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Friday, May 27, 2011

Last living U.S. World War I vet rode a Royal Enfield

Frank Buckles of West Virginia died Feb. 27. At age 110 he had been the United States' last surviving veteran of World War I. His is one of the 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery decorated with a small U.S. flag in honor of Memorial Day Monday.

Frank Buckles.
During the war, Buckles drove ambulances and motorcycles for the army in England and France. We now know that one of those motorcycles was a Royal Enfield.

"Among other tasks, he delivered messages by motorcycle. His first ride was a two-cylinder, belt driven Douglas," reporter Andrew Jenner wrote for the Page (County, Va.) News and Courier, after interviewing Buckles in 2008.

Jenner went on to quote Buckles:

"It would go about 25 miles an hour," he says. (Brief pause for effect.) "Downhill."

The reporter writes that "eventually, he was upgraded to a Royal Enfield that could attain a more satisfying 50-some mph."

Six-horsepower Royal Enfield V-twins were in wide use by the allies during World War I, as documented by blogger Jorge Pullin in his Royal Enfield Virtual Musuem. Perhaps Buckles was issued one of those. In Buckles' own online biography he specifies that the motorcycle had a sidecar.

It is certain that it was a Royal Enfield motorycle.

"I don't specifically remember him saying that," reporter Jenner told me when I reached him by phone this week, "but I'm sure he did, if that's in there." Jenner said he was impressed by Buckles' good health and great memory during the 2008 interview.

"He could remember a date and days of the week from 70 years ago."

The interview was informal. "I just called him up like you would anyone. I think I was the last one to be able to do that. Not long after he really started to get a lot of attention and had to get a handler."

President Obama and vice-president Biden attended Buckles' service at Arlington. There's now a website devoted to Buckles. It is dedicated to restoration of the memorial to veterans of World War I in Washington, D.C.

Jenner's article in the Feb. 28, 2008 Local Life section of the Page News and Courier is the best evidence I could find that Buckles rode a Royal Enfield. Buckles seems to have mentioned this at least one other time but the dates in that account don't correspond to World War I.

Newspaper article confirms Buckles rode a Royal Enfield.
John Sanford, a Royal Enfield owner who lives in the area, read Jenner's article in the newspaper and kept it in mind, even naming his own 2005 Royal Enfield Deluxe "Buckles." Doubting his memory, this year he contacted the News and Courier, hoping to get a print-out of the article.

"They surprised me by giving me an uncirculated issue, which I mailed today to Doneen at Royal Enfield for the Company History Book," Sanford wrote in March on the Royal Enfield Community Forum. (He signs himself there as "bymilesthebest.")

John Sanford's motorcycle, the one he named "Buckles."
Doneen Viall at Classic Motorworks was kind enough to share the newspaper with me. After reading it I'm shipping it back to her. It really does belong in a museum.

It's amazing to think that the longest-lived U.S. veteran of that long-ago war rode a Royal Enfield. It's more important to remember that, in just seven-and-a-half months of that war, the United States suffered 116,000 killed and 204,000 wounded. Sadly, it did not turn out to be the war to end all wars.

For most Americans, Memorial Day is just a three-day weekend. This year, for the first time, we won't have Frank Buckles around to remind us that Memorial Day is set aside to remember the fallen — the cost of war.

Buckles himself survived World War I unscathed but his wars were not over. He was working in Manila when the Japanese attacked in World War II, and spent three-and-a-half years in a prison camp. A man worth remembering.
John Sanford and his other Royal Enfield motorcycle.

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