'The Fighting 69th' at 150: A Brief History Part 2

'The Fighting 69th' at 150: A Brief History

Two world wars brought more battle streamers to the regiment, which, though Irish at heart, has in recent years become as diverse as the city it calls home.

PART 2 IN A TWO-PART SERIES

By Lt. Col. Kenneth H. Powers, NYARNG (Ret.)

Nassau County Museum Collection
The 69th Regiment drills in Camp Black, on Long Island's Hempstead Plains. Click for a close-up view.

It was Confederate General Robert E. Lee who gave the 69th the colorful nickname it has carried so proudly. Learning, at Fredericksburg, that the 69th New York was among the Army of the Potomac troops facing the Army of Northern Virginia that day, Lee nodded and commented, "Ah yes. That Fighting Sixty-Ninth."

The principal influence on mid-19th century American music was Irish. Two recent CDs have captured much of the music and spirit of the Irish soldier of the period of the American Civil War, THE IRISH VOLUNTEER, by David Kincaid, and SONS OF ERIN, by Derek Warfield of The Wolfe Tones. Derek Warfield has also written an excellent companion book, IRISH SONGSTER OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR.

During the War with Spain in 1898, the Governor requested each Regimental Commander to submit a list of those who would volunteer for Active Service. Colonel Edward Duffy answered immediately that the 69th volunteered to a man, to serve any place in the world where its services might be required. The quick cessation of hostilities found the 69th at a port of embarkation in Florida.

THE WORLD WAR

University of Toronto
Postcard photo of Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, 69th New York, France 1918.

Called into active service for the Mexican Border Campaign in 1916, and again in 1917, upon entry of the United States into the First World War, the 69th Regiment was temporarily redesignated as the 165th Infantry and chosen by then Colonel Douglas A. MacArthur to represent New York in a specially created shock division that was being formed from the cream of the National Guard, the famed Forty-Second (Rainbow) Division.

As such, the 69th saw some of the bitterest fighting -- Lorraine, Champagne, Marne, Ainse-Marne, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. On the Ourcq River (known to the Regiment as the "River O'Rourke"), the 69th put up what has been called one of the greatest fights of that terrible war when it forced a crossing without artillery support and, fighting alone on the enemy's side of the river, with its flanks unsupported, engaged a Prussian Guards Division and forced it to retire. It was an incredible feat of arms, but a mere incident in the chronicle of glory that is the saga of the Fighting 69th.

U.S. Army Signal Corps
Colonel "Wild Bill" O'Donovan, left, and Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the 69th New York, returning from France after World War I.

Medals of Honor from World War I were awarded to Michael A. Donaldson, William J. Donovan and to Richard W. O'Neill. Colonel "Wild Bill" Donovan later became head of the United States Army's Office of Strategic Services -- the OSS -- in World War II. Other famous Americans who served with the 69th in the First World War were Father Francis Patrick Duffy and the beloved poet Joyce Kilmer, whose poem "Rouge Bouquet" is still a part of the ritual of the 69th and of its Veteran Corps.

Veterans of the Regiment, including Jeremiah O'Leary (also of Clan na Gael) and Alexander Anderson (later 13th Colonel of the 69th and a Major General in World War II, who is reputed to have secured the first Thompson submachine guns for the Irish Republican Army) would play significant roles in the cause of Irish freedom, particularly during the Irish War for Independence (1919-1921).

WAR IN THE PACIFIC

National Archives
The 165th Infantry attacks the Japanese on Makin Island. Photo by Jim Bushemi, of Yank Magazine. Click for a close-up view.

In 1940, the 69th was again called for service to the nation and, during the four years that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, saw action on Makin Island, on Saipan and on Okinawa with the 27th ("New York") Division in the Pacific. It was during the last of these campaigns that Company "F" was presented with the Distinguished Unit Citation, and the Regiment's seventh Medal of Honor was awarded to Sergeant Alejandro R. Ruiz of Company "A" for gallantry in action. During World War II both a Regimental Commander and a Regimental Chaplain were killed in action: Colonel Gardiner Conroy on Makin and Father Lawrence Lynch on Okinawa.

A GREEN FLAG

On April 10, 1947, the 69th again resumed its place as a unit of the New York National Guard. Its headquarters are in the old Armory at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, its home since 1906. Officially resuming its designation as the 69th Regiment of New York, the 69th sent its "Second Color" green flag from the American Civil War as a gift to the people of Ireland, in recognition of its Irish roots; the flag was presented by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, on behalf of the Regiment, in 1963, and now hangs in Leinster House, the parliament building in Dublin.

MORE WGT COVERAGE OF FIGHTING 69TH:

"Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked," like their Irish wolfhound mascots, the 69th Regiment of New York, part of the 42nd ("Rainbow") Infantry Division of the New York Army National Guard, together with the Veteran Corps, 69th Regiment, continue to provide the military escort to the Irish societies that constitute the New York Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Leading the way in 2001 was Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey J. Slack, Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry (Mechanized), accompanied by Pipe Major Joe Brady, Regimental Piper of the Fighting 69th.

"GARRYOWEN!"

Lt. Col. Ken Powers, a former officer in the 69th, is the unit's regimental historian.

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