REVISED 9/29/05, 4:15 PM EDT
'The Fighting 69th' Film Unites 'Dixie,' 'Irishers'
By Liam Murphy
Special to TheWildGeese.com
In 1940, members, veterans, families and friends of the 69th Regiment of New York gathered in the Grand Ballroom of The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City to view the premier showing of Hollywood's portrayal of their exploits in the (First) World War, "The Fighting 69th," starring the irrepressible James Cagney as Jerry Plunkett, one of the very few fictional characters in the movie. The opening event of this truly international occasion was a live "radiogram" address by the commander of the 42nd ("Rainbow") Division in that conflict, General Douglas MacArthur (then Field Marshal of the Philippines), speaking from Manila. In the course of his remarks, he referred to the 69th as one of the finest regiments in the world. (His words are on display in the Armory of the 69th on Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, and you can read them below). Vic Olney, who manages the armory's Garryowen Club, can direct the visitor to this and many other items of historical interest in the Armory.
While the movie's portrayal of World War 1 combat may have been no more realistic than John Wayne's "The Green Berets," the film, and its accurate portrayal of the regiment's spirit and of the character of so many actual members of the 69th, also captured the public's imagination, making it one of the most successful films of that year. (Additionally, it became part of the indoctrination of new recruits for the regiment.) The late regimental historian, Lt. Col. Ken Powers, cautioned against looking for the 69th New York in any order of battle in either World War. Due to the reorganization of the Army in 1917, all National Guard regiments would be numbered above 100. (This was to provide numerical room for a regular army of 100 infantry regiments.) The "Old 69th" remained the 165th U.S. Infantry, until President John Fitzgerald Kennedy restored the "69th" designation to the Regiment in 1963. (There has never been a 69th regiment in the regular U.S. Infantry.)
MacArthur, son of a Virginia mother and a regular Union Army officer and Medal of Honor recipient, had personally assembled the Rainbow Division from the cream of National Guard regiments from across the United States; he brigaded the Old 69th with the old 4th Alabama (soon redesignated the 167th U.S. Infantry, but formerly part of Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia) in the 85th Infantry Brigade. This might well have elicited some comment when the Alabamians arrived in the frozen north to train with the 69th at Camp Mills on Long Island. In a scene in the film, Guinan "Big Boy" Williams, portraying Paddy Dolan of the 69th, welcomed one of the Alabamians, addressing him as "Dixie."
|Historical Art Prints
The 28th Massachusetts during the attack on Marye's Heights, as painted by artist Don Troiani. For a larger view, click here.
The Southerner, after commenting on the cold weather, asked which unit Dolan was from, to which the answer was the Fighting 69th. A Southerner asked if that was the "69th Irishers." Another Southerner then said, "We whup your pants." The Alabamians (played by Frank Melton, Edmund Glover, Trevor Bardette and John Arledge) then got onto an altercation with "Big Boy," which threatened to develop into a riot until the intervention of Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the 69th (played by Pat O'Brien) and Colonel "Wild Bill" Donovan, commanding officer of the 69th (portrayed by George Brent).
Donovan (who would later be one of three 69th men to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War 1) explained that the Dec. 13, 1862, assault of the Irish Brigade (which included the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry) on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg had indeed been repulsed by the Army of Northern Virginia, which included the 4th Alabama. But he added that the Southerners were so impressed with the gallantry of the Irish Brigade that they cheered them all along the Confederate line. (The 4th Alabama was a part of Law's Brigade of Hood's Division, on the right of Longstreet's Corps, and therefore not directly opposite the 69th. Hence, the regiment was in a position to both see and cheer the gallantry of the Irish Brigade.)
"We will never forget the gallantry of the 69th and the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg ..."
