They fought overseas in battles with strange names like the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. They sang charmingly upbeat songs like “Over There!” and “Inky-Dinky Parley-Voo.” A lot of them were gassed, about 200,000 were wounded, 120,000 died, and many of them who came home were never the same, dubbed “the lost generation” by Ernest Hemingway. They were America’s “doughboys,” the young homegrown heroes of World War I, who arrived late to a pointless war they didn’t start, and became the first American soldiers to die in large numbers in foreign lands.
The last of them died last week. His name was Frank Buckles, and he had lied about his age to become a soldier at the tender age of 16. In his 110 years, Buckles took part in a lot of history, sailing for the Continent on the Carpathia, the very same ship that rescued the Titanic’s survivors; traveling the world by sea as ship’s purser, which afforded him an accidental encounter with Adolf Hitler, and having the bad luck to be in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded, ending up as a prisoner for most of World War II.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va.) have introduced resolutions to allow fellow West Virginian Buckles to lie in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the public could pay their respects to him by filing past his casket. Though usually reserved for former presidents and distinguished members of Congress, unelected American citizens of distinction have laid in state in the Rotunda, such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Apparently Speaker of the House John Boehner doesn’t think Buckles makes the grade, for he has rejected the idea and decreed that the last World War I soldier in a special ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, but not at the Capitol. It’s not a horrible decision—Buckles certainly won’t mind—but Boehner is wrong. It is important to honor Frank Buckles in the most visible way possible, because it will be this country’s last chance to honor his generation and the veterans of “The Great War,” a part of American history that has been disgracefully neglected for decades.
Not one American in a hundred can name a single battle of the First World War. Even in Arlington National Cemetery, its heroes are hard to find: General “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American forces, asked to have a simple serviceman’s marker on his grave, a wonderful gesture, but one more factor in helping his soldiers be forgotten. Have you ever visited the World War I Memorial on the National Mall? There is one, but virtually no American would recognize it if he saw it, and it is crumbling, unimpressive, and dwarfed by the World War II Memorial. It is a shameful fact thatAmerica has forgotten World War I and the heroes who fought it.
Frank Buckles can help us remember. No, he wasn’t any Sgt. Alvin York, and never pretended to be. But the last of any generation and group of distinction inherits the legacy of those who have passed on before him. George Burns was one of many great vaudeville straight men, certainly not the greatest, but he outlived them all, and ended his life a national treasure, the last link to a bygone era. We have a duty to remember, and honor our history and the men and women who made it, for neither you, not I nor John Boehner would be here today if the generation represented by humble Frank Buckles hadn’t worked, dreamed, fought and died for their families, communities and countries.
This is our opportunity to show respect and gratitude….and perhaps make sure the next generation is more aware of history of “The War To End All Wars” than we were.
This isn’t about Frank Buckles, Mr. Speaker. This is about embracing our history, and honoring the great Americans before “The Greatest Generation.” Do your duty, and let us do ours. Honor Frank Buckles, and remember America’s World War I heroes, the right way and the best way—in the Capitol Rotunda.