The Truth About The Last Surviving World War I Veteran

Over 116,000 Americans died in WWI and more than 200,000 were wounded (via CNN). That's a relatively small number compared to the overall 9 million lives lost on the battlefield throughout the war (per Not Even Past). 

The Library of Congress calls World War I one of the "least documented wars." Despite the effort of historians, there isn't much left. Photographs were limited and much of what's left from the time is in the form of letter, diaries, and the memories of veterans.

A number of WWI veterans survived well into the 2000s, with the last three British veterans dying in 2009. Award-winning photographer David DeJonge started a project in the 1990s to try and photograph all surviving WWI veterans. When he started his project in 1996, there were still 600 veterans alive. By 2008, the ticking clock wasn't in his favor anymore — only 10 World War I veterans around the world were still alive. At the time, that included two Americans: Frank Buckles and John Babcock. Babcock had served alongside Canadian Forces and would die less than two years later in February 2010 (via CNN). The last surviving WWI veterans would make it into the following decade. 

Last US veteran to die

Frank Buckles died of natural causes on February 27, 2011, at his home in Virginia. He had turned 110 just three weeks before his death.

Buckles was only 16 when he enlisted to be part of WWI in 1917 — and that was only possible because he lied about his age. Actually, he did his best to enlist by telling the truth, but the Navy and the Marines rejected him for not being 18. So he then went to Army recruiters and "misrepresented" his age. As quoted by NPR, Buckles explained his reasoning for joining: "The whole world was involved, and I intended to be part of that world."

From there, Buckles was sent to France, drove an ambulance, delivered dispatches, and escorted an American lieutenant through France, but never saw combat, according to Smithsonian Magazine. After the war ended, Buckles helped escort German prisoners of war back home.

Years later, Buckles was in the Philippines working for a shipping company just as WWII started and ended up as a prisoner of war under the Japanese for three years. In 1946, he was back in the U.S., where he married and settled in West Virginia (per NPR).

Oldest combatant veteran in the world

Just a few months later, in May 2011, the world's last known combat veteran died in Australia. He was also 110 years old.

British-born Claude Stanley Choules joined the Royal Navy at 15, and just like Buckles, he had to lie about his age to do it. His older brothers were already fighting in the war, and he refused to stay back home. Once enlisted, he ended up onboard the battleship HMS Revenge (via BBC).

He was there, along with his fellow seamen, to watch the Germans surrender during a major 1918 battle. "There was no sign of fight left in the Germans as they came out of the mist at about 10 a.m," Choules would write decades later in his autobiography, as quoted via The Guardian.

He served time as a peacekeeper in the Black Sea, a chief petty officer, and an instructor at the Flinders Naval Depot. It was on his boat trip from England to Australia to start that instructor post that he met the woman he would marry and spend the next 76 years next to, according to The Guardian.

During WWII, he worked as a torpedo officer and chief demolition office. If the Japanese had decided to invade, he was supposed to blow up the harbor of Fremantle — a job he luckily never had to complete. He continued to serve in the military until 1956 and after retirement joined the Naval Dockyard Police. Choules became a pacifist later in life.

Last non-combatant surviving veteran

Florence Green might not have seen any combat or made it to the battlefields, but she has been recognized as the world's last-known WWI veteran. She died in England in February 2012, just days before she would have turned 111 (via Daily Mail).  

Green was 17 years old when she joined the Women's Royal Air Force in September 2018. She immediately started working at the officers' mess halls in the RAF Marham Royal Air Force military airbase — a job that would usually be reserved for men, except that any man enlisted in the Air Force would at the time be involved in combat roles (per Britannica). Two months later, the war was over and Green left the service.  

A few years later, she married and settled in Norfolk, England. It wasn't until 2008 that her service record came to light and not until 2010 that she was officially recognized as a veteran, according to Britannica. The find was accidental, too, as a U.S.-based Gerontology Research Group tracking people older than 107 discovered her service record when verifying her age (per Daily Mail).

At the time of her death, she was the sixth-oldest person in the U.K.