On Feb. 27, 2011, with little in the way of fanfare, northwest Missouri native Frank Buckles — the last American veteran of World War I — died in West Virginia at age 110.
In “The Last of the Doughboys,” Richard Rubin writes of Buckles and other centenarian veterans of WWI whom he had tracked down and interviewed in the first decade of this century.
Rubin notes early in the book that after the Depression and World War II, fewer and fewer Americans cared much about WWI. Most of us think of WWI only in terms of Snoopy and the Red Baron — even though, as Rubin writes, that war “occurred at, and in many ways created, a great crossroads in the history of man. It changed the Western world — and much of the rest of the world, too — more than any other war had, or has.”
To give today’s Americans a sense of that long-ago war, Rubin sifts through the memories of the handful of hundred-somethings he tracked down — for instance, Warren Hileman of Anna, Ill., 107 in 2003, and William J. Lake of Yakima, Wash., and a native of New London, Mo., who was just shy of 108 when Rubin talked to him in 2003.
The author asked Lake if had ever got used to combat. “ ‘Well, you kind of get used to it,’ he told me, ‘but it’s pretty scary, I’ll tell you, because you don’t know when you’re going to get it.’”
Rubin injects a lot of himself into this book, which is peppered with chatty asides like, “But I’ll get to that a bit later.”
Still, the words of his veterans make the book worthwhile. As Rubin puts it, “These men had lived entire lifetimes — long lifetimes — since the events they recounted to me had transpired; in some cases, the war had occupied very few days of their existence. And yet, something about it carved in them a ridge so deep that for the remaining eight or so decades of their lives, they needed, now and again, to run a finger of memory through that groove.”
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch. In 2002, he interviewed the last World War I veteran in the St. Louis area — Walter Herman of University City, then 105. In the war, Herman had served in the German army. He died in 2003, at age 106.
‘The Last of the Doughboys’
By Richard Rubin
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 528 pages, $28