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Celebrating The World War I Generation

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The last living link to America's role in World War I broke when veteran Frank Buckles died recently. Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City reports a crowd gathered there yesterday to celebrate him.

FRANK MORRIS: The Liberty Memorial is a round limestone tower, half as tall as Washington Monument, but projecting from the top of a hill. Hundreds came up here to honor the more than four million Americans mobilized for World War I.

(Soundbite of song, "Over There")

MORRIS: America entered the war with a promise. As the song said: We won't be back till it's over, over there. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired General Richard Meyers says that was remarkably optimistic.

General RICHARD MEYERS (Retired, Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): They went over thinking they could change the world, change the course of that war, and in fact they did.

MORRIS: And they knew what they were getting into. In one battle, The Somme, Meyers says 88,000 men were killed for every single mile of ground won.

Mr. MEYERS: So, that was courage. They went, despite of the fact that this was the bloodiest fighting this earth had ever seen. Sacrifice.

MORRIS: Veteran Frank Buckles brushed it off on a visit to Kansas City three years ago. Buckles died at 110, but he enlisted underage.

Mr. FRANK BUCKLES (Late WWI Veteran): When you're 16 years old, you're not afraid of anything.

(Soundbite of drill squad)

Unidentified Man: Forward march. Left, left...

MORRIS: Two skinny teenagers in period uniforms marched, reminding everyone at the ceremony of just how young those soldiers fighting from trenches with machine guns, high explosives and poison gas were. One of them, Gunnar Naughton, turned 18 the day Frank Buckles died two weeks ago.

Mr. GUNNAR NAUGHTON: I feel like I owe myself to them, because they died for my freedom.

MORRIS: After the war, people from lots of countries felt the same way. The war turned America into a world leader.

Despite all this, there's no one nationally-recognized memorial honoring all U.S. veterans of the First World War. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver wants Congress give that designation to the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. The National World War I Museum is already here.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): And that means that this would be The World War I Monument of the planet.

(Soundbite of music, "Taps," and gunfire)

MORRIS: I'm standing now at the base of the Liberty Memorial, right between two big sphinxes. One of them faces east, toward the killing fields of Europe. It shields its eyes to the horror of war. The other faces west, towards, symbolically, the future. It also shields its eyes though, because, as the veterans of the war to end all wars would tell you - if they could - there's no seeing the future.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.