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Still fighting the good fight

When John Foster Babcock turned 100 he wrote a narrative of his life, and his family made it into a book. 
 (The Spokesman-Review)
When John Foster Babcock turned 100 he wrote a narrative of his life, and his family made it into a book. (The Spokesman-Review)

John Foster Babcock was too young to enlist in the Canadian army, but he signed up anyway, and headed over to Europe for the war against the Germans.

That’s the Great War – World War I.

Now, at 106 years old, “Jack” Babcock is one of just three living Canadian World War I veterans and 17 known U.S. veterans, a distinction that is drawing international attention. Earlier this month, Gregory Thompson, Canada’s minister of veterans affairs, visited Babcock at his Spokane home to thank him for his contributions to freedom. Others interested in chronicling the centenarian’s life have come and gone over the years.

Babcock, who later enlisted in the U.S. Army after immigrating to the United States, is amiable and accommodating but unsure what to make of all the attention.

“I never did anything great, but I had a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s only when you get scarce that they pay attention to you.”

Today he and his 76-year-old wife, Dorothy, live in north Spokane.

Babcock appears to be decades younger than he is, with thick white hair, bright blue eyes and an outrageous sense of humor.

Having had 106 years to get to know himself, he’s still seeking new hobbies.

His current interests, for example, include John Grisham thrillers, video lectures on ancient Egypt, and learning to write with his left hand.

Thompson demonstrated his progress on the latter during Babcock’s official visit, presenting the Canadian dignitary with a book about Spokane that he inscribed on the inside front cover with his left hand and the inside back cover with his right.

As for the Egypt lectures, Babcock says he’s interested, but complains the teacher “talks too fast. He needs to slow down.”

Slowing down isn’t something Babcock knows much about.

He’s been going nonstop since age 15, when he enlisted in the Canadian army.

Babcock never saw battle, but trained in Canada’s Young Soldiers Battalion in England until World War I’s end.

He talks about his days in the Canadian army as if they were just a few years ago.

Numbers dwindling

Of the more than 600,000 Canadians who served in World War I, Babcock is one of just three remaining and the only one still living in his own home.

No Canadians who fought in battle during the Great War are alive today.

The Department of Veterans Affairs knows of only 17 remaining American veterans of World War I, said VA public affairs specialist Jose Llamas.

With the World War I movie “Flyboys,” which opened in theaters on Friday, interest in World War I veterans has spiked, said Llamas.

“A lot of people are looking for these heroes to honor them,” he said.

More than 4.7 million Americans served from 1917-1918. The war itself started three years before American involvement, in 1914.

Eager to serve

When Babcock was 6, his father was killed in a logging accident. He bounced from home to home during his childhood.

Babcock was 15 1/2 and living in Ontario when he enlisted, well younger than the minimum age of 18.

Not a fan of school at the time, he was impressed by a local army sergeant’s recitation of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and thought the glory of battle was for him.

“I didn’t know any better,” says Babcock.

An early stint in the army bugle band didn’t last long. “I was tone deaf,” Babcock explains.

His commanding officers knew he was underage, but he slipped through the cracks when it came time to ship out.

“For some reason or another my name wasn’t listed with those who were unfit, so I put on my pack and got on the train,” he said.

When Babcock’s mother found out he had enlisted, she tried to get him out of the army, but he insisted on staying in and headed to Europe, a nine-day trip across the Atlantic, with three transport ships and destroyers circulating between them for protection from German submarines.

When Babcock arrived in England, he spent time with the 26th Reserve near London, but was soon relocated.

“They rounded up all the Canadians in the army that were underage,” said Babcock. The intent was to prepare them for battle once they were old enough to fight.

Some of Babcock’s 1,300 fellow Young Soldiers Battalion members had already fought in France before being pulled off the front lines when it was discovered they were too young. Babcock describes them as a rowdy bunch kept in line with drills eight hours each day.

But the most dangerous things they encountered with the battalion at Bexhill-on-Sea were the ice-cold ocean and a brawl.

Dressed only in their great coats and gym shoes, the entire company was marched at 6 a.m. daily down to the ocean for a quick in-and-out bath.

“We’d drop our overcoats and shoes and go into the water,” Babcock says. “It was cold as hell. We were naked.”

And just before the war ended, the entire Young Soldiers Battalion fought with a group of British soldiers at a local dance after a few of the young Canadians were thrown out. Babcock didn’t throw a punch or get hit, but he remembers efforts to get all the young women out of the dance hall before the violence began, and the end of the brawl when a group of officer cadets charged the group with their bayonets.

Just a couple weeks later, the war was over and Babcock was on his way home.

After the war

When Babcock returned to Canada, he received money for vocational training as an electrician, and then bounced from job to job, doing everything from farming and logging to electrical work.

In 1920, he signed a declaration of intent to become a U.S. citizen. In it Babcock renounced his allegiance to King George V of Britain and Ireland and declared that he was not an anarchist or polygamist, the conditions for entry into the country to work.

He didn’t become a U.S. citizen, however, until he was 46 years old.

Babcock first moved to Washington when he joined the U.S. Army in 1921 and was stationed at Fort Lewis. He then moved to Oakland, Calif., where he worked selling oil burners and married his first wife, Elsie.

In 1931 they moved to Spokane after the entry of natural gas into the Oakland market devastated the oil business.

When natural gas reached Spokane, Babcock worked as a contracting estimator and opened his own mechanical contracting business.

In 1976, Elsie Babcock died of lymphoma, but Jack Babcock wasn’t through with love.

Months after his wife’s death, Babcock says he remembered the kind nurse who helped his wife in the hospital.

“I was looking for company, and I thought of Dorothy, and thought I have to approach this carefully,” he says.

Babcock was 76 – 29 years older than the object of his affection.

“He was in great shape when I met him. He golfed and backpacked,” said Dorothy.

But the age difference still bothered her.

“When we got married, I said, ‘You have to give me 10 years.’ Well, it’s been 30 years,” she said.

Combined, the two have four children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Moving forward

Babcock earned his high school diploma about 10 years ago through correspondence courses. After being forced to write with his right hand as a child, he’s recently decided that he’d rather switch back to his natural left hand.

He attributes his longevity to physical activity.

When Thompson flew to Spokane, the government minister called the aging veteran “an extraordinary Canadian.”

Thompson says he was impressed with Babcock’s good health and honored by his hospitality.

“I just thought it was the right thing to do, to go down and thank him on behalf of the citizens of Canada,” Thompson said.