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John Babcock, 108; Canada’s last known veteran of WWI

JOHN BABCOCK JOHN BABCOCK (Jeff Green/ Reuters/ File 2008)
By Nicholas K. Geranios
Associated Press / February 20, 2010

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SPOKANE, Wash. - The last Canadian veteran of World War I has died at the age of 109.

John Babcock died Thursday in Spokane, where he has lived since 1932, according to a statement from Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.

“I was deeply saddened to learn today of the death of John Babcock, Canada’s last known First World War veteran,’’ Harper said. “As a nation, we honor his service and mourn his passing.’’

Babcock had become a celebrity in recent years, especially in Canada.

“John Babcock was Canada’s last living link to the Great War, which in so many ways marked our coming of age as a nation,’’ Harper said.

He said that 650,000 men and women served in the Canadian forces during WWI.

“Today they are all gone,’’ Harper said. “Canada mourns the passing of the generation that asserted our independence on the world stage and established our international reputation as an unwavering champion of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.’’

The United States has one surviving World War I veteran. Frank Woodruff Buckles turned 109 this month in West Virginia.

Mr. Babcock was born on an Ontario farm and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Regiment when he was just 15, lying about his age. He 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 US Army and became a naturalized citizen.

Mr. Babcock attributed his longevity to the physical training he received from serving in two armies in his youth. He did not drink much and stopped smoking a long time ago.

He leaves his second wife, a son, a daughter, and numerous grandchildren.

Mr. Babcock was born into a large family that scattered after his father died in a logging accident when the boy was 6. 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. 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.

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. Mr. Babcock ended up in Wales in 1918, but the war ended and he 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 United States, taking various jobs. He joined the US Army in 1921, even though he was not a citizen.

He tried to enlist in the US military again in 1941, hoping to learn to fly. He did not get in, but it was discovered he had never become a US citizen. It was not until 1946 that he was naturalized.