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June 18, 2021

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Dan Groman talks with the last known WWI vet

Unloading the Allen County Museum's 1918 Gramm Bernstein Liberty truck at the Lima Refinery restoration is underway.

By Dan Groman

My wife and our two sons had the opportunity this summer to interview Frank Buckles at his home near Charles Town, W.V. Mr. Buckles lives on the extreme eastern panhandle of West Virginia, and at age 108, is the last known U. S. veteran of World War I.

Although he entered the U.S. Military in 1917 at age 16, soldiers were required to be 21 to legally join the military. It wasn't uncommon in those days for people to "exaggerate" a bit about their age. My wife, Brenda, our sons Kurt and Joel, and I learned a lot from this gentleman, sitting on the front porch of his 1750's era home. He answered many questions about his life. We were expecting about 45 minutes of discussion, but after an hour and forty minutes, Mr. Buckles was still going strong, outlasting our video camera batteries.

Having an interest in and being involved in the restoration of the Allen County Museum's 1918 Gramm Bernstein 5 Ton WWI Liberty Truck, I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about the World War I era.

The Husky Energy Lima Refinery encourages employee involvement in community activities, and the Liberty truck is being restored on refinery grounds, by volunteers after normal working hours.

This project continues the long relationship between the Allen County Historical Society and with other refinery employees, such as Ron Rowland, who has led Husky's involvement in the maintenance, upkeep, fund raising, and parade schedule for the Allen County Museum's 1944 Sherman tank.

Mr. Buckles was born at Bethany, Missouri on Feb. 1, 1901 and his family had just moved to Oklahoma when he signed up for the Army in November of 1917. He traveled to Fort Logan, Colorado and Fort Riley (Kansas) before traveling to Glasgow, Scotland on the Carpathia, which was being used as a personnel carrier for the military.

This was the same ship that rescued the survivors from the Titanic five years earlier. Most of the ship's crew were willing to discuss their involvement in that historic rescue. Mr. Buckles spoke about his conversations with many of the crew members. He said that the excitement, shooting of guns, and shouting that was evident in the movies about the Titanic wasn't the case. There was silence as people were lifted off of the life boats onto the Carpathia.

Speaking of his travel to France, Mr. Buckles commented that he was transported by train and "I went over with the unit called the First Fort Riley Casualty Detachment. And I was one of the early veterans. My serial number is 15577. General Pershing's was number 1."

Mr. Buckles served as an Ambulance driver in France, and he transported military officers in motorcycles with sidecars and other vehicles. He served as a field escort through most of his service time. Being so young, he was probably given jobs that were less dangerous than he would have had otherwise. He drove Ford ambulances, but he never drove one of the big Liberty Trucks.

We took along the restored steering wheel from the Allen County Museum's Liberty Truck and Mr. Buckles held it in his hands, stating "Gosh, it's heavy, isn't it!"

After serving for a year with combat all around him, rumors spread that an Armistice was signed, with several informal cease-fires, but it wasn't until a few days later (Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m.) that the actual Armistice was signed, ending "the war to end all wars".

When it was actually signed, "It was a Saturday. Drop everything and start celebrating! It was about the Armistice!" Mr. Buckles was asked if he would be willing to stay in Europe after the war ended to transport German prisoners back to Germany in the Prisoner of War Escort Company, and he gladly accepted. He spent another year transporting prisoners and driving officers around Europe.

After returning from the military, Mr. Buckles learned shorthand and typing and worked in a bank. Mr. Buckles said that "American soldiers following WWI didn't get a very good reception from the public at all." Back in the U.S. he had the opportunity to meet General Pershing, who Mr. Buckles was very much impressed with.

"General Pershing is a real soldier. He looked the part, and he was the part. He didn't smile a lot like some of the later Generals, but he was all business." It was quite evident that Mr. Buckles still holds a soft spot in his heart for his General. During the interview, Mr. Buckles wore a bolo tie with a medallion honoring General Pershing.

