Editor's note: NBC's Bob Faw introduces you to Frank Buckles tonight on the Memorial Day edition of NBC Nightly News [VIDEO LINK]. You can hear more from Buckles in his own words by clicking here to watch a video produced by NBC's Andy Gross and editor Ed Eaves.
When you are with 106-year-old Frank Buckles, you are in the presence of the 20th century. You are also sitting with the last remaining veteran of World War I who served overseas. It is this fact that afforded me the opportunity to spend a day with Buckles on his postcard perfect farm in West Virginia while preparing tonight's story with correspondent Bob Faw for this Memorial Day edition of Nightly News. When asked if he ever thought that he'd be the last survivor among the 4 million men who fought in the Great War for the United States, he just chuckles and shakes his head. You get that a lot from Frank; bemused grace from a life that touched on many of the seminal moments of the last century. You see it all just sitting with him in his memorabilia-crammed study. Here are just some of his historical highlights: Watched Jesse Owens run and saw Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was a POW of the Japanese for 39 months in WWII in the notorious Los Banos internment camp; and was rescued in a daring raid by the 11th Airborne Division. "I didn't ask for all of it, it just happened that way," Frank says of his remarkable life.
Photo caption: Frank Buckles on his porch in West Virginia. The red ribbon he's wearing is the Legion of Honor, France's highest military award, given to him for his service in France during WWI. Photo by David DeJonge of DeJonge Studio.
Born on his father's farm in Missouri in 1901 during the presidency of William McKinley, young Frank had a thirst for history. He was particularly interested in the exploits of Gen. John Joseph Pershing and tales from the Spanish-American War. When the war in Europe broke out, Buckles scoured the newspapers, trying to follow the action thousands of miles away. Lying about his age, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at 15. "If anybody asked how old I was, I told them it wasn't any of their damn business," he laughed. Desperate to get overseas before the fighting ended, Buckles signed up for duty with the ambulance corps, a branch that was short of men. He sailed for Europe in 1917 aboard the RMS Caparthia, a ship that earned fame five years earlier when it answered the distress calls of the Titanic and sailed full-steam through the night to rescue the stunned survivors.
Buckles remained in England for the next several months, only making it to France once the war was winding down. Later, when he had returned stateside, he had the chance to meet and chat with his boyhood hero and wartime commander, Pershing. The general, a known stickler for military appearance, noticed that Buckles was holding gloves in his hand. "What the hell was that corporal carrying gloves for in his hand? That is only reserved for the cavalry," said Pershing. But did Buckles apologize? "No," he laughs, his eyes twinkling at the long-ago memory of standing up to his hero.
Buckles is in fine shape for being one of the few remaining McKinley-era babies. He credits it to exercise and hard work. Pointing out a giant charcoal-colored leather medicine ball sitting on the top shelf in his study, Buckles told me, "I got that in Germany in 1932. They don't make them like that anymore!"
No sir, they sure don't, and they don't make them like Frank Buckles anymore either.
Special thanks to my editor, Ed Eaves, camera crew Jim Long and Bill Gebhardt and NBC News Associate Elizabeth Bacelar.