World Wars Winner

Frank Buckles is America’s last remaining World War I veteran, but he has a World War II story to tell, too—a grueling story of survival.

by Joe Razes

Frank Buckles is 108 Years old. That makes him just about old enough to be a WWI veteran, and he is. In fact he’s now America’s only living WWI veteran. He’s also a WWII veteran of sorts. Twenty-some years after being in the thick of a world war, he found himself in the thick of another. Face to face with America’s enemies again, he spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines.

“If your country needs you, you should be there,” Buckles says. He was just 16 when he first put that credo into action, lying about his age to join the army during World War I. When asked for a birth certificate, Buckles told the recruiter “The record of my birth was in the family Bible, and you wouldn’t want me to bring that down here would you?” The tactic worked.

Buckles volunteered to be an ambulance driver, because he knew that would put him at the fighting front. “Everyone wanted to get to France,” he says. ‘‘That’s where the action was, and that’s where the promotions were.” After the war ended, Buckles delivered POWs to Germany.

During the 1930s, Buckles worked as a purser for shipping lines and ended up in prewar Nazi Germany. “The first thing visible in people’s houses was a copy of Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf,” he says. The book was part autobiography and part radical political tract. Buckles met the author in person once, at a hotel in Bremen, Germany. “When I came down from the first floor to the lobby, there was Hitler talking to his advisors,” he recalls. “I was surprised that no one was protecting him. Apparently he didn’t need any help.”

Although official news of Germany’s growing war machine was rare in the early 1930s, Buckles knew something was brewing. German passengers aboard his company’s steamships would tell him of Hitler’s campaign to bolster his political and military might. “Some German passengers were quite upset and some were crying,” he says. “The British were the same way.”

Occasionally, Buckles saw evidence of growing Nazi aggression up close. One telling incident occurred in a large antiques store in Hamburg that was owned by a woman he had befriended. “One day I came in and she told me that I wouldn’t believe what was going on,” he says. “She said that she was being watched and she wouldn’t be able to invite me for tea again. A nice Jewish lady.” In 1936 Buckles saw Hitler again, while attending the Olympics in Berlin. Hitler was clearly visible in a special box seat. These were the games in which Jesse Owens, an African American, won four gold medals against Hitler’s supposed master race. Before the games’ athletes and spectators arrived, the Nazi party had removed its anti-Semitic signs, with slogans such as “Jews not wanted,” from the city’s main tourist attractions. But Buckles remembers that the anti-Jewish sentiment remained.

As war raged in Europe in 1940, Buckles agreed to move cargo for the American President Lines in Manila. He had a job offer in San Francisco and figured he would return there in a year to accept it. “Unfortunately,” he says, “my stay was extended.”

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they invaded the Philippines. Buckles and about 2,000 other civilians were taken as non-military prisoners. He spent more than three years in Japanese POW camps, first at Santo Tomas and then Los Baños.

“There was no mercy, as far as the Japanese were concerned,” Buckles says. Early in his imprisonment three men escaped, only to be captured and returned that evening. “The men, two Americans and a British, I think, were severely beaten,” he says. “They were court-martialed, tried, and shot the next morning beside their open graves.”

A firm believer in physical fitness, Buckles led a daily calisthenics class for his fellow prisoners. “You must keep yourself in shape to be prepared for when you get out,” he says. He also helped a young girl do daily exercises to counteract the paralyzing effects of polio. The workouts helped him survive. So did being tough. He recalls that in his younger days he had slept on a wooden floor “to toughen up for the army.”

Food was always in short supply, and Buckles once traded an expensive ring for a small bag of rice. His daily rations didn’t even fill up the tin cup from which he ate each meal. He supplemented them with produce he was allowed to grow in a small garden and often shared his bounty with families that had children. As the Japanese began losing the war, the rations were cut further. Buckles saw many POWs waste away before his eyes. “Everyone was weak,” he says. “In those last months, they had planned to starve us to death.” Buckles lost a third of his weight. “When I got down to 100 pounds,” he remembers, “I quit looking at the scales.” He developed beriberi, a degenerative disease caused by malnutrition, and it affects him to this day.

On February 23, 1945, Buckles and the other prisoners were outside for morning roll call at Los Baños. “It was not unusual to see Allied planes flying overhead,” Buckles says, “but nobody paid attention to them.” This day was different. “Nine big cargo planes were flying low and paratroopers started dropping from the planes,” Buckles says. The US Army’s 11th Airborne Division had surprised the Japanese guards in the middle of their exercise regimen. Excitement among the prisoners quickly turned to fear that “everyone would be executed.” As fighting ensued between paratroopers and guards, Buckles returned to his bunk and changed into a starched shirt, shorts, and wool socks that he’d been saving for his liberation. “The building caught fire during the battle,” he recalls, “and as I was leaving the north end of the barracks, the roof fell in.”

Buckles was a free men. He returned to America and in 1953 married. He used the paychecks that had piled up while he was a POW to buy a farm in West Virginia. He still lives on the farm today, along with his daughter and son-in-law. His wife, Audrey, died in 1999. Photos and mementos from Buckles’s WWI doughboy days fill the living room of his farmhouse. The chipped enameled tin cup he ate from during his 39 months as a WWII POW is prominently displayed. He still corresponds with the girl with polio whom he helped in prison camp. For better and for worse, there’s no forgetting years spent in the thick of two world wars—even if those years were just tiny chapters in a life of 108 years and counting.

Joe Razes is a contributing editor of America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.