Lt. Col. Francis P. Duffy

U.S. Army

DSC, DSM, Légion d’honneur, Croix de guerre

France, 1918

Only two men are honored with life-sized statues in New York’s Times Square, epicenter of the American theater industry. The statue on the south side pays tribute to George M. Cohan, the legendary Broadway producer, actor, playwright and composer of such patriotic songs as “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” The statue on the north side depicts a Catholic priest, the Rev. Francis Patrick Duffy, the most highly decorated Army chaplain of World War I. His awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the French Légion d’honneur and Croix de guerre, and the state of New York’s Conspicuous Service Cross.

Duffy was born in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, on May 2, 1871, and emigrated to the United States as a young man. He was ordained in the Archdiocese of New York in 1896, earned a doctorate from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and taught psychology and ethics at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

Father Duffy began his career as a military chaplain during the Spanish-American War, although he didn’t deploy abroad. In 1914 he became chaplain of the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment. The famous “Fighting 69th” was part of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade during the Civil War, and a half century later the unit remained strongly Irish-American.

Federalized in 1917 for World War I, the Fighting 69th was assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division. Redesignated the 165th Infantry Regiment, the New York troops continued to call their unit the 69th. The commander of the 165th was Manhattan lawyer William Joseph Donovan, who became close friends with Duffy. Himself a legendary figure, “Wild Bill” Donovan earned the Medal of Honor in October 1918 and during World War II formed and led the OSS, forerunner of the CIA.

Poet Joyce Kilmer was a soldier in the 165th. He wrote that during the unit’s voyage by troopship across the Atlantic, Duffy said Mass every morning on the main deck, and each day the line of soldiers waiting for the priest to hear confession was as long as the mess line.

The 165th Infantry served 180 days in combat, recording more than 700 deaths during fighting in the Baccarat and Champagne sectors, the Battle of the Ourcq, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the bloodbath of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Wherever soldiers fell, Duffy was there with them, comforting the wounded, saying Mass, hearing confession and administering last rites.

First Lieutenant Duffy earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions between July 28 and 31, 1918, during the Battle of the Ourcq. According to the citation: “Chaplain Duffy devoted himself tirelessly and unceasingly to the care of the wounded and dying. Despite a constant and severe bombardment with shells and aerial bombs, he continued to circulate in and about two aid stations and the hospitals, creating an atmosphere of cheerfulness and confidence by his courageous and inspiring example.”

Duffy ended the war as a lieutenant colonel. Returning to New York, he became pastor of Holy Cross Church just off Broadway, which explains his statue in Times Square. In 1919 he published his memoir, Father Duffy’s Story, an extension of a regimental history started by Kilmer, who was killed in action on July 30, 1918. Duffy continued to serve at Holy Cross until his own death on June 26, 1932.

During his months in the trenches, Duffy was no stranger to death and dying. But once he visibly broke down as he bent to collect a dead soldier’s dog tags. When asked why, Duffy replied, “I baptized him as a baby.”

 

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here