Last World War I Vet Frank Buckles’ Memorial Day Letter to Americans
The following is a letter from Frank Buckles to the American Veterans Center and National Memorial Day Parade on Memorial Day, 2009.
Though I am unable to be in our great nation’s capitol today to pay honor to the many men and women who have fought and died protecting our freedom, I want you to know the depth of my gratitude to our service members and the deep personal significance Memorial Day has to me.
In 1918, I was sure there would never be another world war. But just 23 years later – the day after Pearl Harbor – I became one of 2,000 civilians who would spend the next 3 and a half years in a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines.
I was born in 1901 during the McKinley Administration in the heartland of America. I was thirteen when World War I broke out in Europe. For me the decision to join the service was an easy one. The hard part was finding someone who’d let me join.
I was just 16 and didn’t look a day older. I confess to you that I lied to more than one recruiter. I gave them my solemn word that I was 18, but I’d left my birth certificate back home in the family Bible. They’d take one look at me and laugh and tell me to home before my mother noticed I was gone.
Somehow I got the idea that telling an even bigger whopper was the way to go. So I told the next recruiter that I was 21 and darned if he didn’t sign me up on the spot! I enlisted in the Army on the 14th of August 1917. As a 16-year-old boy, you think you’re invincible and I wanted to go where the action was.
One of the older sergeants told me the fastest way to get to France was to go into the Ambulance Corps. So that’s what I did. There was never a shortage of blown-up bodies that needed to be rushed to the nearest medical care. The British and French troops were in bad shape – even guys about my age looked old and tired.
After three years of living and dying inside a dirt trench, you know the Brits and French were happy to see us “doughboys.” Every last one of us Yanks believed we’d wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home before harvest. In other words, we were the typical, cocky Americans no one wants around, until they need help winning a war.
But that’s what makes America special – as much as we want to avoid war, we’re ready to sacrifice everything if that’s what it takes to make sure the bad guys don’t win. America’s entry into the war was decisive. Just 19 months after the first Yanks arrived, the guns fell silent.
The Armistice commenced on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and battered troops on both sides crawled out of their trenches for the last time. When the armistice came, I thought the Europeans would be dancing in the streets. After the Armistice, I was assigned to deliver German POW’s back to their homeland. Looking at their war-weary faces, I never dreamed that one day I’d find myself in the same position – but in much worse circumstances.
On December 7, 1941, the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Even before Congress declared war on Japan, young American men were lining up to enlist. At the time, I was working in the Manila office for a shipping firm called the White Star Line.
White Star was the line that had owned the Titanic. White Star also owned the Carpathian – the ship that had rescued the Titanic’s survivors…and the Carpathian was also the ship that had taken me to the battlefields of France in 1917. You know, looking back I think I should have seen all those White Star connections as an omen of things to come. But I didn’t.
The Axis war in Europe and Asia had been going on for the last several years. But General MacArthur had assured us that Manila was the safest city in the Orient. MacArthur was a great general, but this time he guessed wrong.
On December 8th, just one day after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese invasion took control of Manila. The Japanese took thousands of us foreigners to Los Banos, a prison camp 40 miles southeast of Manila. Along with 2,000 other foreign civilians, I was designated a prisoner of war.
For the next 3 and a half years, my fellow POW’s and I had only two things on our minds. We wondered when MacArthur was going to return and how we were going to find something to fill our stomachs. The starvation at Los Banos was so bad, it is surprising that any of us survived. When The 11th Airborne finally freed us on February 23, 1945, we all looked pretty much like skeletons with skin on.
America goes to war to free, to liberate, to protect, and to bring justice to bear. I hope this Memorial Day, you take the time to thank the veterans you meet for their service to this country – the sacrifices that they have made to preserve your freedom.
May God bless you and God bless America!
World War I
U.S. Army (Retired)
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