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Duffy's War

Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan, and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War I

Harris, Stephen L.

Publication Year: 2006

The legendary ôFighting 69thö took part in five major engagements during World War I. It served in the front lines for almost 170 days, suffering hundreds killed and thousands wounded. This highly decorated unit was inspired by its chaplain, the famous Father Francis Duffy (whose statue stands in Times Square), and commanded by the future leader of the OSS (predecessor of the CIA), ôWild Billö Donovan. One of its casualties was the poet Joyce Kilmer.

Due in large part to the classic 1940 movie The Fighting 69th, starring James Cagney and Pat OÆBrien (as Duffy), the unit still has strong name recognition. But until now, no one has recounted in detail the full story of this famous Irish outfit in World War I. The exciting DuffyÆs War brings to life the menÆs blue-collar neighborhoodsùIrish mostly and Italian and overwhelmingly Catholic. These boys came from the East Side, the West Side, HellÆs Kitchen, the Gashouse, and Five Points; from Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island City, and Staten Island; and from Father DuffyÆs own parish in the Bronx. They streamed out of the tenements and apartment houses, enlisting en masse. Brothers joined up, oftentimes three and four from one family.

Published during a resurgent interest in the doughboy experience of World War I, DuffyÆs War also tells the fascinating history of New York City and the Irish experience in America. With this book, Stephen L. Harris completes his outstanding trilogy on New York National Guard regiments in World War I.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

Duffy’s War completes my trilogy of New York City’s National Guard regiments in World War I, a project begun more than ten years ago. I opened the trilogy with Duty, Honor, Privilege, the story of the old Seventh Regiment, the bluebloods from Manhattan’s silk stocking district. I...

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Prologue: “The War Was the Making of Me”

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pp. xvii

Alexander Woollcott, the celebrated wit of the Algonquin Round Table and columnist for the New Yorker, remembered the “cool, candle-lit dusk” of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on that sad Wednesday, 29 June 1932. He remembered, too, how the thousands of mourners, so thick and tightly bunched, made St. Patrick’s seem a tiny chapel rather than the huge cathedral that it was. On the steps outside the great church, a thousand...

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1. “Give Me A Man’s Job”

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pp. 1-18

In the winter of 1916, six months before President Woodrow Wilson called out federal and state troops for deployment along the Mexican border to protect American citizens and corral the outlaw Pancho Villa, Father Francis Patrick Duffy, the chaplain of the Sixty-ninth New York National Guard Regiment, begged for a transfer. Not out of the Sixty-ninth, but from his small parish in the Bronx, where...

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2. “Shall We Fight for England?”

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pp. 19-30

Two days after the Sixty-ninth had tramped up Tenth Avenue in the slush, as war with Germany bore down heavily on the United States, the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator asked its 35,000 readers “Shall We Fight for England?” It was a question New York’s Celtic community was now asking— and arguing about. The editors of one of the most important pro- Irish newspapers in the country warned of what would happen if the United States, especially...

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3. “Rainbow—There’s the Name for the Division”

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pp. 31-54

In the spring and summer of 1917, the United States was not prepared for a world war. It had a standing army of fewer than six thousand officers and not more than one hundred and twenty thousand men. The National Guard had almost as many troops—a total of 101,174 citizen-soldiers under state control. Of that number, 66,594 had seen service on the Mexican border. New York had shipped...

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4. “Did You Ever Go Into an Irishman’s Shanty?”

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pp. 55-68

In the dog days of August 1917, the Sixty-ninth found itself in a bind. It still had no commander and all of a sudden was woefully short of soldiers, even though men and boys, many of them not even of age, banged on the door of the Lexington Avenue armory for a chance to enlist. Within weeks the regiment, loathe to refer to itself as the 165th Infantry...

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5. “Good-bye Broadway, Hello France!”

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pp. 69-76

The Sixty-ninth stopped on its way to Camp Albert Mills to visit with Martin Sheridan, in his glory days arguably America’s finest athlete. Then it was on to the Polo Grounds for a rare Sunday baseball contest sponsored by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick to benefit the regiment’s needy families, with John McGraw’s Giants taking...

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6. “It’s a Huge Regiment Now”

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pp. 77-88

Camp Mills was named in honor of the late Albert Mills, who had served in the Spanish-American War and received a Medal of Honor for rallying his men after taking a bullet through the head and being temporarily blinded. After this, he had been superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy and before his death in 1916 had drawn up plans for federalizing the National Guard. The camp itself—one hundred twenty acres on what is known as Hempstead...

