When Father Francis P. Duffy, pastor of Our Savior parish in the Bronx, was appointed chaplain of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard in 1914, he was already an old hand at being a military chaplain, having served as one in 1898 during the Spanish American War, although he never saw duty overseas during that brief conflict.
The Irish descended Duffy and the regiment were a good fit. Formed during the Civil War and part of the Irish Brigade, the 69th earned its “fighting” sobriquet, according to legend, when General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, told that the 69th had made a gallant assault against the Confederate lines, and recalling the regiment from the Seven Days battles, stated “Ah yes. That fighting 69th.” Made up mostly of Irishmen during the Civil War, it still consisted mostly of Irish Americans at the time Father Duffy became chaplain. The regimental battle cry was Faugh an Beallach, Clear the Way. The regimental motto was the traditional, and accurate, observation about the Irish: “Gentle when stroked; fierce when provoked”.
In 1917 the regiment was called to duty as the 165th infantry regiment for service in World War I, and Chaplain Duffy went with them. On board the troop ship to France, Father Duffy kept busy with confessions and daily Mass for the men. The regiment entered the trenches at Luneville in the Lorainne sector in late February 1918, as part of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, which acquired its name from the fact that the division consisted of National Guards units drawn from sea to sea like a rainbow across America.
The regiment saw a great deal of fighting until the armistice ended the war on November 11, 1918: the Baccarat sector; the Champagne sector; the battle of the Ourcq; the St. Mihiel offensive; and the grinding hundred day Meuse-Argonne offensive at the end of the war. The 69th spent a total 180 days in combat and 900 of its men were killed.
The 69th had a great many brave men, and amongst the bravest was Father Duffy. Wherever there was fighting he was there: joking with the men, tending the wounded, giving last rites to the dying. Once he bent over a dead soldier to retrieve his dog tags and burst into tears. Colonel John Mangan asked him why. “I baptized him as a baby”, Father Duffy replied. Father Duffy began the war as a Lieutenant and ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel. Among other medals he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. He was proposed for the medal of honor, but he dismissed the idea out of hand.
At the battle of the Ourcq Father Duffy’s leadership and courage were so outstanding that General Douglas MacArthur seriously considered the unheard of step of placing Father Duffy in command of the 69th.
Father Duffy came home with the 69th after the war. His life outside of being a chaplain was also interesting and will be the subject of a future post. A statue to Father Duffy stands in Time Square in New York. A movie, The Fighting 69th, was made about his exploits in 1940 with Pat O’Brien portraying Father Duffy.