In 2004, 52-year-old Vietnam veteran Don Nicholas tried to join the Marine Corps to serve in Afghanistan. When the Corps said he was too old, he went to the Army Reserve, which was only too happy to take him. By 2011, Sgt. Nicholas was 59 and the oldest active deployed soldier, but he was hardly the oldest ever.
During the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, a War of 1812 veteran named John Burns donned his old uniform, a flintlock rifle and powder horn, and joined the fight on the Union side. He was 69 years old at the time. Even he wasn't the most elderly vet to enjoy a good fight.
The honor might go to John W. Boucher, a Canadian veteran of the U.S. Civil War, who finagled his way onto the battlefields of World War I. All he had to do was convince a doctor he was of military age -- twice.
Boucher was born in Ontario in the 1840s, at a time when Canada was still a province of the British Crown. He was sent to a boarding school after his father's death sometime in the 1850s. When the Civil War broke out in the United States, the young man escaped from the school, crossed the border and tried to join the Union Army.
"He gave up his Canadian citizenship -- his manhood's right -- to fight for the Union, in which he had no part and for the emancipation of the negro," journalist Beatrice Fairfax wrote of Boucher in an April 1918 edition of the Syracuse Post-Standard.
That was his plan, anyway: At the time, It was illegal for British subjects to fight in a foreign army, and enlisting in the Union Army required parental permission for men ages 18-20. The recruiters in Buffalo, New York, who met with Boucher deemed him too young. He was also rejected in Cleveland. Finally, the 25th Michigan Infantry Regiment accepted him when he enlisted in Kalamazoo in September 1864.
Boucher had just missed the 25th's participation in Gen. William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign, but arrived in Tennessee in time to fight in the Battles of Franklin and Nashville, which he remembered later in his Post-Standard articles. The 25th later rejoined Sherman in the Carolinas Campaign that forced Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston's Army of the South to surrender, leading to the end of the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, Boucher returned to Canada and began working on railroads, in foundries and as a guide on the St. Lawrence River near Gananoque for the next 49 years. His wife died, his children became adults and he settled into retirement until Germany invaded Belgium in the summer of 1914.
Boucher was then 72 years old, well past the British Army's enlistment age limit. Canada was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire at that point, but 620,000 Canadians would line up to fight the Germans in Europe for the crown. Boucher watched as enlistees flocked to his sleepy fishing village for training. Something in him felt his place was among them, and he joined the war the one way he knew how: lying.
He was clearly older than the average soldier (his fellow troops would call him "Dad"), but his active lifestyle on the St. Lawrence kept him in good shape. Aside from a touch of arthritis, he was ready for war. Like his efforts in the Civil War, however, unit after unit rejected him because he didn't look to be in his 40s.
In 1917, Boucher got his best chance when the 257th Canadian Railway Battalion raised its age limit to 48. He passed the physical, claiming to be 48 years old. With a wink, an elderly doctor approved his enlistment. He was made a sapper, a battlefield combat engineer, and shipped to the Western Front to build railroads.
He arrived in time to hear the Allies celebrate America's entry into the war against Germany.
"I went through camp routine like a man in a dream," he later wrote in the Post-Standard. "I had constant reminders of my Army life at Nashville and the contrast was so great I could hardly comprehend it all."
Also unlike the Civil War, the modern battlefields of World War I had to contend with attacks from the air, and railroads under construction were prime targets for enemy airmen. For eight months, Boucher endured air attacks as the Allied forces marched into Belgium. Finally, in December 1917, a Red Cross corporal ordered him to see a medical officer. The jig was up.
"How old are you?" the medical officer asked. "I don't want your army age. I want your true age."
Boucher was forced to admit he would soon be 73 years old. The officer "threw a fit," saying the elderly sapper "should be at home by the fireside, instead of eating iron rations served up by Fritz." Boucher's military career was over, and he was sent to London to await transportation back home.
While in London, however, word about the old man's story apparently got around, because Boucher was summoned in uniform to Buckingham Palace. King George V met Boucher in his private study, where the two talked about Canada, his Civil War service and American dedication to the ongoing war.
"I've lived among them for many years," Boucher told the king about the Americans. "I can safely say that the United States is determined to wipe the Kaiser's war machine out of existence."
After returning home in February 1918, Boucher toured the U.S. to rally support for the war effort, saying, "Now, it is for you Americans to make good my promise to King George -- that you will prove real fighters."
He eventually moved to the United States, first to Upstate New York, where he became an American citizen. Then he moved to Detroit and Miami, dying on Feb. 27, 1939.
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