Near the end of January, 2011, I was sitting in one of my Dad's annual business and planning meetings. It had been an interesting but long day. To pass the last hour or so, I decided to read some of the headlines in the news. One of them stuck out particularly to me. I read that America's last WWI doughboy was about to turn 110. His name was Frank Buckles. Wow. How incredible. Just putting aside the shear remarkable health he was in at 110, he was also a veteran of the Great War. The so called "War to End All Wars." Right then and there I decided to meet him. I had to.
The next few weeks I researched him, his life, his military career, etc. I also prepared a letter to send to him, asking for permission to visit.
Dear Mr. Buckles,
My name is Liberty Phillips. I am 14 years old... I live in San Antonio, Texas with my seven brothers and sisters. Joshua, Justice, Jubilee, Faith, Honor, Providence, and Virginia Hope. All of my life, my father and mother have brought me and my siblings up on a great love for history and its impact on the modern culture around us.
(I talked about the history documentaries my dad had made on WWII and how that had influenced me to learn more.)
...My father has often impressed upon us how little time on earth we have, and that every year more veterans from past wars die. Understanding this, when I read that it was your 110th birthday, I was reminded that when my father and brothers were on Iwo Jima, they met a WWII vet named Marvin Perrett who was a Coastie during the war. They got to know each other pretty well, and when visiting the WWII Museum in New Orleans a year ago, we looked for Marvin Perrett only to find he had died shortly before. This was a reminder for me of how fleeting life is, and since we are going to Normandy in June, I thought this would be a prime time. Maybe if this worked out, I could film you giving a message from a WWI vet to the WWII vets that my dad could show in Normandy.
I would forever be in your gratitude if you would allow my brother and me to do this. I have met many WWII veterans, and have been so blessed by it, and would be exceedingly blessed to meet you, the last WWI veteran, before time runs out.... Forever in your gratitude for what you did for our country, Liberty Phillips
Well, to my great sadness, time did run out before there was an opportunity to meet him. On February 27, 2011, right as I was about to send my letter, Corporal Frank Buckles passed away.
My dad later wrote about it:
Several months ago, I discovered that my dear daughter Liberty had been secretly working with her mother on a surprise for me. Knowing her father’s passion for history and desire to cultivate a culture of honor, Liberty’s hope was to meet Frank Buckles, World War I’s last living American doughboy, to interview him, and to share his story with others.
Liberty watched me make The League of Grateful Sons, and she has stood beside me for ten years as I worked with the Faith of Our Fathers Project. She understands that the mission of this effort is to demonstrate our commitment to the Fifth Commandment in the context of showing honor to the heroic fathers of the World War II generation. Liberty has taken this vision into her heart, and she hoped to reach back one generation further and meet World War I’s last remaining U.S. veteran.
So, with the encouragement of her mother, Liberty spent weeks researching the story of Mr. Buckles. She then came to me with her surprise project of honor and asked if she could complete the mission by visiting this unusual man who was such an important link to our nation’s providential past. How encouraged I was! I gave Liberty my blessing, and she prepared to make the trip with her mother to see Mr. Buckles. But just days later, he died. My dear daughter was never able to complete her mission of honor. That broke my heart. It saddened me that she was never able to meet this veteran and to speak to him about the Lord Jesus Christ. We missed our window of opportunity with Mr. Buckles. We waited too long. . .
A few months later, when our family was preparing for our first trip to Normandy for the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, I read another article in the news and sent it with this note to my dad:
It turns out I missed out on more than just meeting and interviewing Frank Buckles. Look what just came in: "Veteran Claude Choules's death breaks last link to World War I: ...The Australian Defence Force said Mr. Choules became the last surviving WWI serviceman following the death earlier this year of American Frank Buckles."
It means even more to me now, Dad, that we are taking advantage of this opportunity to honor the WWII vets in Normandy in a few weeks. Thank you for having this vision and giving us this opportunity. On a side note, Claude Choule was 14 when he joined and of course, as you know, I'm 14 right now. It just makes me think about life a little differently.
February 27, 2016 was the 5 year anniversary of the passing of Corporal Frank Buckles, America's last doughboy, and the veteran I came so close to meeting. A lot has happened in the last five years, but my family's drive to honor the men who served our country so well has only become more serious as time goes on and the urgency increases. You could say that the passing of Frank Buckles was my first real awakening to the brevity of life we have with our dear veterans. Though I'd met many veterans before, I'd never experienced the impermanence so personally.
Though I missed a rare opportunity, I think that the passing of Frank Buckles prepared me and taught me to better appreciate the events we experienced that summer as we traveled with several dear WWII veterans who willingly shared stories and tears as they traveled back to their battlegrounds for the first time in 67 years. And for everything else since then.