At 106, Spokane man the oldest Canadian WWI vet

At 106, Spokane man the oldest Canadian WWI vet
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - John F. Babcock likes to go out for lunch most days. He reads mystery novels and takes daily walks.

Not bad for a 106-year-old who is the last surviving Canadian veteran of World War I.

Babcock, who has lived the past seven decades in Spokane, is one of a dwindling cadre of surviving veterans of the Great War.

There are three U.S. veterans of WWI. They are Frank Buckles, 106, of Charles Town, W.Va.; Harry Landis, 107, of Sun City Center, Fla.; and J. Russell Coffey, 108, of North Baltimore, Ohio. None saw action.

Babcock was born July 23, 1900, on a farm near Holleford, Ontario. He was 15 when he joined the Canadian Army in hopes of fighting in World War I.

He made it as far as England, but the war ended before he saw combat and Babcock returned to Canada.

Babcock emigrated to the United States in 1920, and served briefly in the U.S. Army as well.

During a recent interview in his ranch-style home in north Spokane, Babcock was alert and quickly responded to questions, although he is a little hard of hearing.

He is reading an Erle Stanley Gardner mystery, and preparing a low-key celebration of his 107th birthday.

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

"One day I wondered `what the hell am I doing this for?"' he said of cigarettes. "I put them away."

He likes to keep busy and isn't prone to worrying.

"Don't let things bother you too much," Babcock said. "If it's out of your control, why fret over it?"

His second wife, Dorothy, thinks there may be an extraterrestrial explanation for his longevity. Babcock was born and raised near the site of the Holleford Crater, a 500-million year old meteor strike.

"Maybe he got some magic dust," Dorothy, 77, said.

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, it was not a hard decision to enlist in the Canadian Army just after New Year's Day in 1916.

He was posted to several training camps. He was deemed to be 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.

"They drilled us eight hours a day," John said.

Not that he didn't see some fighting.

"A wilder bunch I have never seen," Babcock wrote in his autobiography, recounting brawls and other hijinks.

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.

Babcock was sent to what was then known as Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Wash., but served much of his time at Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Wash.

He left the Army in 1924 and moved to Oakland, Calif., where he worked wiring oil burners. He married Elsie Hope and moved to Spokane in January 1932. He worked on the construction of Grand Coulee Dam and for electrical contractors. He ran Babcock Plumbing and Heating and raised his son, Jack, and daughter, Sandra.

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.

He took up flying at age 65, and continued to work until his late 80s.

Elsie died in 1976, and he married Dorothy, who had been his wife's nurse, within a year. Dorothy was 47 and Babcock was 76, and she was worried about the age difference. But they danced and played golf together.

"He was really a nice man," she said this past week. "He was in excellent physical shape."

Babcock's daughter is now 73 and lives in Hamilton, Mont. His son is 75 and lives north of Spokane. They have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

These days, Babcock likes to go to lunch at a restaurant near his home. He reads so many mystery novels that his wife keeps a list in a notebook to make sure he doesn't start the same book twice.

When they were younger, they did a lot of traveling, Dorothy said.

Late in life he completed his high school education through a correspondence school, graduating in 1995. He had his diploma framed.

In May, Dwight Wilson died at the age of 106, leaving Babcock as the sole Canadian veteran of the war in which more than 600,000 Canadians served and about 66,000 died.

Because of his status, the Canadian government has offered Babcock a state funeral when he dies. But Babcock has declined.