Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Memorial Day remember so many killed in the nation’s wars. On this 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I on April 6, 1917, we can remember two men in that conflict — the first and the last American officers to die in the war. The last also was the last chaplain to die. Both happened to be Knights of Columbus.
The first to fall was Lieutenant William Fitzsimons.
In her home in Kansas, his mother Mrs. Katherine Fitzsimons got the news on September 9, 1917, from Secretary of War Nelson Baker. He wrote:
"The heavy news of your loss is now confirmed by official dispatches and your son's unselfish service to his fellow men ends with the sacrifice of his life in the cause of human freedom. The unusual cruelty of his death is, of course, but one incident marking the barbarous policy of a ruthless enemy of mankind; but the nature of his service and the nature of the cause to which he was devoted will cause his name to be reverently remembered by our whole people, who are partners in your loss. "Permit me, with great consideration, to offer my sincere sympathy to you and to express my admiration of his noble example."
The loss was terrible also in the fact that Lt. Fitzsimons was Dr. Fitzsimons. He wielded instruments of healing and help. His uniform spoke of mercy.
Born in 1889 in Burlington, Kansas, Fitzsimons graduated as a doctor from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1912. Though widowed in 1910 with six children, his mother struggled and sacrificed so that her son could finish his degree. Naturally, she was full of joy at his graduation. He interned at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kansas City, then studied surgery at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.
Among First Volunteers
As World War I broke out in Europe, Fitsimmons headed to France as a volunteer to tend to the wounded and injured. He traveled aboard the first Red Cross ship sailing there. The date was September 13, 1914. After serving two short enlistments, he returned to the U.S. in December 1915.
He became a member of the faculty of the University of Kansas Medical School and on staff at St. Mary's Hospital in Kansas City. He also received a commission as lieutenant in the Medical Officers' Reserve Corps of the United States.
Once the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Fitsimmons had medical experience in the war got him appointed to the Medical Examining Board for the district, but he already was one of the first to volunteer for service overseas. And one of the first five doctors from Kansas City to head overseas.
The eager doctor Lieutenant Fitzsimons left Kansas City on June 14, 1917. Arriving in France, he was stationed at Base Hospital No. 5 in Pas-de-Calais on the coast and was appointed adjutant to the officer in command.
On September 4, 1917, after much medical work, that afternoon he was standing outside the hospital tent by the entrance. The 28-year-old doctor was there waiting for more wounded soldiers who were to arrive. At that moment a raiding German plane dropped a bomb on the hospital.
It killed the kindly doctor and three others with him. He was buried in France at Etaples.
"Dr. Fitzsimons had already served for some time in a French hospital. As soon as this nation went to war he volunteered for service abroad,” wrote former president Teddy Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star shortly after the news came out.
"There is sometimes a symbolic significance in the first death in a war. It is so in this case,” Roosevelt continued. “To the mother he leaves, the personal grief must in some degree be relieved by the pride in the fine and gallant life which has been crowned by the great sacrifice. We, his fellow countrymen, share this pride and sympathize with this sorrow."
Tributes and honors poured in. One was the official renaming of an Army Hospital in Colorado the Fitzsimons General Hospital in his honor.
In 1922 the official Knights of Columbus magazine wrote: “[It] is conceivable that to his death there is a separate and singular merit, for he had none of the exaltation that follows the first trepidation of the entry into armed conflict. His was a work of mercy, of healing — none the less a work of warfare; and he was stricken in the doing of it — the first to fall. But, in praising his sacrifice, we must pause, too, to pay tribute to the noble mother of a noble son.”
“This noble American mother has borne herself nobly, bowing humbly to the will of God and offering her heart wounds to Heaven for her country.”
Father William F. Davitt, a first lieutenant and senor chaplain, was the last American officer and the last chaplain to fall in World War I. It was on November 11, the day of Armistice. All fighting was to stop at 11:00 a.m. Father Davitt died about 9:45 a.m.
When the war began, Father Davitt volunteered as a K of C chaplain. At the time he was an assistant at St. Ann Church in Lenox, Massachusetts. As a chaplain and commissioned officer, he was assigned to the 125th Regiment, 32nd Division in Texas, then sailed to France.
