Yesterday, World War I officially became history for Americans when the last doughboy was buried across the river at Arlington National Cemetery.
Frank Woodruff Buckles died at his home in West Virginia on February 28 at the age of 110 – one of the last three known living veterans of the Great War (the two remaining are a man in Australia and a woman in Britain).
Hundreds of Washingtonians and visitors paid tribute to him by visiting the National World War I Memorial on the Mall, shuffling through the Capitol Rotunda to see his flag-draped coffin, and attending a solemn ceremony at Arlington as he was laid to rest.
Okay, so only one out of three of those things actually happened.
But more on that later…
First let’s go all the way back to 1917, when Buckles was 16 years old and eager to escape the Midwest to join the war effort in Europe. He bluffed his way into the army, and ended up serving as an ambulance driver in England and France, and escorting prisoners of war back to Germany immediately after the war.
Twenty years later, he would become a prisoner himself during the Second World War. In 1942, he was a civilian working for an American shipping company in Manila when he was captured by the Japanese. He spent almost the entirety of the conflict in a concentration camp in the Philippines, and was freed by a daring rescue mission just sixth months before the end of the war.
After returning home, he eventually retired to an historic farmhouse in nearby West Virginia, close to the area where his ancestors had settled nearly three hundred years earlier. There he lived a long and relatively quiet life until 2008, when he became the last surviving American veteran of World War I.
As living history, Buckles was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. He spent a lot of time in the District over the past three years, honored with ceremonies and meetings at the Capitol, the White House, and the Pentagon. But he took his responsibility to history very seriously, and lobbied tirelessly to create a better tribute in the nation’s capital to all those who also served during the First World War.
That leads us back to what actually happened in the District to memorialize Buckles’ death.
There were no tributes at the National World War I Memorial in Washington, because surprisingly, there is none. In the past, small war memorials were built in local cities and towns, until the Vietnam, Korea, and World War II memorials were built (in that order) on the National Mall.
Currently, one of the only places in the capital dedicated to the First World War is a small, neglected memorial honoring the 499 residents of the District
who died fighting in that conflict.
I sometimes catch a glimpse of it while giving tours, riding down Independence Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial. It looks like a modest, ancient temple –and in its deteriorating condition, you’d expect to see it standing next to the Colosseum in Rome rather than on the outskirts of our National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Sometimes my group spots it too and asks about it – but more often than not, it goes unnoticed as we drive past.
Up until his death, Buckles was a strong advocate for restoring the memorial and re-dedicating it to also serve as the nation’s official memorial to World War I. There is competition for the honor – the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri (Buckles’ original home state), which is also the site of the National Museum of World War I. There’s even been legislation proposed to let the two sites share the honor.
While Buckles had become a political advocate in his final years, he probably never imagined that plans for his funeral would get caught up in politics as well. In 2008, his relatives lobbied for special permission for him to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery – usually that’s reserved for soldiers who either died in combat or received a Purple Heart of a medal of honor. Things were inconclusive until former presidential candidate Ross Perot interceded and called the White House – a few days later, President George W. Bush waived the rules.
But Buckles didn’t get that special ceremony in the Rotunda of the Capitol. Lying in state (or repose) in the Rotunda is a rare honor reserved mostly for elected officials, and has happened only thirty times since Senator Henry Clay’s death started the tradition in 1852.
There have been notable exceptions –civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005, for example – and Buckles’ Commanding General, John J. Pershing, and the Unknown Soldier from World War I both had their own Rotunda ceremonies.
But House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wouldn’t grant this to Buckles, despite extensive lobbying from many sides.
Instead, Buckles returned to the District one last time, with two days of
public visitation scheduled at a Northwest D.C. funeral home. Then he was honored by lying in repose in the chapel in the basement of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, before he was buried with full military honors. President Obama and Vice President Biden both stopped by to pay their respects, along with hundreds of others.
Buckles legacy lives on though – Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is actually helping to restore the District’s World War I Memorial, which had been listed as one of D.C.’s 10 most endangered sites in 2006 by the D.C. Preservation League. Federal funding is helping to clean and repair the cracked stone, and generally return the memorial to its original look and design.
New landscaping has already cleared away the brush that kept it hidden for
so long, and will eventually make the area usable for outdoor public events.
I’m looking forward to pointing out a restored and prominent World War I Memorial on my tours sometime in the near future. And I’ll have to salute Frank Buckles over there in Arlington for helping to make it happen.