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Pentagon Dedication of Photo Exhibit on WWI Veterans (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Pentagon Auditorium, Thursday, March 06, 2008

Thank you, Pete [Geren]. It’s an honor to be here to help dedicate this exhibit. I want to compliment photographer David DeJonge on his artistry and thank him for his dedication in bringing the project to fruition. He has family members here, as do the veterans whose portraits he took. Welcome to all of you and, of course, to Mr. Frank Buckles who, I would say, right now might be in better shape than I am.

Projects like these are important because, in many ways, and for many reasons, the First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States. There is no big memorial on the National Mall. Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades. Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in as the epic blood struggle we know as the Great War.

It’s been said that the 21st century, in effect, began when a jetliner hit the World Trade Center’s north tower on September 11, 2001. The 20th century truly began with an Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The war, which started as a fight over Balkan independence, left in its wake a redrawn map of Europe and the Middle East – including the demarcation of a land in Mesopotamia called Iraq. From Baghdad to Belgrade, the places that mattered then are in the forefront of our consciousness today.

It was once observed that World War One was a conflict where “generals fought machine guns with young men’s chests.”  The horrors of the trenches spawned a new genre of literature crafted by soldiers on the front lines. Their verse described the “demented choirs of wailing shells” and “the monstrous anger of the guns.” The conflict scarred the soul of Europe and consumed the flower of her youth.

 Consider what the warmeant for America, and for those who fought. Nearly five million young Americans donned a military uniform and about half of them sailed across the Atlantic before the guns fell silent. During 18 months of fighting, we suffered more deaths – over 116,000 – than in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

With this exhibit, we recognize a group of Americans who served in the Great War, and lived to tell of it for the better part of a century.  We honor these heroes. And we want to hear their stories.  One of them, I am delighted to say, is here with us.  Frank Woodruff Buckles, age 107, is one of the last American veterans of the war. His fellow veteran, John Babcock, is unfortunately not able to be with us today, but I wanted to be sure to recognize him as well.

Now let me slip in something here that I think Mr. Buckles, of all people, will appreciate. Fifteen months ago my mother, who is 94 years young, was on hand at my swearing-in as Secretary of Defense.  Of course, I acknowledged her at the ceremony. A late-night comic that night joked that Mom congratulated me after the ceremony and said, “Now go beat the hell out of the Kaiser.”

Our guest of honor signed up to do precisely that.  Frank Buckles was only 16 when he went to war.  He lied to the Army recruiter about his age, so determined was he to be an American doughboy.  Deploying from Fort Riley, he went over on the Carpathia, the steamship that had rescued survivors of the Titanic.  He drove ambulances in the United Kingdom and France.  After the Armistice, he guarded POWs and assisted their transfer back to Germany.

By no means did Mr. Buckles’ adventures end there.  As a private citizen, he happened to be in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Held as a prisoner of war in Manila, he ate his meals out of a single tin cup for 39 months. He still has the cup.

Mr. Buckles also has a Legion of Honor medal, bestowed upon him by the government of France.  But he is a modest man – I am told he did not want to have the limelight to fall on him alone today, but to make sure that it took in all nine of the people depicted in the exhibit: John Babcock, Lloyd Brown, Frank Buckles, James Russell Coffey, Harry Landis, Anthony Pierro, Howard Ramsey, Charlotte Winters, and William Seegers.

      We cherish the memory of those who have passed away.  We cherish the chance to say “thank you” in person to Corporal Frank Buckles. Whoever views this display will, I am sure, feel a connection to Mr. Buckles and his comrades-in-arms. We will always be grateful for what they did for their country 90 years ago, and feel glad, too, for the longevity that they enjoyed on this earth. Thank you.