Father Davitt wasn’t shy about joining the men in the thick of fighting. In one instance, when his division was advancing along the Vesle River and he heard that a party of Americans was cut off in a ravine, he assembled and led a group of volunteers through what was described as “a hail of machine gun bullets and rescued those cut off without the loss of a man.”
For that heroic action the French Army awarded him the Croix de Guerre with palm. The citation read, “During the advance from the Ourcq to the Vesle from July 31
to August 6, 1918, he carried out his duties heedless of danger and without interruption under a violent fire. By his comforting words and his fine example of abnegation and bravery he
encouraged the men of his regiment who were advancing to the assault."
For the same event he received another citation for bravery stating to “rescue of 40 wounded soldiers who were temporarily isolated from their command, he led a party of volunteers through a hail of machine gun bullets. All were rescued and returned to their command without the loss of a single man.”
More honors came for the brave chaplain while he was serving such a long way from where he was born on December 8, 1886 in Holyoke, Massachusetts then grew up in neighboring Chicopee where he played football in high school. No doubt his brother James also showed the same courageous spirit as a first lieutenant in the 94th Aero Squadron of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
It was also a long way from Holy Cross College in Worcester where he graduated in 1907, and from the seminary he attended in Montreal, Canada, before being assigned to St. Ann’s.
But then came the war and his service as a chaplain in France. In another instance there, the commanding office of the American 5th Corps cited him "for faithful and conscientious performance of duty and for extreme coolness under shell fire in the performance of his duty as Acting Chief Burial Officer, 5th Corps, during the Meuse-Argonne Operations."
He was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross. The recommendation stated that during one major advance “Chaplain Davitt worked single-handed without ceasing for anything, collecting the dead of his Division (32d) and looking after the burial. He did this under violent fire, to which he apparently paid no attention. While doing this work he stopped to encourage with cheerful words and advice the enlisted men along the line who also were under fire. The results of his work were 125 American soldiers buried, many wounded cared for, and soldiers in the line encouraged."
The War Department awarded it to him posthumously.
Nor where those the last of his citations. Another for bravery on October 20, 1918, during the Argonne offensive read: “To rescue three wounded soldiers, he leaped over the top of the trench, and, under enemy machine-gun fire, dragged them to safety one by one.”
Posthumously, he would be cited “for extreme coolness under shell fire in the performance of his duty as Chief Burial Officer, 5th Corps, during the Meuse-Argonne operations,” and for “gallantry in action near Courmont…under heavy shell fire."
Shortly before the end of the war, Father Davitt was transferred to the 3rd Corps, but on November 10, 1918, he had to return to his regular Division.
There, the next morning everyone was looking forward with relief to the armistice to take effect at 11 am. But then the unthinkable happened.
Father Davitt was carrying a large American flag to present to the Commanding Officer, said one source. The flag was to be raised at the official hour of the armistice. He had “just stepped from the latter's room” and then was crossing over a parade route when “a piece of a shell bursting on the roof of a barn nearby struck and killed him.” The shrapnel was from the last shell fired by the enemy in the war.
His friend and fellow classmate Father George Connor, also a chaplain and Captain there, celebrated Father Davitt’s funeral. He would go on to tell Father Davitt’s mother his regiment “had learned to love this wonderful, brave, big-hearted boy of a chaplain. The colonel, his officers and men, marched behind their regimental band, bearing his precious remains to the yard of the little village church that nestled almost unharmed amidst the ruins around it.”
In 1921his remains were brought back from France to Holyoke and reburied with his family.
Among memorials dedicated in his honor was a plaque at St. Ann’s Church in 1919 and the William F. Davitt Memorial Bridge in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in 1931 then after being rebuilt was rededicated at 11 am on November 11, 2013. Among the Davitt Family members attending was his great niece, retired Air Force Colonel Robin Davitt.
It was exactly 96 years after Father Davitt gave his life serving his country and especially serving his Lord.
The first and the last to die in World War I — one healing the body, the other healing the soul.