By John Yang, NBC News correspondent
Covering the White House, I've had the opportunity to meet world leaders, business executives, sports stars and, of course, to interact with the President of the United States. But with all due respect to all of them, I've never had an experience like the one I had this morning when I sat down with 107-year-old Frank Buckles, the last living U.S. veteran of World War I.
Mr. Buckles had come to Washington from his 330-acre cattle farm near Charles Town, W.Va., to meet President Bush in the Oval Office--which hadn't even been built when he was born--for the unveiling of his portrait as part of an exhibit at the Pentagon. We sat down with him for an exclusive interview in the Map Room of the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt plotted the progress of World War II.
He was sharp and alert and his memory crisp. He was quick with anecdotes. When he heard my last name, he asked if was related to a family he had known in China. I worried about taxing Buckles's energy and tried to end the interview at one point. But he'd have none of that--he wanted to talk.
When 108-year-old Harry Landis died in Sun City, Fla., on Feb. 4, Buckles became the only living U.S. veteran of the "war to end all wars"--the last man standing in a line of nearly 5-million Americans who served in uniform during that war.
"I knew it would happen to somebody, but I didn't necessarily think it was going to be me," he said with a soft chuckle.
He attributes his longevity to "the desire to live … I have something to survive for. I have a daughter, who, of course, is dear to me," he said, gesturing to Susannah Buckles Flanagan, 52, who sat nearby.
He does 50 sit-ups everyday and drove a tractor on his farm until five years ago--the same time he stopped driving himself to appointments.
"What made you stop?" I asked.
"My daughter," he said, with a laugh. "I would have been driving a lot longer than I did."
Buckles lied about his age to enlist for World War I when he was 15, hoping to be part of something important and, he said, have an adventure. He missed the war; the Armistice can just as he arrived in France.
In civilian life, years later, while working for a steamship line in the Philippines, another war found him. When the Japanese invaded at the beginning of World War II, he was sent to a POW camp where he spent three-and-a-half years.
He still has the tin cup from which he ate a slop of rice and, when he was lucky, beans.
"A prisoner doesn't want to eat thinking about what he would lilke to have," he said. "He's not thinking about the steaks that he would get at the Waldorf-Astoria. He's thinking about, 'If I just had more beans and just more rice.' "
Finally, he had to get going to make his date at the Pentagon. As we shook hands, he leaned forward and said softly, "You'll be 100, too."
I can only hope--and hope to have as interesting a life as Frank Buckles.