Frank Buckles, Speaker Boehner, and the Duty To Remember

Frank Buckles is our last chance to remember...

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.

4 thoughts on “Frank Buckles, Speaker Boehner, and the Duty To Remember

  1. Excellent post. I agree completely. It’s a shame that so many know so little about World War I and the conditions the soldiers lived in.

  2. It should be noted that not only was Frank Buckles the last surviving veteran of the Great War, but that he spent WWII as a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines, where he was a leader among the civilian internees under the most vile conditions possible. His last project- in which he was active to the day of his death- was to refurbish an old and neglected WWI memorial to the veterans of the District of Columbia and turn it into one honoring all veterans of that forgotten war.

    I don’t agree with Speaker Boehner’s opposition to a state funeral for this exceptional patriot. As a representative of all his generation- if nothing else- he deserves it. But I will note that Boehner- along with many other lawmakers on both sides- favor the Buckles Initiative for a modest Doughboy memorial. Their war was not a “useless” one. It was a necessary fight against militaristic despotism. They won their war… only to have politicians lose the peace. It’s a scenario we Vietnam Era veterans understand!

    Decades ago, when I was a young G.I. stationed in Germany, I took an American Express tour through northern France. As our bus proceeded eastward from Paris- on a winding road through the wine country- I noticed the peculiar rolling terrain, covered with vineyards. Then, when we pulled up to a crossroad, I noticed the roadsign. One pointed to the left, bearing the simple name “Chateau Thierry”.

    It was then that it all came into focus. No wonder the terrain was so peculiar. We were travelling through an area that was once the most shell-ridden part of No Man’s Land. Time had not fully erased the wounds of massed artillery fire. And of the entire busload, it seemed that only I realized this… and what the name “Chateau Thierry” signified. It was a place where many of Frank Buckle’s comrades gave their lives for freedom.

    The names of those battlefields should never be forgotten. Nor should the war in which they fought. God bless the men of my grandfathers’ generation. They were never “lost”. They were heroes. And perhaps, more than their sons in WWII, they were, indeed, the “greatest generation”.

    • Terrific information, Steven—thanks. I didn’t know Buckles was involved in the effort to make the WW I monument more inclusive—it’s still inadequate, but that was much needed.

      Yeah, it’s a good thing we got rid of that militaristic despotism thing.

      I think when, on balance, we look back on a war and conclude that circumstances were made worse by its consequences rather than better, “useless” is a fair label. Among other things, it made Europe permanently gun-shy, much to the benefit of Hitler, Saddam, and others. “Worse than useless” would have been more accurate.

  3. Again; it was a matter of politicians losing the peace that the soldiers had won at a terrible cost. Their punishing of Germany with reparations payments helped to insure the downfall of the Weimar Republic when the depression hit. To our credit, we stood against the harsh peace and suspended our part of the reparations to enable Germany to hold together. It wasn’t enough. When democracy fails, people look to “the man on the white horse”. That, unfortunately, turned out to be Adolph Hitler.

    But you’re right about Europe having become “gun-shy” from the World Wars. We see that readily enough today. They’ve retreated into a timorous, socialistic sanctuary and are so wrapped up in it that they don’t quite realize the truth… that they’re dying. Nor do they quite seem to grasp that a new enemy has already infilrated their refuges with the intent of their destruction. This is what happens when nations lose their guts.

    BTW; I saw a picture of Mr. Buckles just last year standing in front of the forlorn columned pavillion, gray with age and neglect, that forms the District’s WWI memorial. The idea is to merely repair it as the center of other, modest memorials to the battles fought and won by our soldiers in the 1917-18 campaigns. The memorials themselves are to be installed through private contributions, with the federal government only to buy the land from the District of Columbia for the purpose.

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