Honor, heroism & history

It's quite a legacy left to a Canby man by his 'uncle,' a legacy that ended up being the last of its kind
By: Ray Hughey
Published: 4/28/2011 10:16:33 AM

His trip east last month was a sad one for Ken Buckles. The Canby resident flew to Washington, D.C. for a final farewell to a dear friend of many years at Arlington National Cemetery.

Frank Buckles, his "Uncle" Frank, and America's last living veteran of World War I, had died Feb. 27 at the age of 110 and was laid to rest.

Ken Buckles, 56, attended the March 15 funeral and the nation's goodbye to the last American doughboy. The ceremonies drew President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, generals, dignitaries and politicians.

Ken is the executive director of Remembering American Heroes, a nonprofit organization that takes veterans into classrooms to speak to students. Before that, he was football coach and assistant track and wrestling coach at Milwaukie High School.

The friendship between the distant relatives began in 1991 when Ken came across the elder Buckles while researching some West Virginia branches of his family tree.

Frank, with all his experiences and avid interest in American history, made for great telephone conversations, Ken said. Their friendship flourished, and they first met face to face in 1999 when Ken visited the elder Buckles on his historic Gap View Farm near Charles Town, W.Va.

Frank, probably a cousin five times removed, was very proper, Ken said. His daughter called him Papa, friends his age called him Frank and everyone else addressed him as Mr. Buckles. But as their friendship grew, the elder Buckles told him, "Why don't you call me Uncle Frank?"

During their first visit, Ken noted that Frank had posters on a wall commemorating the oldest or last living soldiers of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

"My goal is to be the last living World War I veteran," Frank told him. It gave them both a good laugh.

From then on, Ken visited his elderly friend a couple of times a year, never knowing if it would be the last time they would see each other. "But Frank just kept going," Ken said.

He would eventually make 17 trips east to visit his elder friend and three times brought Frank to Oregon to speak at Milwaukie High School living history programs.

"The things he saw and experienced in his life are a real life, true Forest Gump story and would have made a good movie," Ken said. "I've recorded all of my stories and my experiences with him. His memory was amazing to the end."

Frank grew up on the family farm in Missouri, and when he was 15, he took a herd of cattle to Oklahoma where he got a job in an Oklahoma City bank. But with World War I raging in Europe, the young Buckles itched to see action.

He was still 15 when the Marine Corps turned him down, The Navy didn't want him, either. Turning 16, he fibbed about his age to join the U.S. Army.

They asked for proof of birth, Ken said. "He told them, 'It's in the family Bible back on the farm. You don't expect me to carry around the family Bible do you?'"

He joined the ambulance corps after a sergeant told him that was the best way to get to the front lines. Soon, he was on a troop ship bound for Europe, the "Carpathia," one of the ships that helped rescue survivors of the Titanic disaster five years earlier.

He arrived in France about four months before the war's end. The closest he got to the action was transporting the wounded to hospitals. After the fighting ended, he was among the troops that escorted POWs back to Germany, providing him his first vivid look at what war had done to the civilian populations.

Following the war, he worked in the shipping industry, traveling the world in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1931 to 1937, he was based in Hamburg, Germany. His experiences in Germany included coming face-to-face with Adolph Hitler in a hotel lobby and watching U.S. athlete Jesse Owens win four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Frank was working in Manila when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941. He spent three years in a Japanese concentration camp after he was captured smuggling supplies to U.S. troops on Corregidor.

He said he and the other prisoners at the Los Banos internment camp on the island of Luzon were scheduled to be executed Feb. 23, 1945, at 7 a.m. But at about 6:45 a.m., paratroopers from the 11th Airborne parachuted in for one of the war's most daring rescues, liberating more than 2,100 internees.

He eventually returned to the U.S., married and bought the historic Gap View Farm near Charles Town, W.Va., and farmed the rest of his life. He drove a car until he was 104 and maintained his lifelong commitment to exercise even longer. He even organized daily exercises when he was in the Japanese internment camp.

Frank became a champion for a World War I memorial, serving as the honorary chairman for the World War I Memorial Foundation. In 2009, he urged a Senate committee to refurbish an existing World War I memorial to Washington, D.C., troops and rededicate it as a national monument.

Frank's wish that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery was at first denied. The standards then specified a person had to have been killed in action, retired after a full military career or received a top medal such as the Medal of Honor.

But Ken, politician Ross Perot and others campaigned on Frank's behalf, and in 2008, President George W. Bush waived the requirements.

The last time Ken saw his friend was Memorial Day 2010. He had returned to West Virginia in February and was supposed to visit Frank the next morning when the family called, informing him of the elder's death.

The family's request that Frank lay in honor under the Capitol rotunda was rejected by John A. Boehner, speaker of House, and Sen. Harry Reid, majority leader. They suggested instead a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

Just before the March 15 funeral at Arlington, 20 family members and friends, including Ken, paid final respects in the chapel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As they finished, they were asked to stay. Next, they were scanned with wands and asked to take their seats. Then, the doors opened and a phalanx of Secret Service agents entered the chapel.

"And in walked President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden," Ken said.

They made an unannounced visit to pay their respects and spent a good 45 seconds with each person, he said.

"The funeral was the most surreal, amazing, awesome event I've ever seen or experienced in my life," Ken Buckles said.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff attended. So did a four-star general and three-star general. A three-star general from France flew over to say thanks. A general from the Philippines also came to honor Frank.

The flag-draped coffin was carried on a black caisson pulled by seven black horses, accompanied by an honor guard, military band, rifle salute and "Taps" sounded by a bugler from the U.S. Army's "The Old Guard" 3rd Infantry Regiment.

"It was moving," Ken said. "It was so moving."

Yes, the wrangling over lying in honor at the rotunda was disappointing, he said.

"You're dealing with the loss of a loved one. You want to make arrangements for family and friends, and no one can give you an answer because Congress is fighting about it."

But on the flip side, Arlington National Cemetery went above and beyond, Ken said. "It was absolutely awesome."

"He was an amazing man with all of his experiences," Ken said. "What a man to be the last surviving veteran."