ARLINGTON, Va. – Frank Buckles, the last American doughboy of World War I, was laid to rest Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery amid the graves of those who died in all the conflicts his was meant to end.
Before the brief graveside ceremony attended by family and several hundred onlookers, President Obama and Vice President Biden made an unannounced visit to pay their respects to Buckles as he lay in repose in Arlington’s amphitheater chapel.
Buckles died Feb. 27 at the age of 110. Soon after, Obama ordered flags at the White House and federal buildings to fly at half-staff in his honor. But a request by the veteran’s daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, to have his casket lie in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as a way to honor not only him but all American veterans of the war was turned down by congressional leaders.
The visit by Obama and Biden, who did not attend the funeral service, came after two weeks of sometimes contentious back-and-forth over how Buckles should be honored.
“It was a nice tribute,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, who along with fellow West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller lobbied for the Capitol honor. “Knowing Frank Buckles, he would have been extremely honored,” Manchin said as he left the service.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli and Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler, the service’s top enlisted soldier, were among the mourners. So were several dozen Buckles relatives as well as his long-time hairdresser, Jennifer Eckert, who came to his Charles Town, W.Va., home for the last decade to give him haircuts.
“He was a simple man, a peaceful man and a gentleman in every sense of the word,” she said.
But most especially, Buckles was a military man and his funeral included all the honors due him.
Tourists, grizzled veterans, junior ROTC students and more than 100 bikers from Rolling Thunder and the Patriot Guard, who stand vigil at the funerals of fallen warriors, stood quietly on the hillside where John Pershing, the top American general of World War I and Buckles' commander, is buried.
A grave nearest Pershing's isolated headstone had been dug for his longest-living soldier. A few floral tributes stood near the grave. One included the famous words erroneously attributed to Pershing during World War I, "Lafayette, we are here."
Sherece Eivins, 43, a great-grandniece of Buckles, waited nearby. She and her four young children had traveled to Virginia from Buckles' birthplace of Harrison County, Mo.
"That was supposed to be the war to end all wars," Eivins, who met the family patriarch for the first time in 2007, said of World War I. "It's obvious from this cemetery that it wasn't."
Buckles was buried in Section 37, not far from Section 60, a final resting place for America's war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Family members said he was proud to stand for his comrades in arms when more attention focused on him in his later years.
"He truly appreciated that he was able to represent that generation," said another great-grandniece, Elizabeth Van Eyck, who came from Carpenteria, Calif.
"And done so with honor," added Eivins.
Bob Pettit, 82, also waited. He met Buckles only recently when he paid a call to his fellow member of the Veterans of Underage Military Service. He was 13 when he lied about his age to join the Navy in World War II. Buckles was 16 when he fibbed to get into the Great War.
Pettit helped steer the landing craft that put the 11th Airborne ashore in the Philippines in a daring rescue that liberated the Japanese POW camp where Buckles was held for three and a half years during World War II after he was captured in Manila while working for a shipping company.
"It's a final salute," he said, holding back tears. "It's kind of the end of an era."
The last caisson to honor his generation was heralded by muffled drums in the distance as the escort platoon, casket team, firing party and bugler from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard,” approached the hillside site.
Then around a bend came seven brown horses pulling the black-clad caisson with Cpl. Buckles' flag-draped casket.
Under a cold, threatening sky, the military band began to play Dvorak's dirge, "Going Home,” as the honor guard went through it's studied moves to lift the gray metal casket off the caisson.
“We lay to rest your father, Poppa, Frank Woodruff Buckles,” Army chaplain Keith Croom said to the veteran’s daughter as she sat beside the casket. “For our nation, it is also a time of mourning because we lay to rest our very last veteran of World War I."
The ceremony ended with three gun blasts and the playing of Taps.
Buckles' long life spanned and outlasted the 20th century.
As USA Today reported in 2007, when Buckles was one of four surviving World War I veterans, the young man was inspired by the patriotic posters he saw in the tiny town of Oakwood, Okla.:
"The world was involved in it, and so was I," he says in a voice made halting and raspy by age.
Only 16, he walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office in Wichita and said he was 18. The recruiter didn't believe him and sent him away. The Navy rejected Buckles as flat-footed. Finally, an Army recruiter in Oklahoma City accepted him, but only after Buckles insisted that the only proof of his age was in a family Bible back in Missouri. The state didn't issue birth certificates in those days.
"I liked the Army right off," says Buckles, recalling how he enjoyed calisthenics.
He was in a hurry to get to the front. A sergeant told him to join the ambulance corps because the French, America's ally, were "begging for ambulances." At Fort Riley, Kan., he learned how to use his belt to cinch a wounded soldier to his back and carry him from a trench.
In December 1917, he sailed from Hoboken, N.J., on the RMS Carpathia, the ship that had rescued survivors of the Titanic after it sank in 1912. Buckles says he passed the time listening to the crew's accounts of the rescue. While in England, the young corporal drove dignitaries around.
He eventually got to France, but never close enough to the action to pull anyone from a trench.
In 1918, after the armistice was signed between the allies and Germany on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — a date now commemorated as Veterans Day — Buckles stayed in Europe to escort prisoners of war back to Germany.”
Buckles often told the story of how he met his commanding general soon after returning home from Europe in January 1920.
"The parades were over. Nobody asked me a question ... even though I was still in uniform,” Buckles told USA Today.
That scratchy wool uniform caught the eye of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing at a reception in Oklahoma City soon after Buckles returned. The general, just back from commanding U.S. forces in France, shook Buckles' hand and asked where he was from, Buckles recalls.
When Buckles said he'd grown up on a farm in Harrison County, Mo., Pershing said, "Just 43 miles, as the crow flies, from Linn County, where I was born."
Buckles visited Pershing's burial site in a little-visited corner of Arlington often. Despite his fame a century ago, the general’s grave is not included in a map of the cemetery’s “places of interest.”
Now the last soldier from World War I has joined his commander on that lonely hilltop at Arlington.
Minutes after his ceremony concluded, a gentle rain began to fall.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect additional reporting.