A piece of American history died last Sunday.
Oh, Frank Buckles’ name might not necessarily rank up there with Paul Revere, John Adams or Charlie Sheen in the collective public consciousness of people in this nation, but he was indeed a vital link to our past. See, Buckles was the last U.S. World War I veteran standing, and his death at the age of 110 somewhat closes a door on our connection to a different era.
It would be easy to simply dismiss Buckles as the answer to a trivia question, but his name will probably never make it to any future attempts at updating Trivial Pursuit. He was not a celebrity in that his name was constantly on the tongues of people in this nation, or any other, but he was in many ways a symbol of the “Great War.”
Buckles was in fact more than that. He had worked in recent years with portrait photographer David Dejonge on attempting to get the federal government to invest money and time into the D.C. War Memorial, a somewhat delapidated site near the World War II memorial. He testified in Congress in 2009 on that matter, and took part in Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery at the grave of Gen. John Pershing, commander of U.S. troops during World War I, according to a story on CNN.com.
We could never truly completely forget about World War I because Buckles remained steadfast in ensuring we didn’t. He’d show up from time to time on the news imploring people to remember the sacrifices our armed forces made during that time. Even if it lasted only a moment, Americans would again be reminded of their efforts.
It’s been said throughout the rest of the world that Americans have short memories, and that’s true. While Hollywood has done a great job keeping World War II in our minds, and there are still quite a few veterans from that war among us, the “Great War” has largely slipped away from our consciousness. Buckles was also a proud veteran of World War II, and was a prisoner of war held by the Japanese for more than three years during that time, but he spent his golden years campaigning that public attention be paid to the first “war to end all wars.”
And now he’s gone.
Look, I never met Frank Buckles. World War I ended 50 years before I was born, and I have no tangible connection to anybody who served in it. But I did have the honor of wearing the French Fourragére while serving in the 6th Marine Regiment — a honor the unit earned from the French during the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I. That has always meant a lot to me, and everybody else I knew who served with 6th Marines.
It was an honor because we were all told in recruit training at Parris Island, S.C., of the bravery those men exhibited in battle. When I received orders to go to 6th Marines, I was a little excited in knowing that I would be wearing the Fourragére in the future. I took it very seriously, and it’s one constant reminder in my life of the sacrifices made and courage displayed by those who came before me.
And Buckles was another reminder of that time that would strike me mentally when he would pop up on the news asking that his brethren get a little notoriety amongst the memorials for World War II, Vietnam and Korea.
America lost more than 100,000 service members during World War I and emerged from it seen as the world’s great superpower for the first time. The economy got a significant boost after the war, women became empowered for the first time after they were called to fill job openings when the men went off to fight and the feel-good aura that accompanied the victory ushered in the “Roaring Twenties.” Jazz music soared, women earned the right to vote and America’s fascination with the hard-living, big-hitting Babe Ruth began.
If there was ever a “best of times” in this country, that was it. Well, until a little thing called “Black Tuesday” hit Wall Street and ushered in “The Great Depression.”
Wow, there were a lot of quotation marks in that last paragraph, and not a single quote. Sometimes it’s as if ...
But I digress.
Frank Buckles, you were the last of your kind. May your memory live on in the hearts and minds of all of us.