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Vet's dream of WWI memorial in jeopardy

Dec. 22, 2012 - 03:54PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 22, 2012 - 03:54PM  |  
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A bill that U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller twice introduced to create a World War I memorial in Washington, D.C., no longer bears the name of the late Frank Buckles, the West Virginia veteran who pushed for it.

Nor does the version the Senate was considering Friday now call for a memorial on the National Mall.

Rather, the bill that Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., fast-tracked Thursday night calls only for the creation of a centennial commission that would consider how to appropriately commemorate the "Great War" between 2014 and 2018.

Their state is home to the Liberty Memorial at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

The bill was in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Rockefeller has no seat. But a spokesman said Rockefeller supports creation of the commission so the U.S. can begin planning for the centennial.

Buckles, the last American doughboy, died last year at 110 in Charles Town.

He devoted the last few years of his life to campaigning for greater recognition for his former comrades, enlisting Rockefeller to his cause. Rockefeller first introduced the Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act in 2009, then reintroduced it earlier this year with Republican Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

It would have rededicated the District of Columbia War Memorial to include the wording "National World War I Memorial."

Though Buckles supported the Missouri museum and its mission of education, he also believed there should also be a place in D.C. for people to pay their respects.

But his idea has been thwarted by legislation limiting construction of monuments and memorials in the capital, and with Congress winding down for the year, chances are slim his dream will survive.

Buckles biographer David DeJonge, president of the WWI Memorial Foundation, said supporters have long hoped Congress would recognize the oversight and pass a law requiring a memorial on the mall.

"This is a very public and historic decision," he said, "and we feel that an overwhelming public poll would show that America would agree this memorial needs to be approved and on the mall."

Buckles was buried at Arlington National Cemetery after hundreds of people, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, paid their respects.

His grave is on the side of a hill ringed by cedar trees with views of the Washington Monument, Capitol dome and Jefferson Memorial to the north. At the crest of the hill sits the grave of Gen. John Pershing, under whose command Buckles served, along with a plaque commemorating the 116,516 Americans who died in World War I.

Buckles lied about his age to enlist at 16, then went on to outlive 4.7 million other Americans who served.

Born in Missouri and raised in Oklahoma, he never saw combat. He served as an ambulance driver in England and France, and after Armistice Day, he helped return prisoners of war back to Germany.

He returned to the United States in 1920 as a corporal. During World War II, Buckles was working as a civilian for a shipping company in the Philippines when he was captured as a prisoner of war. He spent more than three years in Japanese prison camps.

The last of the WWI veterans, Florence Green, died in February at 110. She served with the Women's Royal Air Force as a waitress at an air base in eastern England but wasn't officially recognized as a veteran until 2010.

The last known combatant, Royal Navy veteran Claude Choules, died in Australia months after Buckles. He, too, made it to 110.

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