As the son of an infantryman who spent 27 years serving America in the U.S. Army, maybe I feel a special emotion on Veteran’s Day. This holiday, there is a touch of sadness, a sense of historical passing.
There was a time when November 11 was called “Armistice Day” to commemorate the ending of “The War to End All Wars,” which we now know as World War I, the first of so many brutal conflicts of the 20th century. After World War II, we changed the purpose of the day to honor all living veterans of all our conflicts, at the same time changing “Decoration Day”– originally a day of remembrance of Union dead from the Civil War — to our “Memorial Day,” to honor all those who served but are no longer with us.
What makes this Veteran’s Day so different is that, earlier this year, our last surviving veteran of World War I passed away and now rests with his comrades at Arlington.
Army Cpl. Frank W. Buckles died on Feb. 27, 2011, at the age of 110. He was the last of the 4.7 million Americans who fought in the Great War nearly a century ago.
Having joined the ranks of American doughboys at the age of 16 — after being turned down by the Marine Corps for being too small, and rejected by the Navy for having flat feet — Buckles finally convinced an Army captain that he was old enough to enlist. He was so eager to join the conflict that he volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver, having heard that this would place him on a fast track to the front lines in France, where he did indeed come face to face with the ghastly toll of war as he transported the broken bodies of his comrades.
But even after the Armistice, this did not end Buckles’s experience of war. Over two decades later, during World War II, while serving as a civilian shipping contractor in the Philippines, Buckles was captured by the Japanese and became a prisoner of war for more than three years.
He lost over 50 pounds during his imprisonment, surviving on a daily diet of only a small amount of mush served in a tin cup the size of a coffee mug that he kept the rest of his life.
And now that Buckles is no longer with us, our last link with his generation of warriors has quietly slipped away.
As a boy, I attended the parades in their honor, men still young in their 40s and 50s. The young veterans who once marched beside them — now remembered as our “Greatest Generation” — were in their 20s, having returned not long before from Iwo Jima, Bastogne, and the flak-torn skies over Berlin and Tokyo.
Of the nearly 15 million who served during the Second World War, little more than a million remain with us, and approximately 1,000 of these pass away with each day. Today, the younger vets who march beside them are those of more recent eras: Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — a total of more than 21 million veterans living among us.