Thursday, July 23, 2009

John Babcok turns 109!

By The Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. - Canada's last known surviving veteran of The First World War celebrated his 109th birthday with a party on Thursday.

John Babcock received letters of greetings from the Queen, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, along with songs and well-wishes from about 40 family and friends.

A barbershop quartet sang 'O Canada" at the gathering in the restaurant of a Rosauer's grocery store, Babcock's favorite eatery. He ate his standard lunch of french fries with tartar sauce and coffee.

"It was a very jolly event," said Wendy Baldwin, of the Canadian consulate in Seattle.

Babcock was born in 1900 on an Ontario farm and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Regiment when he was just 15 years old, lying about his age.

Babcock trained with nearly 1,300 other underage soldiers in anticipation of crossing the English Channel and facing enemy fire, but the war ended before he could set foot in France.

Soon after the war, he moved to the United States, where he served in the U.S. Army and became a naturalized citizen. He has lived in Spokane since 1932.

Babcock became Canada's last First World War veteran after two others died two years ago. More than 600,000 Canadians served in World War I and about 66,000 died.

The lone remaining U.S. veteran is Frank Buckles, 107, of Charles Town, W.Va., according the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Babcock, who draws some veterans benefits from the Canadian government because of hearing loss, has attributed his longevity to the physical training he received from serving in two armies in his youth. He doesn't drink much and stopped smoking a long time ago.

He remains married to his second wife and has a son, a daughter and numerous grandchildren.

Babcock, who grew up in Kingston, Ont., was born into a large family that scattered after his father died in a logging accident when the boy was six. He lived with relatives and did hard physical labor on a farm while receiving only a rudimentary education.

According to an autobiography he wrote for his 100th birthday, he enlisted in the Canadian Army just after New Year's Day in 1916. He was posted to several training camps. He was deemed too young for combat so he was given assignments in Canada.

While unloading military trucks in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he answered a call for volunteers to head to France. He lied about his age and got on a troop transport.

But it was discovered in England that he was only 16, and he was assigned to the so-called "Young Soldiers Battalion," who were held out of battle. Babcock ended up in Wales in 1918, but the war ended and Babcock shipped back to Canada.

He worked on farms and at 19 received vocational training in electrical wiring.

Seeking work, he paid a $7 tax to enter the U.S., taking various jobs. He joined the U.S. Army in 1921, even though he was not a citizen.

He tried to enlist in the U.S. military again in 1941, hoping to learn to fly. He didn't get in, but it was discovered he had never become a U.S. citizen. It wasn't until 1946 that he was naturalized.