WASHINGTON — More than nine decades after driving ambulances on the battlefields of Europe, 107-year-old Frank Woodruff Buckles is the nation's last known survivor of World War I. Now he's also become the face of an ambitious campaign to erect a national memorial honoring the 4.6 million Americans who endured "the war to end all wars.''
Sitting in a wheelchair, and speaking so softly that reporters had to huddle around him to hear, Buckles was the celebrity participant at a news conference Tuesday to unveil plans for a National World War I Memorial on Washington's National Mall. It would be midway between memorials already there to World War II and the Korean War.
Planners envision refurbishing and expanding an existing memorial that President Herbert Hoover dedicated in 1931 to honor World War I veterans from the District of Columbia. That circular open-air Doric structure, ravaged by time and neglect, is tucked among trees at the southern edge of the Mall and often is ignored or overlooked by tourists. It was named as one of Washington's most endangered places in 2003 and 2006.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has introduced the Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act to renovate the memorial and rededicate it as a national shrine in 2018, when America observes the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war.
Buckles said the 21st-century commitment was needed to make the memorial "what it should be'' by honoring all who'd gone before him. "I just feel there should be some recognition,'' he said.
Buckles was born in 1901 in Harrison County, Mo. He lied about his age to enlist, telling a skeptical recruiter that Missouri didn't keep birth records when he was born. He was dispatched to England, then France, where he served as an ambulance driver. After the armistice, he delivered German POWs back to their home country.
Buckles spent the next 20 years as a merchant seaman before he was entangled in another world war. He was working in the Philippines in 1941 and was captured by the Japanese shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He spent the next three and a half years in Japanese prison camps.
After World War II, he returned to the United States, married and settled down on a 33-acre West Virginia farm, where he still lives. His wife died in 1999.
Buckles said World War I faded from his memory as he lived through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the brutal experiences of World War II prison camps and the decades of mind-boggling technological advances that have accompanied him into a second century. But he said he'd started recalling many of his World War I days now that he'd been asked to participate in the movement to erect a memorial.
"I think it's very important to him,'' said his daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan.
The D.C. Preservation League and a newly formed World War I Memorial Foundation will take the lead in planning, designing and raising money. Refurbishing the monument is expected to cost just under $1 million but planners said it was too early to project a total cost.
The circular memorial, composed of Vermont marble, was intended as a bandstand for memorial concerts to World War I participants. It stands on a 4-foot-high circular marble platform around which are inscribed the names of the 499 Washington residents who died in the war.
Planners said they hoped to pay for much of the work through private donations. One priority, they said, will be to preserve and improve the existing monument as a "place of peace and reflection'' without trying to rival or surpass the scope of more opulent monuments such as the World War II Memorial.