgow. And from there soldiers went by train to Winchester. They called it a rest camp. You might be there for a week, 10 days. Then they’d put you on a ship across the channel.
How did you get to France?
I figured out that at the end of a certain lane [embarking soldiers] would be marching along at night, no lights anyplace, and you’d just fall in line. The troops’ movements were all mixed up just as they got aboard, going to Southhampton. You got it made.
Did you have it made?
I took three men into my confidence. But that night I had to take somebody someplace. There was no fooling about in those days. You didn’t waste government gasoline. And I didn’t show up.
The other three men followed my instructions, and they made it over to France.
They came back under escort.
Did they get into any trouble?
Sure, two or three months of hard labor—just sawing logs with the guards. But when they would see me toodling past [laughs while shaking fist].
How did you get to France?
I tried everything. I told [the area commander] that I came over here to go to France. He said, “I want to go to France, too. But I have to go where the government tells me to.”
Finally, it worked. A company had left an officer behind, and he needed an escort to France.
How were French citizens faring?
They were mighty glad that we were there. The British were the same. I’d fill up my plate [at mess] and turn it over to the children. In France, they’d eat it right up. When we got to Germany, the children had containers and would take it home to feed the whole family.
Did you encounter anyone with the Spanish flu?
One night I delivered a patient to the hospital and was very tired. My lieutenant said, “Why don’t take that first bed in there?” I did, and in the one next to me was a soldier, and I talked to him about various things. The next morning when I awoke, he was dead.
How did you wind up in Germany?
We repatriated a trainload of prisoners.
Were you allowed to interact with the prisoners?
Of course [laughs]. No restrictions. Most of them spoke English, and I learned German. Ich spreche Deutsch.
When we first got into Germany, the train stopped for refreshments and coffee. The prisoners all lined up—course, I lined up too. Then came my turn. An older German gentleman [handed me] the coffee, and I said, “Danke, sir. Das Kaffee sehr gut.” With that, he reached down behind the counter and brought up a loaf of potato bread, cut off a slice and gave it to me. “Danke, sir. Das Brot sehr gut.” With that, I got a piece of bologna—and I realized the importance of a foreign language.
How was life in postwar Germany?
During the occupation the Army found everything they could to keep the Germans busy. A busy man doesn’t get into trouble.
[General John “Black Jack”] Pershing was principally responsible for that. He was an exceptional man—just perfect for that job. We didn’t have anybody who could have done it as well.
What was life back home like for returning doughboys?
All these poor millions coming back couldn’t afford the prices. Shirts that men used to buy for 50 cents had suddenly gone up to $2.50. A lot of the soldiers wore their Army uniform for months.
Nobody was interested in the war. It really amazed me. The only one interested in me was a man at the gymnasium who gave me $25 for my German belt.
What did you do with your $143.90 in discharge pay?
I went to Oklahoma City and signed up for business school.
Is that where you met Pershing?
Yes. He came to Oklahoma City and had a parade and hotel reception. I was determined to take part in that. I spoke with him, and he noticed we both had the same accent. He said, “Where were you born?” I said, “On my father’s farm, north of Bethany in Harrison County, Missouri.” Pershing replied, “Just 42 miles as the crow flies from Linn County, where I was born.”
Did you return to Europe?
I worked with the Roosevelt Steamship Company. We had the contract to carry mail to England, France and Germany from 1931 to 1938.
Did you think there would be another war?
Around that time I became acquainted with two Germans [who had served] in World War I. They told me: “We are opposed to it, but it is inevitable—we are preparing for another war.”
In the German railway stations were signs that showed other states in Europe with big guns, while Germany was blank, demonstrating to everybody how it was being mistreated. But that wasn’t necessarily the people. That was Hitler.
What happened to your shipping line?
When [World War II] started, the government converted our ships into Marine Corps transports. And that left me without a job. So I took a job at the Port of Manila with the American President Line.
Were you concerned the Pacific might erupt in war?
Yes, but I thought it would be after I got back.
What happened to you on Dec. 7, 1941?
It was December 8 out there. The [Japanese] started bombing the Philippines—52 different camps—and were landing all over the place. By January 2, Manila was under Japanese domination.
They instructed people to come to Santo Tomas University. It covers about 40 acres in the city and has a wall around it—an ideal place for a prison camp. I was in Santo Tomas at first. Then 800 men went out to Los Baños.
What do you remember from the Los Baños raid?
By the end of February 1945, the Japanese realized they couldn’t hold out any longer. When asked what they would do with the prisoners, one of the guards demonstrated how he was going to execute them at roll call on the 23rd. Well, three men escaped and got word to [General of the Army Douglas] MacArthur’s headquarters.
When we saw the planes flying over, we thought nothing of it, because we’d been seeing MacArthur’s big cargo planes for some time. But when the paratroopers started dropping—that was different. Nobody had ever heard of a paratrooper. They landed just beyond the camp. During the night, Filipino guerrillas had been hiding up in the trees. They hopped down, cut the wires and came in.
What did you do?
A few years before, a Filipino boy had starched up my tailor-made shirts and shorts. I went to my room and brought those down. And I had a pair of knit socks. I was one of those men that always had a pair of shoes and kept them shined. I dressed and put on the rucksack with my cup and a pound of sugar in it.
Three of us had saved something for the last emergency: a can of Spam, a can of beans and my screw-top coffee can full of brown sugar. We got together while waiting, cooked the beans and put sugar all over the top. And it was so delicious…ahhh!
Do you harbor any bitterness toward your Japanese captors?
Well, what can you do? Bitterness doesn’t do you any good.
Were soldiers treated better on the home front after this war?
No question about it. Here came, among other things, the GI Bill. World War I veterans in a position to make decisions—or corrections in this case—were quite concerned, and they helped.
Did you look to settle down after World War II?
I realized that I had to do it sometime. Yeah.
But you’d had your adventures by then?
Well, I should say so!