November 11th, 2008
10:40 AM ET

America's last World War I veteran

David J. DeJonge
President, DeJonge Studios
President & Co founder ~ World War One Memorial Foundation

I have spent many hours photographing historical figures and correspond off-and-on with some of them, but I am just a man from the Midwest who cares deeply for the American veteran.

This is the story of my effort to bring honor to an entire generation, a fight that has become deeply personal.

Twelve years ago I began a project titled ‘Faces of Five Wars,’ documenting the veterans who fought in the wars of the 20th century. I pleaded with a national organization of photographers to dispatch members to shoot portraits of every living World War I veteran. When this did not happen, I made it my mission and was honored to spend time with the last nine surviving Americans.

Photographing Lloyd Brown, the last World War I Navy veteran, changed my life.

When I contacted Lloyd’s daughter Nancy to schedule an interview and portrait session she said, “Just look for the mailbox. It will be the one with the name peeling off.”

How emblematic, I thought, of America’s failure to remember the veterans of a conflict marked by the horrors of poison gas and trench warfare. On Veterans Day or Memorial Day or when another World War I veteran died there would be a flurry of media attention, but like a wave on the sea this attention would splash ashore but then fade away.

I have traveled more than 75,000 miles for this project, which was unveiled at the Pentagon on March 6 (http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/03/07/war.veteran/#cnnSTCVideo). Inevitably my seatmate on a plane, train or automobile would conclude our conversation with the same question. “Why isn’t there a World War I Memorial in our nation’s capitol?”

My friend Chris at the Veterans Administration told me of a small memorial halfway between the Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial, built to honor only residents of the District of Columbia who fought in World War I. Dedicated on Nov. 11, 1931, today it sits as an orphan on the Mall, hidden among trees, appearing neglected and decaying; a symbol of how we as a nation have forgotten 4,734,991 Americans who served during World War I and the more than 116,000 who died in that conflict.

On that March day, I was accompanied by Frank Buckles, at 107-years-old the last surviving American veteran of World War I. After a Pentagon reception hosted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and an Oval Office visit with President George W. Bush, Frank and I made our way to this forlorn memorial. As we neared The Mall, this gentle patriot’s face was illuminated by a crisp spring light, its wrinkles defined. His expression changed as we (Frank in his wheelchair) arrived at the memorial to D.C.’s World War I troops. “It looks like it needs fresh coat of paint and some landscaping,” was Frank’s understated assessment.

At the foot of that memorial I promised Frank that I would fight to get him and his departed comrades something more. My idea is simple: restore and expand the existing structure, perhaps adding a trench with “doughboys” crouched, bayonets affixed to their rifles, gas masks at their ready. A Congressman from Texas, Ted Poe, has enlisted in our effort to persuade those with the power to make this a reality. Contact your congressman in the House of Representatives and urge support of the bill H.R. 6696. And visit a Facebook page: Don't let Frank Buckles die without a National World War I Memorial.

There are those who think Pershing Square in the District of Columbia – named for General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I – is a worthy location for a national memorial. However, a precedent has been set and Frank Buckles and many others feel strongly that it should be on The Mall, alongside the memorials for World War II, Korea and Vietnam. This is where Americans and visitors from other nations come to reflect on wartime sacrifice.

Honor should be paid there, on that ground, to Frank and all of the men and women who served in “the war to end all wars.” Please join me today to bring honor to these patriots.

Filed under: T1 • Veteran's Day
soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Dave, Michigan

    Dear Mr. DeJonge

    This is a truly remarkable project you have taken on to honor the WWI Veterans. Your photographs are works of art to be appreciatied through the ages. Could it be more obvious that now is the time to finally build a proper memorial for our Hero's from WWI. All have now fallen but one. As I look at an old photograph of my Grandfather in the US Army in WWI and look at the Picture of Mr. Buckles by the run down Memorial for DC Veterans, it's as if I've met him there. I have already contacted my Congressman to sign the bill to build a memorial. From the father of a current Blue Star family I urge everyone to do the same. This Vereran's Day is the time to make sure all generations are remembered as they should be.

    November 11, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  2. Max

    A LIFE magazine PHOTO ...

    I love that picture.

    November 11, 2008 at 9:05 pm |
  3. Patrick, Belfast, Ireland.

    Although I am anti – war now, I had two great uncles killed in the First World War. They'd fought with the 101st Irish Division, and they were slain during the Battle for Messines, on the border of Belgium and France . One was bayonet by a German soldier after being shot, and the other was blown – up by a Howitzer shell as he crossed waste ground, being blown to pieces. I visit the graves at the Somme as much as I can, and it is a sad, very sad place. People who order young men into war should visit there, as the saying went: " These were men led by donkeys. " I have much sympathy with veterans, no matter if the war they fought was just or not.

