by Thomas Conner, Ph.D., William P. Harris Professor of Military History, Hillsdale College
The United States lost its last surviving veteran of the First World War on February 28, 2011. Frank Buckles, of Charles Town, West Virginia, passed away just a few weeks after his 110th birthday. Born in 1901, he had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 at age sixteen after finally being able to fool a recruiter into thinking he was two years older and thus eligible to serve.
He was not in combat, but served out the War in Europe and did not return home until January 1920. He found out that he was the last of our living veterans of the Great War in 2008, and when asked how that distinction felt, he said simply: “I realized that somebody had to be, and it was me.”
Buckles’ death severed the last living connection between us and the generation that put 4.7 million men under arms to go off and lick “Kaiser Bill,” the playful name Americans of that day gave to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, our principal enemy in the conflict. That generation of our fighting men did defeat its enemy, but the world they were promised by the President (Woodrow Wilson) who had asked them to wage war did not materialize. Indeed, within a year or two of the formal end of the fighting, with many parts of Europe still simmering cauldrons of violence and revolution, there seemed little to show for America’s effort to “make the world safe for democracy.”
If not recognized, then, as the “Greatest Generation” of Americans, Buckles and his fellow “doughboys” served their country selflessly and honorably, and they deserve to be remembered more than they are. The commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, John J. Pershing, is one of only two of our countrymen (the other is George Washington) ever to be given the exceptional rank of General of the Armies. In the ranks of Pershing’s army were some of the most famous national figures from the next global struggle—George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, and Harry Truman, to name a few.
Roughly 100,000 of Pershing’s men were killed in action or died from the various infectious diseases that constantly stalked them. About one-quarter of those deaths, and sixty or seventy thousand more injuries, occurred in the War’s last battle in the Meuse-Argonne region of France, the bloodiest battle in the whole history of the United States. The cemetery maintained by our government to this day on that hallowed field is final “home” to 14,246 dead from that battle and some of the most heroic soldiers in American history. But, how many of us have ever heard the name of that place? And, not even one sitting President has paid homage to these all but forgotten warriors in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
Sadly, too, while Buckles lived long enough to be rightly honored as the last American veteran of World War I, he also perceived in his final years the degree to which he and his generation had been forgotten. To his immense credit, he tried to do something about it. In 2009, Buckles appeared before a committee of the U.S. Senate to endorse the idea of building a national World War I memorial in Washington, something at least reminiscent of the majestic World War II memorial erected on the National Mall and dedicated in 2004. In the course of that Capitol Hill appearance, Buckles was escorted by Dylan Kessler, Hillsdale College Class of 2010, who was then interning in the office of John Thune of South Dakota, a supporter of the monument idea.
With Frank Buckles gone, and no living embodiment of his fellow soldiers of the Great War to take up this cause, there seems little reason to expect that such a structure will ever be built. It is worth recalling, after all, that it took herculean efforts by countless veterans of the Second World War to lobby for the idea, and then to raise the money privately over the better part of a decade to make the monument to the “Greatest Generation” a reality.
In the face of ballooning debts and increasingly tight-fisted public spending, moreover, it is almost unimaginable that the federal government would fund a World War I monument. But if the memory of Frank Buckles’ generation may not find expanded expression in marble and fountains, today’s Americans should never allow themselves to ignore or forget what they did a century ago as brave young men on a mission thousands of miles from home to rid their world of threats to our precious freedom.
Dr. Thomas Conner is William P. Harris Professor of Military History at Hillsdale College. Along with courses in Western Heritage and American Heritage as part of Hillsdale’s rigorous core curriculum, Dr. Conner also teaches upper-level courses on European history and the Two World Wars. He is one of the College’s longest-serving faculty members, and has several times been named Professor of the Year by the student body.