In the post-war years, Mr. Buckles worked for several international shipping companies, and worked closely with Captain Kermit Roosevelt of the Roosevelt Steamship Company. Kermit was the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. He traveled back and forth to Europe for quite a few years, with the Roosevelt family on board on numerous occasions. He met all of the family - "except Theodore and one of the children that had passed away earlier."

Quentin, President Theodore Roosevelt's youngest son, was killed while serving as a fighter pilot over France. One of the Roosevelt ships Mr. Buckles sailed on was the George Washington, which was the ship used by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I on several occasions.

Mr. Buckles also was on board ships to and from South America, transporting goods to and from the United States, spending a lot of time in South America. Tin, rubber, and other commodities were in short supply in the U.S. especially after the U.S. became involved in World War 2 with the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Now working as a civilian, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He stated "Our ship was to be taken over by the government to build into Marine Corps transport service. That meant that I was without a job - the Captain and I, who had been on that ship from the first voyage to this time." He was in Manila when the Japanese attacked and took all of the civilians as Prisoners of War.

After initially being put into the Santo Tomas Civilian Internment Camp, overcrowding led to hasty construction of Los Ba~nos Prison, which he was transferred to. While in the prison camp, the prisoners were expected to labor seven days a week.

Mr. Buckles told his fellow prisoners that they could do what they wanted, but when Sunday came, he was not going to work. He was going to have a day of rest - like any civilized country does. The prison guard overheard his conversation, and before long, the Japanese officials declared that Sunday would be a day of rest.

He spent 2-1/2 years in the Manila prisons, until the U.S. 11th Airborne Division made a dramatic rescue, with Paratroopers landing into Los Ba~nos and Santo Tomas. Some of those rescued reported that ". . . these Paratroopers looked like Angels coming down from Heaven to rescue them". There were no civilian casualties and this rescue is used today as a textbook example of executing a successful mission.

Mr. Frederick Lauriat, who settled in Bluffton after World War 2 lived across the street from my father, Morris Groman, but he worked at a power plant in Manila in the early 1940's.

Mr. Lauriat was also captured by the Japanese, and spent over two years in the same two prison camps as Mr. Buckles. My father recently talked to Malbea Ann (Rohrer), Mr. Lauriat's daughter, and she said that her Dad was standing in a line of prisoners facing a firing squad at Los Ba~nos when the U.S. Paratroopers landed, but he was safely rescued.

Another Bluffton tie to this time period was the late Mrs. Charles Hilty. Carole Dirks was the infant daughter of a Missionary couple working in the mountains of Manila. The Dirks family was also captured by the Japanese, and they, too, were put in prison camps. Carole Dirks later attended and graduated from Bluffton College, and married Charles Hilty of Bluffton. Charles Hilty, a former editor of the Bluffton News, has served as past president of the Philippines Civilian Prisoners Reunion.

After returning from the prison camps, Mr. Buckles settled on the West Coast, found a wife, and in the 1950's moved to the farm where he continues to reside. This beautiful farm just outside of Charles Town has been in his family dating to the early 1900's. Today, his daughter, Suzannah and her husband run the 330 acre farm and tend to their 200 head of cattle.

It is amazing to think of all that Mr. Buckles has done in his 108 years, and all of the change that he's seen. When asked what he would say to our youth today, he said "Well, independence. Do some thinking on your own. You don't always have to do what someone else tells you to do."

When asked about growing up today compared to his growing up years, he stated "One thing that I think is noticeable is the extent to which everybody has a camera. During World War I, nobody had a camera." He referred to the Military photographers. "They didn't do a very good job. They didn't take any pictures. Not many."

Mr. Buckles would like to see to it that a National World War I Memorial is built in Washington, D.C. When I commented to him that I knew that he was working hard on increasing awareness of the need to recognize WWI veterans, he corrected me and said that he wasn't working hard, but he was working to make this happen.

There is currently a memorial for the District of Columbia veterans and for those that gave their lives fighting, but a National World War I Memorial does not exist in Washington. Mr. Buckles hopes that America's veterans of World War I could be remembered by asking our Congressmen and Senators to support a national World War I Memorial in Washington. Donations to the World War I Memorial Foundation will help make that happen. More information is available at www.wwimemorial.org for those that would like to help.