Remembering the last Doughboy of WW1

Derbyshire county council chairman Robin Baldry with bikers during his Amercian trip. Photo contributed.
Derbyshire county council chairman Robin Baldry with bikers during his Amercian trip. Photo contributed.

By David S. Kerr

Frank Buckles, an American from the state of Missouri, exaggerated his age when he joined the U.S. Army back in 1917. Frank was 16 and too young to join. He began his efforts to get into the war by going from recruiter to recruiter trying to convince them he was old enough to join. He told the Navy he was 18 and they wouldn’t buy it. The Marines didn’t either. Finally, when he got to the Army recruiter, he went for broke and told the recruiter that he was 21. It must have worked because the Sergeant gave him the paperwork and sent him on his way to processing. That’s how Frank became a soldier.

Derbyshire county council chairman Robin Baldry at the grave of First World veteran Franck Buckle. Also pictured is Davidf Kerr. Photo contributed.

Derbyshire county council chairman Robin Baldry at the grave of First World veteran Franck Buckle. Also pictured is Davidf Kerr. Photo contributed.

During the First World War Frank Buckles served as a motorcycle dispatch rider as well as an ambulance driver with the U.S. Army’s 1st Casualty Division. Like most adventurous young men, he preferred riding the motorcycle, but he also quickly learned that the Germans considered the Motorcycle riders to be especially attractive targets.

Frank Buckles story, however, isn’t that unique. He was just one of over 3 million American men and women who served on active duty during World War I. Indeed, in the decades following the war World War I veterans were a daily part of life in America. Both of my great uncles were veterans of what they called “the Great War” as were a number of family friends. However, in the past few decades their numbers fell precipitously. In 2008 the World War I Veterans Association, which had once numbered 100,000 members had only two members left. A loyal and unpaid secretary kept up with the paperwork. Finally, inevitably, that number fell to just one and that lone member was Frank Buckles.

He said he never liked to talk much about the war. But when he realized he was the only one left he thought he had better start speaking up for his deceased comrades. In 2009, at 109, he became the oldest man in history to testify before a U.S. Senate Committee. His testimony was clear and precise and he asked for a World War I Memorial in the Nation’s Capital. Currently, there is only one and it is in Missouri.

Frank seemed like he would live forever. He was lively and energetic and even in his last few days was still taking phone calls. But time catches up with everyone and in February of this year, the “Last Doughboy” died. Frank Buckles, late of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Last week, Robin Baldy, Derbyshire Councilor and former Chairman of the Council, visited me in Washington, D.C. Robin and I have been good friends for almost twenty years and I have visited Buxton and Derbyshire many times. However, what distinguished this visit from the others was that we had a mission and that was to recognize the doughboy that went to Europe so long ago. We both share a deep respect to those brave men and women, both British and American, who have served the cause of freedom over so many years. Our remembrance was brief and fitting. We placed a U.S. Army Stained Glass Medallion on his grave, and on one side, Robin placed a small British flag, and on the other, I placed a small American flag. Our only words in this moving moment were a whispered “thank you.” We stood at attention, or as best an attention as two civilians can muster, and bade farewell to this fine soul who did so much so long ago.

Robin’s visit, particularly given our mission, couldn’t have been better timed. It was America’s Memorial Day Weekend. This is when the United States recognizes those men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their country. The weekend is an eclectic mix of activities and remembrances. President Obama placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and throughout the country there were ceremonies and parades. In this respect, it shares a strong similarity to Britain’s Remembrance Sunday. But, there are also some differences that make it uniquely American. One of the most unusual and easily the loudest American Memorial Day event is called “Rolling Thunder.” The thunder is the sound of 500 thousand motorcycles (that was the official count), many of them heavy duty Harley Davidson’s, that parade through Washington, D.C. on Sunday. The Bikers, in a mix of outfits, almost all sporting American flags from their bikes, come from all over the United States and even Canada. On Saturday, before going to Frank Buckles’ grave, Robin and I visited with some Rolling Thunder Bikers at Arlington National Cemetery. They were there to pay their respects. Most don’t fit the image many of us have of a “biker.” Of course, that’s not to say they weren’t decked out in their Biker gear complete with helmets, colorful vests, and boots, but I still didn’t see a single Marlon Brando look alike anywhere in the crowd.

One biker we talked to is a systems analyst and another is a teacher. A substantial majority are also former servicemen. The ride through the city is loud, colorful, and at the same time, in spite of its incredible size and the diverse ranks of its riders, respectful and dignified.

In the defense of freedom, and in common cause, Britain and America have fought side-by-side on many occasions. Our small remembrance ceremony, given in the sultry summer heat of Washington, D.C., with the sound of the motorcycles in the distance, was just a small tribute, from one Englishman and one American, standing side-by-side to the last “doughboy” of the First World War.