Frank Buckles died yesterday. He was the very last survivor of the 4.7 million people who enlisted in the U.S. military in 1917–18 for the Great War, the "War to End All Wars," now known as WWI. At the time of his death he was the oldest verified WWI veteran in the world.
Buckles never saw combat in WWI, but as a civilian he was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1941 and spent three years in prison camps.
He advocated for years for a WWI memorial on the Mall in Washington, but he never saw that, either. (WWI memorials are common in American towns, however. My son used to play on and around one in Oak Park's Scoville Park when he was little, a juxtaposition that was never lost on me.)
Mr. Buckles was an impressive 110 years old. That qualifies him as a "supercentenarian," defined as someone who reaches that age. According to Wikipedia, only about 1 in 1000 centenarians (people who reach the age of 100) will become supercentenarians. There are calculated to be about 350–400 supercentenarians in the world currently, about 90 of of whom are known and verified.
(Inset photo: American Peoples Project)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by James: "R.I.P. Frank Buckles. Just a couple of years ago, there were three British veterans of World War I alive; Frank Buckles; and John Babcock from Canada. Now all are passed away. I don't know of any German or other nation's veterans still alive. There will still be French, Belgian, German and Polish citizens alive who were young children in the 1914–18 era, and who have personal memories of the fighting around their towns and villages, but this era is rapidly passing out of living memory.
"My daughter (aged 11) and her class are doing a history project on the Great War, which will culminate in a trip over the Channel to Ypres and the Tyne Cot Memorial in May. It's good to see that schools are still interested in imbuing our children with a sense of history, but the project is all about dates, geography, and technology. I'm a little nonplussed that nothing in the project really addresses the sheer tragic waste and pity of millions of lives lost, and the impact those losses had on societies across the world. Perhaps that's a little too much to expect from the curriculum for a class of 11 year olds, but it seems a wasted opportunity to me."
Mike responds: It was known as the "Lost Generation," wasn't it? So many of the men of that generation cut down. 9.7 military deaths. Who knows how they would have changed history?
"Living memory" is an interesting complex of concepts, too. How soon before the world loses the last person born in the 19th century? There are still a few left, but, demographics predicts, not for long.