KANSAS CITY — As the last known living American-born veteran of World War I, Frank Woodruff Buckles is upgrading his place in the history books.
The 107-year-old veteran was an honored guest at the Liberty Memorial this weekend where he toured the National World War I Museum for the first time. His photograph was hung in the main hallway of the museum, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States presented him with a gold medal of merit, and on Monday he will be presented the American flag flying outside the memorial.
Buckles, who now lives in Charles Town, W.Va., has been an invited guest at the Pentagon, met with President Bush in Washington, D.C., and rode in the annual Armed Forces Day Parade in his home state since his status as one of the last living from the “Great War” was discovered nearly two years ago.
Federal officials have also arranged for his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’m quite pleased with the reception I’ve received as a representative of World War I,” Buckles said Sunday at a ceremony to unveil his museum portrait. “I had a feeling of longevity and that I might be among those who survived, but I didn’t know I’d be the No. 1.”
Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, Buckles visited a string of military recruiters after the United States entered the “war to end all wars” in April 1917.
He was rejected by the Marines and the Navy, but he eventually persuaded an Army captain he was 18 and enlisted, convincing him Missouri didn’t keep public records of birth.
He sailed for England in 1917 on the Carpathia, which is known for its rescue of Titanic survivors, and spent his tour of duty working mainly as a driver and a warehouse clerk in Germany and France. He rose to the rank of corporal, and after Armistice Day he helped return prisoners of war to Germany.
Buckles later traveled the world working for the shipping company White Star Line and was in the Philippines in 1940 when the Japanese invaded. He became a prisoner of war for nearly three years.
Buckles, an avid reader and a bit of a historian, gained recognition when he attended a Veteran’s Day ceremony at the Arlington grave of Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, said his daughter, Susannah Flanagan.
He ended up on the podium and became a featured guest at the event honoring the leader of the U.S. forces in World War I. Then the invites and media interview requests came rolling in and have continued for two years.
“This has been such a great surprise,” Flanagan said. “You wouldn’t think there would be this much interest in World War I. But the timing in history has been such, and it’s been unreal.”
Buckles spent much of his museum tour Sunday looking at mementos of Pershing, who he avidly read about before joining the military and later gained a lifelong admiration for. He posed for pictures in front of a flag that used to be in the famous general’s office and retold stories about meeting Pershing.
Flanagan said Buckles also wants to visit his hometown of Bethany and stop by Pershing’s boyhood home near Laclede. The two were both born less than 50 miles apart in northwest Missouri and eventually met in Oklahoma after the war.
While Pershing claims most of the fame, Buckles now has a featured place at the museum.
“This is such an extraordinary occasion that we here at the museum decided that the photo of Mr. Buckles should be permanently installed in the main hallway here” said Brian Alexander, president and chief executive of the museum.