    November 11, 2008 at 8:05 pm |
  4. Jana, Indiana

    This is a wonderful post. It is hard to believe that there is no "official" WWI memorial.

    My father was a WWII vet and he was so proud before he passed away that they had started the WWII memorial in Washington DC. In fact in lieu of flowers we asked for donations to the WWII memorial when he passed away.

    I hope that with all your work on this story that something can be done to expand on the local DC memorial to the districts WWI veterans. I like the idea of putting a trench around it and putting doughboys in those trenches. It would be a great way to honor them.

    Thanks again for this story.

    November 11, 2008 at 8:00 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    My maternal grandfather was in WW1 – he would never talk about it. Just would say when asked that there were far more interesting things to talk about. He's gone now but I would love to see a monument to his service and all the other boys who served in that war "to end all wars" and make the world "safe for democracy". I hope the efforts to get a suitable memorial on the mall are successful.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    November 11, 2008 at 7:19 pm |
  6. Jo Ann

    Dear Mr. DeJonge,

    Thank you for posting your poignant and beautiful portrait of World War I veteran Frank Buckles and for telling us about him! All of your portraits of our veterans are wonderful!

    It is a disgrace that we have forgotten the many Americans who served and died during World War I and it is difficult to believe that even after all these years we have neglected to erect an acceptable National World War I memorial.

    It is an insult for anyone to suggest that this memorial be separated from the other war memorials! The sacrifices of these men and women are no less important than the others!

    The memorial should remain where it is. Your idea for the monument sounds perfect!

    I will contact my Rep. Betty Sutton D-OH today and encourage her to support H.R. 6696. Let’s hope that your post and photo here today will help to quickly get a decent World War I memorial built to honor these courageous men and women!

    Sadly, those who deserve the most attention, get the least. Thank you for reminding us who they are.

    Jo Ann
    North Royalton, Ohio

    November 11, 2008 at 6:09 pm |
  7. Judy Opial

    My uncle Virgil Kigar was reported missing in action, on "Pork Chop Hill" during the Korean War. As a child, I had no concept of just what that meant.
    And then there was my Uncle Herbert Fey, who fought in WWII and Korea. He was an alcoholic, who would become combative, when he drunk. He also has night terrors.. As a child, I had no concept of what that meant either.
    Currently I have had the honor of caring for veterans from all the wars except for WWI. There is one recurring theme, all these people have expressed. Fighting wars leaves a life long afffect on the soldiers and their families,
    The men and women, who have given me the priviledge of telling me their experiences has left me, in awe and wonder,
    How can a human being, experience such horrific situations and return to a "normal life?"
    And then the very people they fought and gave their lives for, deny them proper health care, education, job security, a home? I'm sure there are many more promises; "We the people" have conveniently forgotten, at the expense of these brave souls.
    My uncle Virgil and Uncle Herb fought for all of us. They died each in there own way, as a result of war. Today is just one of thousands, for which our soldiers, should be honored.

    November 11, 2008 at 5:38 pm |
  8. Sue

    There is Memorial to WWI vets. Barack Obama spoke here in October. Liberty Memorial

    Visit the only public museum in the U.S. dedicated to the history of World War One.

    Liberty Memorial
    100 W. 26th Street
    Kansas City, MO 64108
    Ph: 816.784.1918

    November 11, 2008 at 4:29 pm |
  9. roy - il

    So sorry that BUSH was the president he had to meet for such an occasion. This was a great and worthy idea for a project. Perhaps the last surviving Native American Indians from that era should be chronicled next.

    November 11, 2008 at 4:25 pm |
  10. Alex

    Every era has it's war heros and this kindly gentlemen is a wonderful reminder of those who gave their all so that we may live a better life. Every era also seems to have it's leaders, some of whom were absolute idiots and went to war when better alternatives were available. Wars are inevitable, though should be a last resort when all else fail. Arlington Cemetary and many others, are filled with the remains of many American heros who fought for their country. Their graves should be a reminder of the true cost of war, yet educated men cannot seem to get past the notion that the power of the sword is all that matters in the end. It is still wonderful though that men such as Lloyd Brown survived a horrible World War because some tyrant had an unquenching thrist for power. Sadly, all the might and power in the world will not bring back those men and women who gave their lives in any war. On this Veteran's Day may we all gives thanks to all those who fought and still fight today for us and especially those who died so that we might live safely in the greatest nation the world has ever seen. God bless them and may God Bless the United States of America.