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7. “The People I Like Best Are the Wild Irish”

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pp. 89-102

“I look forward with dread to the next two weeks,” Oliver Ames Jr. wrote to his mother in the summer of 1917. Ames was then an officer’s candidate at the military training camp in Plattsburgh. “Commissions are to be decided pretty soon,” he explained, “and the strain and worry is terrific and promises to be worse in the coming fortnight; rumors are flying fast, and it is all one can do to keep...

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8. “A Willing, Bright, Strong, Clean Lot”

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pp. 103-112

“Orders at last,” Father Duffy exclaimed to his diary on 28 October.1 “It was a welcome change, our move from Camp Mills,” Martin Hogan remembered. He remembered, too, that once under way, the boys lost the restlessness that had pestered them throughout their training days on the Hempstead Plains. “Camp Mills was drudgery, not adventure.”2 Now the Rainbow Division was truly off to war, and...

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9. “Not a Gloomy Man in Town”

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pp. 113-122

The moment the Forty-second Division hit the shores of Europe in the first weeks of November it was sent toward the city of Nancy; to the training area at Vaucouleurs—to be billeted in the surrounding villages; among them Broussey, Naives, Sauvoy, Vacon, and Villeroy-sur-Meholle, each about forty miles west of the Lunéville sector and twenty-five miles south of the Argonne forest. The...

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10. “Most Pitiful and Unsightly Bunch of Men I Have Ever Seen”

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pp. 123-136

Father Francis Duffy wanted to make sure that the men got off on the right foot in the new year by closing out 1917 well. To this end, he held midnight mass on Christmas. “If there is one day in all the year that wanderers from home cannot afford to forget it is Christmas,” he entered in his diary on 25 December. The chaplain knew he had to give his “parish,” as he called the men of the...

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11. “We Are All Volunteers in This War”

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pp. 137-152

One of the first things Col. John Barker had done upon taking command of the ragged 165th Infantry had been to inspect his new troops and investigate their deplorable condition. The officers ordered by Brig. Gen. Michael Lenihan to look into the plight of the men and report back to him were Majors George Lawrence and William Stacom. Lawrence was the regiment’s top medical...

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12. “In the Wood They Call the Rouge Bouquet”

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pp. 153-176

Rouge Bouquet Chaussailles, also known as Point d’Apui Rouge Bouquet, was a subsector of the larger sector of Lunéville, about twelve kilometers west-by-southwest, in the Department of Meurthe-et-Moselle. It was a wooded slice of land with twisted trenches, the bottoms of them duckboarded over so soldiers would not sink...

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13. “Quiet Sectors Are Not Necessarily Quiet”

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pp. 177-192

When news of the death of twenty-one men in E Company rippled along the trenches, where other companies of the Second Battalion were now posted, soldiers became anxious, scared, jumpy. At night every shadow turned into an enemy. Peering across no-man’s-land, a number of edgy soldiers fired blindly into the darkness. In Capt. Mike Kelly’s...

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14. “From a Canny Scot to a Bold Irishman”

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pp. 193-208

“War is a time of sudden changes and violent wrenches of the heart strings,” Father Francis Duffy penned on 9 May 1918, “and we are getting a taste of it even before we enter into the period of battles.”1 Two months had slipped by since the 165th Infantry had been pulled out of the “quiet” Lunéville Sector. It had been sent to the Baccarat Sector, where the Forty-second Division relieved three French divisions that had...

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15. “It Will Be a Happy Day”

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pp. 209-232

Before embarking for France, Jim McKenna, now a major, had warned his father that the Sixty-ninth was going to be in the “thick of the scrimmage and court death over and over again for their country’s flag” and that he counted on playing a big part in that bloody scrimmage. Now on the eve of the Second Battle of the Marne, the new leader of the Third Battalion was anxious to get into the...

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16. “The Last Joy Ride Any of Us’ll Ever Get”

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pp. 233-248

The Germans were stopped cold by the Allies for the first time since shifting division after division from the Eastern Front. The Rainbows played a large part in this event. With Ludendorff’s army now in retreat, Allied Commander-in-Chief Foch believed the time was ripe for a bold counterattack. Gen. Jean Degoutte of the French Sixth Army figured the back-pedaling Germans were in...

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17. “All You Want Now Is Guts and Bayonets!”

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pp. 249-266

Through no fault of the 165th Infantry, the Forty-second Division bungled its predawn assault, losing any chance of surprise. At three-forty-five the entire division was to attack along a two-mile front, cross the Ourcq and clear the Germans out of the villages, farms, and hills north of the river. Brig. Gen. Michael Lenihan first sensed something was amiss when he could not locate Col. Benson...

