By Dave Woods
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
For many years, the name Frank Woodruff Buckles meant nothing to most people.
Few folks remembered the name of the brave farm boy from northern Missouri.
Buckles, born in 1901 near Bethany, moved with his family to Walker in Vernon County early in his life. He attended school there, moving later to Oklahoma.
He soon became Cpl. Buckles, but only after duping U.S. Army officials to allow him to enlist in the military in 1917. He was just 16.
While most pimple-faced boys his age were more concerned about girls, families and farm work, and dreaming of their lives to come, Buckles was driving ambulances and shuttling fellow soldiers around the killing fields of war-torn Europe.
Buckles died in February 2011. He was the last known surviving American veteran of World War I. He was 110 years old.
One of those who know much about Buckles’ past — and the Great War in which he fought — is David Holmquist.
For more than six years, Holmquist, a Kansas City financial planner and consultant, has volunteered much of his time shepherding visitors around the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial.
He loves sharing his vast knowledge of the Great War and those American, French, British, Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian troops who battled hand-to-hand, dodged shells and donned gas masks in order to survive the conflict. His volunteer work at Liberty Memorial is a “labor of love,” he said.
Around 9 million military personnel from dozens of countries and colonies lost their lives during the first war of the mechanized age, during which 65 million soldiers of all stripes fought.
Buckles was one of the lucky ones. He survived, served his country again during World War II, was held as a prisoner of war in the Philippines — he survived again — owned businesses, married and eventually settled on a farm at Charles Town, W.Va. He worked that land until he turned 105.
Holmquist said he was honored to meet the aging veteran during a ceremony a few years ago at Liberty Memorial.
“I met him when he came to Kansas City at the museum in 2008,” said Holmquist, who answers visitors’ questions, points them to areas of interest, and works to help guests locate their World War I familial connections at the museum and archives near downtown Kansas City.
“(Buckles) was the toast of the town that weekend,” he remembered. “He and his daughter, who was about 55 at that time, toured and spoke to us.”
Meeting the last known American doughboy made an impression on Holmquist. It’s a story he loves to share.
“As he left in his wheelchair, I instinctively put my hand out as he passed,” Holmquist said. “His poor circulation made for a cold handshake.”
Buckles, he said, was the most valuable relic of the Great War in the museum that day.
Holmquist’s association with Liberty Memorial and the National World War I Museum came by accident. He’s happy it did.
“I’m an avid reader of history,” he said. “When they were opening this space, my wife was on the promotions committee to publicize it. She said, ‘David, you have got to get down there to see what they have done.’”
Holmquist heeded her advice. That was almost seven years ago. He’s been an acolyte at the shrine since then. He now knows the history of the museum and Liberty Memorial inside and out.
“I came down and was bowled over and wanted to help out,” he said. “The monument was dedicated in 1923, and the cornerstone of the tower is dated 1921.”
It is an impressive building above ground, but it’s what is concealed behind giant bronze doors and beneath the well-maintained hillside that is the true attraction. It is one of America’s great collections of history.
“The former area was archives, and office space and storage,” Holmquist said of the sprawling subterranean structure that is topped by a 217-foot-tall granite tower, and features a peaceful fountain and reflecting pool dedicated to the war’s dead and the veterans who served.
“In about 2003, (crews) gutted this hilltop and dug in,” he said. “This space was reopened and rechristened.”
Many cities, including Joplin, memorialized their doughboys’ contributions to the war effort with grand halls, monuments and memorials.
“We began as many cities did with world war monuments in the ’20s,” Holmquist said. “Many went bust in the ’30s. A lot of cities made attempts to do this and went bust during the Depression, either due to lack of interest or lack of money.”
Many failed. Kansas City was an exception.
“I know that over the last six years, the size of our collection has doubled as people bring us artifacts,” Holmquist said. “Collectors get up in years, and they figure that their kids might put their stuff on eBay when they are gone. But they know that we will care for it, and honor it and display it.”
That cataloging of the era’s history, combatants and sacrifice is the museum staff’s charge.
“We grew and grew,” Holmquist said. “We’ve never taken any federal money. The Liberty Memorial Association owns the contents, and the city pays for upkeep of the grounds, but the collection belongs to the association.”
In 2004, Congress named the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial as the only U.S. museum dedicated solely to the preservation of World War I history. The renovated museum and memorial officially opened to the public in 2006.
The Great War
Unlike Americans of the era, Holmquist said, Europeans had a lot of skin in the game and a better understanding of the breadth and involvement of the conflict. It was fought on their home turf.
Hardly a corner of the European continent went without conflict. At one point, a battle line — the Western Front — was nearly 400 miles long. The front cut Europe in half. It was a stronghold for the Allies. A second front — the Eastern Front — was manned by the Russian army, which held off German and Austro-Hungarian forces, known as the Central Powers.
“They (the Allies) were bled white,” Holmquist said. “Nearly 9 million combatants and a million civilians died in this thing. Almost 1,000 souls a day. Americans hardly remember this at all. We were in fairly briefly.”
While France, Britain and other European countries had been fighting the Central Powers since 1914, it wasn’t until April 1917 that America joined the war.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian national. It was the opening salvo. Within weeks of the assassination, the world was teetering on the edge of the war to end all wars.
Many visitors are drawn to the museum simply to learn more about a relative’s service.
“They come curious,” Holmquist said. “The grandeur of the architecture and the quality of the exhibit itself is so impressive.”
Holmquist praised the museum’s staff and its “army of volunteers” who make it all possible.
“Visitors come out saying, ‘Wow, why isn’t this in Washington?’” he said. “Unless you had immediate family members in this war, there is probably a fairly large gap in your knowledge.
“This is no ancient history. World War I created the world you and I tumbled into. Out of this time comes a crazy corporal named Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party and the second world war. Artificial countries are created like Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria. They seem to be breaking up before our eyes today. This is highly relevant today, but we don’t teach it in schools.”
Want to go?
THE NATIONAL WORLD WAR I MUSEUM at Liberty Memorial is at 100 W. 26th St. in Kansas City. The telephone number is 816-784-1918. Information is available at www.theworldwar.org.