ARLINGTON, Virginia (AFP) – President Barack Obama Tuesday led the United States in paying homage to its last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, who died last month at the age of 110.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made an unscheduled visit to the Arlington military cemetery to pay their respects at Buckles's coffin ahead of his burial with full military honors, the White House said.
The two leaders bowed in front of the coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes as it lay in a small chapel at the cemetery, and spent about 10 minutes inside offering their condolences to his family.
Buckles, a former ambulance driver during the Great War, had lied about his age to enlist in 1917 to join American troops fighting alongside a British alliance against Germany and its allies.
"It's a passage of time. My grandfather served in France, he was gassed and had difficulty breathing all his life," said Peter Tracy, 50, who visited Arlington earlier Tuesday to pay his respects.
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"Like Mr Buckles, he represented a generation that gave a great deal for the country," he added, waiting in a long line of visitors.
The indomitable Buckles, who survived three years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, died peacefully of natural causes last month, only days after celebrating his 110th birthday on February 1.
He was being interred in the prestigious Arlington cemetery reserved for military heroes and where several American presidents have found their final resting place.
He will lie in plot 34, not far from General John Pershing, whom he admired, and who led the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.
Born Frank Woodruff Buckles in Missouri in 1901, Buckles rushed to enlist when the United States entered the war in April 1917 after reading about the conflict in the newspapers.
The marines and the navy turned him down because he was only 16, but Buckles managed to convince the army recruiter he was 21.
Some 4.7 million Americans fought in World War I which lasted from 1914 to 1918, the vast majority serving in the American Expeditionary Force that sailed to Europe. By the time the war ended on November 11, 1918, some 8.5 million people had died.
From the start, Buckles was itching to get to the front. "A knowledgeable old sergeant said if you want to get to France right away, go into the ambulance corps," he said in a 2001 interview with the Library of Congress.
Sailing to Europe in December 1917 aboard the ship that five years earlier picked up the survivors of the Titanic, Buckles landed in Britain.
"During my stay in England, I drove a motorcycle sidecar, then Ford ambulances and cars. Perseverance paid off and I got assigned to follow an officer who had been left behind from his unit and I got to France," he said.
But Buckles, who rose to the rank of corporal, never made it to the front lines and after the war, his unit escorted prisoners back to Germany.
He said the closest he got to the front himself was about 30 or 40 miles (48 to 64 kilometers), adding: "Thirty or forty miles is a long distance in France."
He returned to the United States, married and bought a cattle farm in West Virginia. He entered the shipping industry after the war and in 1941 traveled to the Philippines to represent a US shipping company.
Working for the shipping company, Buckles was captured by invading Japanese soldiers when they came to Manila in January 1942, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.
He was to spend the next three years in a prison camp.
"Nobody here knew that I had been in World War I until quite recently," he told the Library of Congress.
That was until French president Jacques Chirac awarded him the Legion of Honor (Legion d'honneur) medal in 1999.
In March 2008, Buckles was honored at a special ceremony at the Pentagon and the White House by president George W. Bush.
In 2007, Buckles told the Washington Post when asked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: "I'm no authority, but I'm not in favor of war unless it's an emergency."
Buckles is survived by two Britons, known as the last veterans of World War I. Both are aged 110, one lives in Australia and there is also a British woman who joined the Royal Air Force in 1917.