At 106, Frank Buckles is the youngest of three known survivors left of the 4.7 million who enlisted in the Great War ” World War I ” to make the world “safe for democracy,” according to The Associated Press.
And he might not have made it in if it weren’t for a not-too-choosy recruiter in Oklahoma City. According to the story, Buckles came to OKC in 1916, at the age of 15, bringing a load of horses, the predominant mode of transportation back then. He landed a job at a bank and moved into a hotel.
Then the war hit. Although the European powers had been going at it since 1914, slugging it out in horrendous trench battles across “no man’s land” in France, bleeding each other dry of men, materials and wealth, the United States didn’t enter the war right away. The United States was drawn into the war in April 1917 after a series of events including the sinking of the Lusitania and the “Zimmerman Telegram” interception.
Buckles looked for a place to sign up.
“I went to the state fair up in Wichita, Kan., and while there, went to the recruiting station for the Marine Corps,” he said. “The nice Marine sergeant said I was too young when I gave my age as 18, said I had to be 21.”
No problem. Buckles went back a week later.
“I went back to the recruiting sergeant, and this time I was 21,” he told the AP, grinning. “I passed the inspection “¦ but he told me I just wasn’t heavy enough.”
Then he tried a Navy recruiter, who told him he had flat feet.
Then Buckles tried the Army recruiter in Oklahoma City. The Army captain demanded a birth certificate, according to the story.
“I told him birth certificates were not made in Missouri when I was born, that the record was in a family Bible. I said, ‘You don’t want me to bring the family Bible down, do you?'” Buckles told the AP, with a laugh. “He said, ‘OK, we’ll take you.'”
See, Oklahoma is not the “show me” state.
Anyway, Buckles enlisted Aug. 14, 1917, and eventually caught ship passage to England. Most of the time, he worked as a driver and warehouse clerk, spending off-duty hours visiting England’s statues, cathedrals, tombs and museums.
“But I was still trying to get to France,” Buckles told AP, “and I would pester every officer of any rank to get there.”
After a few months, Buckles escorted an officer to France, where he used his free time to tour that country on a bicycle.
After Armistice Day, Buckles was assigned to escort prisoners of war back to Germany. In January 1920, he sailed for the United States aboard the USS Pocahontas with $143.90 jingling in his pocket.
In 1941, at the age of 42, he was too old to fight the Germans again in World War II. Instead, he took a job with the shipping industry “¦ and got captured by the Japanese and held in a concentration camp in the Philippines for more than three years.
A Filipino man kept him alive by bringing him food, and they became lifelong friends. Buckles lived to return home, get married, start a family and raise a daughter. He also paid the tuition for his Filipino friend’s daughters to go to college.
Now, with the shadows growing longer and the roll call upstairs still waiting for him to make muster, Buckles insists he really didn’t intend for things to turn out so interestingly. They just did.
“I was never actually looking for adventure,” Buckles said. “It just came to me.”