The last American veteran of World War I died recently. With the passing of former doughboy Frank Buckles, you sensed that our memory of the early years of the twentieth century is a fast receding dust cloud. (How many 111 year-olds do you know?) Time passes and even the greatest events lose their grip on us.
Nobody remembers the date (September 6) in the year Buckles was born (1901) that everybody once believed we’d never forget: the day President McKinley was assassinated.
Buckles was a member of a little-known unit out of Fort Riley Kansas, the 1st Casual Division, but there were other units that gained great fame in the Great War, none more than New York City’s 69th Infantry Regiment. Known since its 1849 founding as the “Fighting Irish,” it was the regiment’s Holy Cross chaplains who brought that nickname with them to Notre Dame, and to this day the 69th remains an official “Irish heritage unit,” always leading Manhattan’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The regiment deployed to France in WWI, a part of its history portrayed in the 1940 film The Fighting 69th . It’s a good movie with superb actors as legendary soldiers: Pat O’Brien as Father Francis P. Duffy (the Army’s most decorated chaplain); George Brent as Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (Medal of Honor recipient and America’s founding spymaster); Jeffrey Linn as poet-sergeant Joyce Kilmer (of “Trees” and “Rouge Bouquet,” who died at the Second Battle of the Marne); and the great Jimmy Cagney as the fictional misfit, Private Jerry Plunkett. In one memorable scene, Plunkett converses with fellow trooper “Mike Murphy,” actually Mischa Moskowitz (played by Sammy Cohen), and the two carry on in Yiddish, which Cagney learned as a kid being a “Shabbos goy”  in his old Manhattan neighborhood.
In his many film roles, Pat O’Brien often played a priest – never with more grit than in The Fighting 69th. Fighting Father Duffy was born in Canada in 1871, and attended Catholic schools there and in New York City, where he was ordained in 1896. He received a doctorate from Catholic University in Washington and taught at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Dunwoodie section of Yonkers, New York. Duffy was later reassigned to a church in the Bronx, and he became the official chaplain of the 69th.
On the crossing to France and then in combat during the war, Duffy distinguished himself as an extraordinary soldier-priest, assuming a leadership role far beyond that of any Army chaplain before or since. In fact, none other than Douglas MacArthur (then deputy chief-of-staff of the division to which the 69th was attached) later revealed that Duffy was considered for the post of regimental commander.
Joyce Kilmer (a former Latin teacher, New York Times feature writer, and Catholic convert) wrote in his journal of men in long lines aboard the troop to France, each patiently waiting his turn to confess to Fr. Duffy. (Duffy wrote his own memoir, Father Duffy’s Story , based in part on Kilmer’s journal.) The onboard altar for Mass was a plank atop nail kegs.
The Fighting Irish were assaulted by guns and cannon, mortar fire, and mustard gas – this last horror blinding hundreds. They served in trenches on the front for nearly six months: a thousand killed, a thousand wounded. As Stephen L. Harris tells it in Duffy’s War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan, and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War I , these were tough Catholic kids from legendary neighborhoods: the Gas House District, Five Points, and Hell’s Kitchen. They came from Manhattan’s East and West Sides, from Brooklyn and Queens, Long Island City and the Rockaways, Staten Island and, of course, the Bronx.
They were all Fr. Duffy’s boys, and he shared every danger they faced, traversing the trenches with medics, giving comfort and absolution to the wounded and dying. Duffy described the march of bone-weary soldiers, finally relieved and silently slogging towards blessed moments of rest, but passing through muddy acres strewn with the bodies of their dead:
In the stress of battle there had been but little time to think of them – all minds had been turned on victory. But the men who lay there were dearer to them than kindred, dearer than life; and these strong warriors paid their bashful involuntary tribute [tears] to the ties of love and long regret that bind brave men to the memory of their departed comrades.
At war’s end, Duffy returned to Manhattan as rector of Holy Cross Church in Times Square. He said a special Mass at 2:20 in the morning so Kilmer’s former journalist colleagues could receive the Eucharist after Sunday’s New York Times had gone to press.
Times sure have changed at the Times.
Duffy died in 1932, and five years later, a statue was raised in his memory in Times Square:
In Charles Keck’s bronze effigy of the soldier-priest, he depicts a stoic Duffy, nearly eight feet tall, in military garb, helmet at his feet and bible in hand. The statue is set on a pedestal backed by a green granite Celtic cross, which is more than 17 feet tall. [NYC Parks Department]
An edifying edifice to be sure for one of America’s greatest priests.