Filmmaker driven to honor final wish of World War I's last veteran
In “Pershing's Last Patriot,” filmmaker David DeJonge describes Frank Buckles, America's longest-living World War I veteran, as a man propelled through 110 years of life by an insatiable drive.
“He had adventure after adventure after adventure,” DeJonge says in the unfinished documentary. “Buckles never stopped. He never stopped when he was 12; he never stopped when he was 16; he never stopped when he was 110.”
Buckles died in 2011 on his farm outside Charles Town, W.Va. Two years later, DeJonge hopes to channel Buckles' persistence as he tries to raise money to finish the film on Buckles' life.
In doing so, he said, he hopes to generate momentum that will compel Washington politicians to act on Buckles' last wish to build a memorial to Word War I veterans on the National Mall.
“I think there can never be enough honor given to our veterans, and we want to complete that circle of honor on the National Mall for 5 million vets,” DeJonge said.
To raise awareness, DeJonge showed the incomplete film in a community theater in Clarion, Iowa, in April and then at several theaters in Missouri, Buckles' home state, and Arkansas in May. DeJonge is talking with other states, including Pennsylvania, about screening the film.
“It's been extremely well-received,” DeJonge said. “And it's generating a lot of questions about why we have memorials on the Mall for veterans who fought in Vietnam, Korea and World War II but none for the doughboys Frank represented.”
Buckles began pushing for a memorial when visiting Washington in 2008. At a memorial honoring D.C.'s vets, he found a crumbling edifice, and his wheelchair got stuck in potholes in the sidewalk leading to the marble structure, DeJonge recalled.
“Frank could not believe what he was seeing,” DeJonge said.
In 2009, at 108, he returned to Washington to urge politicians to act. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, heard the call.
“Buckles is a symbol of everything this country stands for,” Poe says in the film. “They deserve a memorial here. In this town, we have monuments to everybody ... yet for some reason, we can't find it within our fiber to honor the doughboys of World War I.”
Poe introduced the Frank Buckles WWI Memorial Act that would clear the way for construction of a monument on 1.5 acres. Private donors would pay for it.
The resolution passed the House but not the Senate. Among the opposition was Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County.
Toomey, who could not be reached, said through a representative that he “supports honoring World War 1 and its veterans” but worries that building a memorial would violate a provision in the Commemorative Works Act barring new memorials on the Mall.
Toomey said he and other politicians “are concerned that additional memorials, for which there are many demanded, would eventually result in the Mall being cluttered in a manner inconsistent with the intent of those who created it and at odds with its beauty and ambience.”
DeJonge said he is mystified by Toomey's opposition.
The film chronicles a life lived in two distinct halves.
Through his first 54 years, Buckles was an adventure-seeking globetrotter. He drove an ambulance in France during World War I — he was just 16 when he enlisted — then built a lucrative career in the shipping business. He traveled to exotic spots, including Manila, where Japanese soldiers captured and held him in a prison camp for three years during World War II.
Buckles settled down during the second half of his life. He married, fathered a daughter and bought a farm in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Neighbors said he took long walks, tended to farm chores on his tractor beyond his 103rd birthday, and welcomed curious travelers who knocked on his door, eager to shake hands with living history.
Asked once to reveal his secret to longevity, his daughter Susannah Buckles said, her father replied: “When you think you're going to die, don't.”
DeJonge said he needs about $35,000 to complete the film and enter it into film festivals.
Mary Goemaat, an Iowa resident who helped organize a screening of “Pershing's Last Patriot,” said the film inspires.
“After watching it, you want to get involved,” Goemaat said. “Everywhere in town, people were like, ‘Wow, how come we didn't know this? Why didn't we realize there isn't a memorial in D.C.?'
“Now that we know, it won't stay that way. This story will not sleep.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.