Veterans Day honors all who serve/served in the military; Memorial Day those who died in America’s wars. But sometimes lost in the mix is a “veteran era’s” passing.
Such a passing occurred Feb. 27, 2011, when Frank Buckles — the United States’ last “doughboy” — died at age 110, the country’s last surviving World War I veteran.
Mentally sharp to the end, Buckles said of military service: “If your country needs you, you should be right there. That is the way I felt when I was young and that’s the way I feel today.”
That sense of service prompted Buckles, as a centenarian-plus, to be Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation, advocating establishment of a WWI memorial on the National Mall in Washington.
Buckles recognized, as a member of a dwindling group of “the Great War’s” survivors, he became a torchbearer to ensure the sacrifices of 116,516 comrades lost on its battlefields and contributions to preserving democracy made by 4.6 million fellow veteran survivors weren’t forgotten.
Sadly, Buckles’ memorial dream wasn’t realized before his death.
Despite memorials built honoring veterans of wars subsequent to it, no national U.S. World War I memorial exists — surprising since that war was highly celebrated upon ending Nov. 11, 1918. While the war led to construction of the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” that wasn’t a memorial dedicated to World War I veterans’ service.
Buckles had reason to fear an entire veteran era would be forgotten.
Recently, in Washington, workers discovered a concrete obelisk in storage. Research revealed it was one of 500 placed along 16th Street in 1920 to honor residents killed in World War I — only to be removed years later from view.
Last April, workers renovating a Clearwater, Fla., theater uncovered an engraving entitled “Wall of Honor,” bearing an alphabetical list of names. A local historian immediately recognized his uncle’s name, realizing the wall was a tribute to locals who died in World War I. A later, unappreciative generation had buried history.
Buckles was the United States’ last “living” World War I memorial — a reminder of an era of veterans who courageously answered their country’s call to duty — a voice now silenced.
With the fast-approaching 100th anniversary of that war’s outbreak on July 28, 1914, and the United States’ entry into it on April 6, 1917, a U.S. “call to arms” to commemorate the occasion has been sounded. Just like America was a late entry into that war, it also is a late entry into its commemoration.
By an act of Congress — initiated by private citizens — a World War I Centennial Commission has been established to work with commissions representing other participating countries. However, recognizing the opportunity to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the most significant event of the 20th century, these other governments funded their commissions while Congress has not.
As the commission is left to solicit private funding, national commissions representing thirty other countries from both sides of the battlefield are already at work planning and coordinating both domestic and international events to honor veterans of the World War I era.
While such events include creating programs to educate school children about it, here again the United States lags behind. In those European countries where much of the war’s fighting took place, generations of children were taught about sacrifices made on their country’s behalf during this era – not only by their own but U.S. veterans as well.
This education came both in the classroom and in the form of private local memorials across countries like France.
It is said one visiting anywhere in France “is probably within an hour of an isolated burial or private memorial” of a U.S. veteran. So many were established, the American Expeditionary Force commander during World War I, Gen. John Pershing, noted, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
While true for Europe’s young, it hasn’t been for America’s.
Young European students today easily identify who fought whom in World War I; U.S. students are hard-pressed to do so. Thus, efforts by the commission will focus on education.
Hopefully, individual state commissions will form to help promote events as well. Events might include: encouraging family research by students on whether their ancestors or those of local residents were World War I veterans; or on how the crippling anxiety of exposure to combat, known then as “shell shock,” has evolved into a better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder today; or on how disfiguring wounds of that war led, in its aftermath, to an ethical debate on cosmetic surgery; etc.
Two years before he died, Buckles shared his insights into living a long life: “When you start to die,” he said, “don’t.”
Had he been asked to share insights on how best to preserve the memory of his veteran era, he undoubtedly would have given a similarly short, but pointed, message: educate our children.
The stories about Washington’s forgotten obelisks and Clearwater’s “Wall of Honor” suggest we have failed in this regard as an unappreciative nation casts World War I’s history aside.
For 237 years, veterans home from America’s wars knew they were fortunate to survive, fighting — upon their return — to memorialize their own as well as the ultimate sacrifices of those who failed to return.
Ironically, as veteran era generations of World War II, Korea and Vietnam fade away — all fought after World War I — they will leave behind memorials the doughboys have not.
Who shall be their voice now that time has rendered them all silent?
Hopefully, the World War I Centennial Commission — supported by a grateful country — will educate today’s young about that war so a future generation of Americans will honor Buckles’ last request.
This commentary appeared at AIM.org and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo credit: terrellaftermath