Scrawny but determined to fight in World War I, Howard Ramsey scarfed down banana after banana to bulk up enough to enlist. Today, he is still feisty at 108.
At 16, Frank Buckles lied about his age so he could go to war against the Germans in France. Now 105, he still runs his West Virginia cattle farm.
The son of former slaves, Moses Hardy and his segregated unit battled the enemy in horrific trench combat. Now 112 or 113, he says the only doctor he needs is Dr Pepper.
These remarkable “doughboys” — and about two handfuls more — are members of an increasingly fragile fraternity, relics of a world-changing conflagration little remembered today.
Once they stood 4.7 million strong: American farm boys, factory hands and tradesmen itching for adventure, all called by their country to fight “the war to end all wars.”
Now, when the 88th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I arrives tomorrow, there won’t be enough surviving U.S. veterans of that defining conflict to fill a platoon.
When 2006 began, an unofficial roster of known remaining American WWI veterans listed only about two dozen names. Eleven months later, those ranks have dwindled to 12, Scripps Howard News Service has confirmed. Perhaps a dozen more, who joined the armed forces after Armistice Day and served in the immediate aftermath of the war, are still alive.
With an average age of 108, it is unlikely these numbers will hold up for long. All are pushing the envelope of human longevity, especially Emiliano Mercado del Toro of Isabella, Puerto Rico, who at 115 is both the world’s oldest living man and the longest-lived U.S. veteran in history.
“The torch is quickly passing,” said retired Brig. Gen. Steve Berkheiser, executive director of the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
So is an era that seems ancient by today’s standards. Many of these veterans were born under a U.S. flag with just 45 stars and have lived in three centuries. They have seen 19 presidents lead the nation through seven wars. Their lives began before airplanes, radio, talking movies and antibiotics. Animals were a more common mode of transportation than tin lizzies, as early autos were called.
“They’re the only generation that has gone from outhouses to outer space,” said Muriel Sue Parkhurst Kerr, who heads what’s left of the Veterans of World War I of the United States organization, which once boasted 800,000 members.
They also were part of a pivotal war, one that vaulted America onto the global stage for the first time and set in eventual motion World War II, the Cold War and the Middle East turmoil that burns today. Those who fought in the trenches witnessed bloodshed never imagined before in a conflict that saw the horror of chemical weapons and bayonet charges.
The mobilization of men was massive. From a U.S. population just one-third of the 300 million today, 2 million troops were sent to France. In all, 116,516 Americans died — in combat and from the Spanish flu — and 204,002 were wounded.
And when it was over, they came home, quietly and without celebrations or veterans’ benefits. The only national memorial in the Washington area to the World War I soldiers and sailors is a small plaque at Arlington National Cemetery. Like the World War II “Greatest Generation,” which they sired and have come to be overshadowed by, they simply went on with their lives.
Antonio Pierro, for instance, saw terrible things when he fought in the brutal Argonne offensive in France. But he returned to a long but little noticed life in Swampscott, Mass., where he worked in a General Electric plant. His longevity — he is 110 — has brought him more attention than anything else in his nearly 90 years hence.
The same is true for Ernest Pusey, 111, of Bradenton, Fla. After serving on the battleship Wyoming, he worked at a General Motors plant for 32 years. He has outlived two wives and a son.
Partly as a result of their obscurity, no one knows for sure how many WWI veterans remain alive. There was no national roll kept of their names, and a fire at a St. Louis official documents repository destroyed as much as 80 percent of the WWI-era military records.
It would not surprise the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is in the early stages of planning a final tribute to the last of the doughboys, if a few more than the fast-dwindling dozen exist.
“We hope this attention to them will bring more to light,” VA spokesman Chris Scheer said.
The VA says as of last month there were about 23 million veterans living in the United States, of whom about 17 million are war veterans. The numbers include 3,242,000 from World War II, 3,086,400 from the Korean War, 7,286,500 from Vietnam War, 2,260,000 from Desert Shield/Desert Storm and 433,398 from the global war on terror. War widows go back even further, with a wife of a Civil War soldier still alive.
Will Everett, a documentarian in South Padre Island, Texas, is determined to preserve the memories of as many remaining World War I veterans as possible. Mr. Everett crisscrossed the country this year to interview them. His two-hour radio presentation — narrated by news icon Walter Cronkite, himself an old warhorse of 90 — will air this weekend on National Public Radio stations.
“I feel I’m a keeper of the flame,” Mr. Everett said.
He and author Richard Rubin, who has interviewed 36 WWI veterans since 2003 for the forthcoming book “The Last of the Doughboys,” marvel at the stoic resolve and uncommon grit of this generation, and lament that they are passing into history without the appreciation and recognition they long ago earned.
“We pride ourselves on being a country that cares deeply about its veterans, and yet, for decades now, we have overlooked, perhaps even forgotten, our World War I veterans,” Mr. Rubin said via e-mail. “We should … remember them as a link to the very best of what America was, and a catalyst for the very best of what America is.”