On February first, Frank Woodruff Buckles, of West Virginia,
celebrated his 110th birthday. He wanted to live to age 115 and
see a national monument to all WWI veterans put in place in
Washington. Before that dream could be realized, Buckles
passed away just after midnight on February 28. He was America's
last surviving veteran of World War I.
At 16, Buckles lied about his age, enlisted in the Army, and
became a Doughboy. Serving in France, he drove ambulances loaded
with the carnage of trench warfare. After the Armistice, he helped
transport German prisoners of war safely back to their homes.
Twenty-five years later, in 1941, Buckles was working as a civilian
aboard a ship in the waters near Manila when WWII broke out. The
Japanese captured his ship and threw Buckles in a Japanese POW camp
for the next three and a half years.
Buckles had fans from around the world. Each year he received bushels
of birthday cards from veterans and others who admired his lifelong
work in helping us remember the sacrifices of WWI. A beautiful tribute to
him can be found on his Web site: http://www.frankbuckles.org/.
Retired, out of uniform, Buckles was only one of the brave among us.
With barely a whisper, many more slip back into society. Go on with their
lives. Unknowingly, I pass them on the street each day. In uniform, they
grab my attention and admiration in airports, shopping malls, and at parades.
Moved, I offer them my thanks.
But I know it isn't enough.
Most veterans say they don't want to talk about their war experiences.
Yet I know those memories are ever present. As they were for the roofing
contractor I employed one summer.
Over late afternoon beers, he opened up and told me about his first months
home from Vietnam. For six months he couldn't sleep in a bed. The only place
he felt safe was on the floor, ear to the ground to listen for footsteps. Aside from
that, he thought he was coping fairly well, until the day his mother asked him
repeatedly to take out the trash.
Snapping, he screamed back, "Garbage? You want me to take out the garbage
when I was blowing people's heads off last week?"
Years ago, another veteran suddenly opened up to me at a dinner party. He'd
been a Navy Seal in Vietnam. The experience that still haunted him, he said, was
being dropped by helicopter into Cambodia on a covert mission with three other
"We disavow any knowledge of this operation. Be here in three days, in this
exact location, or you are on your own," the helicopter pilot told the men.
In the kitchen, his wife turned to me, shaking her head. "He's never told that
story before. Never."
Another story hits closer to home for me.
It's the story of a skinny kid from Port Chester, New York. He's the one on the
left in the photo above. It was taken in 1942, in Iceland. The skinny kid weighed
just 117 pounds when the photo was taken. Shot nerves and exposure can do a
number on your appetite, I've learned.
That skinny kid is my father, Navy Photomate Fred H. Melull.
Next week, Dad would have been 97. He died in 1999, without my ever
completely understanding all the sacrifices he made while serving in Iceland and
the North Atlantic during WWII. All I remember is that he was forever cold and
liked to nap in a pool of sunlight on the radiant-heated floor of our family room.
Downed in an aircraft in Iceland's interior, he suffered frostbite on his feet.
My brother tells me our mother routinely pulled shrapnel out of my father's
back with a tweezers when it worked its way to the surface and snagged his
t-shirt. That I don't remember. But I will never forget the story I overheard when
a neighbor girl interviewed Dad for a school paper.
"Now, this is classified. You can't talk about this to anyone," he began.
Listening out of sight in the back hall, I heard my father tell the girl how he'd
been at sea when his ship came across the wreckage of a troopship sunk by a
Nazi U-boat. On board there had been women, soldiers, and not enough
lifeboats to go around. Because of the desperate need for soldiers in Europe, the
order was given to save the men over the women. By the time my father's ship
arrived on the scene to help with the rescue few women were still alive.
"I don't know, now, if they were nurses, or WACS, or WAVES. I don't
remember. But I could hear them out there, screaming. God, I'll never forget
that. And those poor bastards who'd been told not to pick them up in their
lifeboats. . . they were a mess. It's not the natural order of things, you know?
Who let that happen? Who told those girls it was okay to be out there, to come
Choking back sobs, my father repeatedly told the girl, "Now you can't write
about this. This is classified. It's classified."
I've never been able to verify this story. All records of troopship crossings
were purposely destroyed by the government after the war. Still, the veterans
and researchers I've spoken to tell me to believe in my father's story, regardless
of whether I ever find hard evidence of it.