    November 11, 2008 at 4:18 pm |
  11. Kindra Arthur

    I had no idea that we still had a veteran from WWI. That was a hard war. So many lost to secure America’s future. I wish we would stop taking it all for granted. Thank you very much for this story.

    November 11, 2008 at 3:59 pm |
  12. meadow

    thank you for provoking thought in us about why we do not have a proper Memorial dedicated to our World War I Veterans. i, for one, had no idea that there was not one or one in process.

    November 11, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  13. xtina, chicago IL

    We need to vote in leaders who will restore these war monuments; I want my tax money going to honor these gentlemen- not pay for welfare to support people who don't want to work.

    Thank you Mr. Buckles and all men and women who have served our country so well.

    November 11, 2008 at 3:23 pm |
  14. So. Padre Island, Texas

    Thank you for your story. Time has long passed for this country to appropriately honor all of its war veterans. Without each one of them, we would not have the Freedoms which we have. Americans owe them a great debt of gratitude for their service. I believe God has a place in Heaven for them all.

    If you know a Veteran, don't forget to say "Thank You for your Service" today.

    November 11, 2008 at 3:22 pm |
  15. Jackie in Dallas

    As a veteran of the Vietnam era, and the daughter of a veteran of World War II and Korea, I find it appalling that there isn't a decent memorial to our veterans from World War I. We are fast approaching the 100th anniversary of that conflict, and I think that the author is right - we should not let the last veteran of that conflict die without him knowing that at least a memorial is underway to honor him and all the men and women who died in the trenches and barbed wire of that conflict.

    November 11, 2008 at 2:26 pm |
  16. Jeanette

    THANK YOU to all our veterans who have served our country and have given so much.

    November 11, 2008 at 1:17 pm |
  17. Adriana

    I went to house.gov and was able to look up my congressman and send a message online. There is also info about how to send a letter old school style. I think that Americans should all be reminded about how we have become what we are. Vets like Lloyd Brown should be honored. I hope there is action made to allow him to see this memorial become reality.

    November 11, 2008 at 1:09 pm |
  18. Katy Spears

    This is a project that I know my husband and I would love to work towards. Please let us know how we can get involved. This year we saw the U.S. Naval Order install the first monument in France to commemorate the Navy's role in the D-Day Invasion. Until 2008, every other branch of the service was honored at Normandy except the United States Navy. In September, the Navy's monument was dedicated. It was amazing to have living veterans of the D-Day Invasion present to be a part of the ceremony. These are powerful reminders of the sacrifice made by so many to preserve our freedom!

    November 11, 2008 at 11:44 am |
  19. pati mc., camp hill, pa

    What an inspring piece David. And what a wonderful thing you have done. We need more people like you in the world. =)

    God Bless You and keep up the amazing work.

    November 11, 2008 at 11:39 am |
  20. Robin Olsson

    I applaud David's efforts and will write my congressman in support of a memorial worthy of the sacrifices made during WWI. To think that the lone existing DC Memorial pales in comparison to even the state memorials at the grounds of Andersonville (Civil War) is sad. I am retired Navy and am asking all Veterans to make a difference today. You'll feel better for having done something important.

    November 11, 2008 at 11:07 am |
  21. Jennifer - Michigan

    WOW, Interesting post. Hopefully the WWI memorial can be restored, or maybe something new can be constructed alongside the other memorials. They should not be forgotten just because so much time has passed. It must have been a pleasure to meet Mr. Buckles – he is in my thoughts today. Thank you. Hope you have a good day today.

    November 11, 2008 at 11:06 am |
  22. Max

    So inspiring – we can tell a GOOD person when we SEE one from that ERA.

    November 11, 2008 at 10:19 am |
  23. Maria

    Happy Morning,
    I don’t know where to start; I actually listened to part of President Sarkozy addressed speech around 3:00 am. He described World War I disaster, a moment I never lived, but I can feel it in word and see it in documented records, how painful it was to all. Millions lost in war and millions left behind. I think all were loser, no winner. I want to point for something here, which is the journalist, I don’t think we will be able to witness wars that happen decades before we born without brave journalists or veterans great efforts. We crossed war frontlines in documentary films as if we live the moment, it is painful moments, but we will never feel like those how actually lived and experience and taste it. I have only single word for Veterans whom document the events “Hero”.

    November 11, 2008 at 10:18 am |
  24. Carol

    Wow! What an honor it would be to speak with this Veteran.
    God bless him & God bless America!

    November 11, 2008 at 9:49 am |