Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Last Doughboy

Frank Buckles now stands unique among the millions of American military veterans.

He is the last surviving doughboy who served in World War I.

Mr. Buckles, who was profiled by The New York Times last fall, became the nation's last veteran of the "Great War" on Monday, with the passing of Harry Richard Landis at a Tampa nursing home. Mr. Landis, who died at the age of 108, spent two months training as an Army recruit at the end of the war in 1918. While he was never stationed overseas, Landis was counted among an estimated 4.7 million Americans who served during World War I.

Only two months ago, there were three surviving U.S. veterans of World War I: Buckles, Landis and J. Russell Coffey. But Mr. Coffey passed away in December, and with Landis' death earlier this week, America has, in the words of historian Richard Rubin, reached "the last of the last" among its soldiers from that conflict.

As Mr. Rubin noted in his NYT piece last year, the recent, brief interest in our surviving World War I veterans is both overdue and a bit ironic. Among American conflicts of the 20th Century, the First World War was quickly and largely forgotten, along with those who wore the uniform:

Almost from the moment the armistice took effect, the United States has worked hard, it seems, to forget World War I; maybe that’s because more than 100,000 Americans never returned from it, lost for a cause that few can explain even now. The first few who did come home were given ticker-tape parades, but most returned only to silence and a good bit of indifference.

There was no G.I. Bill of Rights to see that they got a college education or vocational training, a mortgage or small-business loan. There was nothing but what remained of the lives they had left behind a year or two earlier, and the hope that they might eventually be able to return to what President Warren Harding, Wilson’s successor, would call “normalcy.” Prohibition, isolationism, the stock market bubble and the crisis in farming made that hard; the Great Depression, harder still.

A few years ago, I set out to see if I could find any living American World War I veterans. No one — not the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or the American Legion — knew how many there were or where they might be. As far as I could tell, no one much seemed to care, either.

Despite the nation's collective indifference, the vast majority of those who served in World War I went on to productive, even remarkable, lives. Mr. Buckles, who now lives in West Virginia, eventually became a manager for a steamship company. When the U.S. entered World War II, he was living in the Philippines, and quickly found himself in the middle of that conflict. Captured by the Japanese, he spent more than three years as a Prisoner of War, and still suffers the effects of beriberi, contracted in the camps.

As Richard Rubin observes, the eventual passing of Frank Buckles will deprive us of our last, direct link to a seminal chapter in American history, a period when we emerged as a great power and a champion of democracy. It was a position secured by Mr. Buckles, Harry Landis, Russell Coffey and all the others who served. Now, only one of them remains.

We can't reverse history's relentless march, or reestablish ties to a generation that is all-but-gone. But, as Mr. Rubin writes, we should take notice.

And remember.


ADDENDUM: Not only is Frank Buckles the last American veteran of World War I, he is also the last soldier who actually served with Pershing's Army in France. While he never saw combat, Buckles did serve at an Allied POW camp, guarding German prisoners. The only other surviving American with World War I service is John Babcock of Spokane, Washington. Mr. Babcock, who is 107, was a member of the Canadian Army during the war, and is that nation's last WWI veteran.

1 comment:

You Know Me Al said...

To borrow a line from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner", in describing the loss of our WWWI veterans.

"All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."