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18. “I Guess I Have Been Born to Be Hanged”

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pp. 267-280

“Before we got going,” Maj. William Donovan wrote to Ruth, “the first ten men crossing dropped, shot, and yet the next without a falter went over.”1 It was late morning on the 28th, and Donovan’s Third Battalion moved forward, splashing across the Ourcq, to relieve Maj. Jim McKenna’s battered Third. The withdrawal of the Third had been orderly despite...

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19. “We Sure Hated to See Him Get Killed”

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pp. 281-296

Sergeant Richard O’Neill, leader of the Second Platoon, D Company, First Battalion, drew a deep breath. Tuesday, 30 July, had broken clear and beautiful. For the entire infantry of the Forty-second Division, the hard fight to clear the Germans from the north slope of the Ourcq River was about to enter its fourth day; for the 165th Infantry, its third day. O’Neill snapped his bayonet to the barrel of his rifle. He...

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20. “I Have Been Very Happy in Command of the Regiment”

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pp. 297-310

The fight to take the northern heights of the Ourcq River was far from over. For the hungry, bone-weary, and bloodied Forty-second Division there was more to do. One of the original orders had been not to let the enemy get away; the great chase was on. The chase went on without Wild Bill Donovan’s men of the First Battalion, their days and nights of fighting over. On the bloodsoaked hillside, the doughboys searched for their own dead. “We found 5 Germans for...

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21. “Not a Fight, But a Promenade”

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pp. 311-330

The real fight over the St. Mihiel salient took place behind the lines, in Bombon and Chaumont—in a battle of wills between the supreme commander of the Allied forces, Ferdinand Foch, and a general without an army, John Pershing. Since the day he had landed in Europe in June 1917, Pershing had taken on prime ministers, premiers, and a king in his fight to mold an all-American army. After three years of slaughter, France and England had been...

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22. “Over the River a Thousand Yawning Dead”

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pp. 331-348

Before the smoke and gas had cleared from the St. Mihiel salient, elements of Gen. John Pershing’s First Army were on their way to the Meuse-Argonne. Roads west became clogged with an army on the move—428,000 men, 90,000 horses and mules, and 4,000 guns hurrying to keep their date for 26 September, when they would lead the Allied attack against the entire length of the so-called Hindenburg Line. Several battle-hardened divisions were left behind...

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23. “You Expected to Have the Pleasure of Burying Me”

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pp. 349-360

Field order no. 18, issued thirty minutes after midnight on 15 October by the adjutant of the Eighty-third Brigade, was blunt. “The attack will continue today.” The start time had been designated as seven-fifteen with an artillery barrage aimed at destroying the wire five hundred yards in front of Lt. Col. Bill Donovan’s troops. The barrage was to lift at seven-thirty and then resume twenty...

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24. “We Looked Down from the Last Crest Above Sedan”

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pp. 361-372

“Ido sleep and eat and enjoy myself except when some of my lads are killed,” Chaplain Francis Duffy wrote to his father. “That’s the hardest part and that is why I am praying the war will be over before any more go the unreturnable road.”1 When Duffy penned this letter on 28 October, many of the dead of the Eighty-third Brigade were still stuck on the wire in front of Landreset- St. Georges. He had...

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Epilogue: “We Want Him. We Need Him. He Has Earned It.”

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pp. 373-380

The war was over, yet it would be another half-year before the 165th Infantry boarded any troop ships to return home to New York. The Forty-second Division was ordered into Germany as part of the occupation forces. “Watch on the Rhine,” the troops called it—another duty for the Rainbows. Since its border days in 1916, the old Sixty-ninth had been away from Manhattan Island, off and on, for twenty-nine of the past...


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pp. 381-412

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 413-422


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pp. 423-434

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About the Author

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p. 435-435

STEPHEN L. HARRIS is the author of two other books about New York City’s National Guard regiments in the Great War. They are Duty, Honor, Privilege: New York’s Silk Stocking Regiment and the Breaking...

E-ISBN-13: 9781597973380
E-ISBN-10: 1597973386
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574886511
Print-ISBN-10: 1574886517

Page Count: 462
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • New York (State). National Guard. Infantry Regiment, 69th -- History.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Campaigns -- France.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Participation, Irish American.
  • Duffy, Francis Patrick, 1871-1932.
  • Donovan, William J. (William Joseph), 1883-1959.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • Irish American soldiers -- New York (State) -- New York -- Biography.
  • Military chaplains -- New York (State) -- New York -- Biography.
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