After this point, all was forgiven by both sides of the scuffle, and their record during the war reflected close cooperation. The gist of Brent's lines regarding the Confederates cheering the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg, however, was not Hollywood invention, but fact, documented by, ironically, Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, whose name will be forever associated with another gallant failed assault, this at Gettysburg on the following July 3rd. Tradition holds that when Robert E. Lee was informed that the 69th (which had performed so gallantly during the Seven Days Battles and the Peninsula Campaign — as well as at Bull Run) had taken the field at Fredericksburg, Lee remarked, "Ah, yes, that Fighting 69th," a sobriquet that has endured, providing Hollywood with the title of the movie.
That scene caused me to recall my own experience as a New Yorker reporting as a New Cadet to Colonel John D.P. Fuller (Citadel 1917, and a wounded veteran of World War 1), chairman of the history department at the Virginia Military Institute in 1961. He looked up at me from his desk and said, "Murphy, you one of those New York Irishers?" To which I answered, "Yes, sir." His spontaneous reply was, "We will never forget the gallantry of the 69th and the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg — magnificent!"
It is also significant, and emblematic of a reunited United States, that Lt. Col. Geoffrey Slack, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, is the descendant of an Irish Louisiana soldier, who faced the 69th on more than one field during the American Civil War. (See WGT's feature on that history, "69th and Louisiana Troops: Once Foes, Now Friends.")
|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 1.
Considering that the 69th became part of the Organized Militia of the State of New York in 1851, as part of a conspiracy among Irish exiles to train men for the future liberation of Ireland, it was especially appropriate that "Wild Bill" Donovan be portrayed by Brent, a native of Shannonsbridge, County Dublin, who reputedly departed Ireland during "The Troubles" (undergoing a name change in the process) as a consequence of his membership in the IRA.
George Brent as Col. William Donovan.|
The movie captures both the spirit of the 69th and the portrayal — and character — of so many of its actual members during the First World War (including Lt. Col. Alexander Anderson and the poet Joyce Kilmer, a sergeant in the 69th, who turned down a commission because it would mean that he would have to leave the Regiment). The film also recalls the patriotic atmosphere of America before our entry into a Second World War. By all means, see "The Fighting 69th," but seek out the 89-minute VHS version rather than the 79-minute version available periodically on cable, to better see just how Hollywood, and the world, saw "The Fighting 69th" in 1940.WGT
MacARTHUR ON "THE FIGHTING 69TH"
No greater fighting regiment has ever existed than the One Hundred and Sixty-fifth Infantry of the Rainbow Division, formed from the old Sixty-ninth Regiment of New York. I cannot tell you how real and how sincere a pleasure I feel tonight in once more addressing the members of that famous unit. You need no eulogy from me or from any other man. You have written your own history and written it in red on your enemies' breast, but when I think of your patience under adversity , your courage under fire, and your modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot express. You have carved your own statue upon the hearts of your people, you have built your own monument in the memory of your compatriots.
|General Douglas MacArthur
One of the most outstanding characteristics of the regiment was its deep sense of religshortwavensibility, inculcated by one of my most beloved friends — Father Duffy. He gave you a code that embraces the highest moral laws, that will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of man. Its requirements are for the things that are right and its restraints are from the things that are wrong.
The soldier, above all men is required to perform the highest act of religious teaching — sacrifice. However horrible the results of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and perchance to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind. No physical courage and no brute instincts can take the place of the divine annunciation and spiritual uplift which will alone sustain him. Father Duffy, on those bloody fields of France we all remember so well, taught the men of your regiment how to die that a nation might live — how to die unquestioning and uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts and the hope on their lips that we might go on to victory.
Somewhere in your banquet hall tonight his noble spirit looks down to bless and guide you young sliders on the narrow path marked with West Point's famous motto — duty, honor, country.
We 'll hope that war will come to us no more. But if its red stream again engulf us, I want you to know that if my flag flies again, I shall hope to have you once more with me, once more to form the brilliant hues of what is lovingly, reverently called by men at arms, the Rainbow.
May God be with you until we meet again.
(From an address heard by the veterans of the 69th at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, delivered over short-wave radio from Manila, The Philippines, on Jan. 24, 1940)
69th NY National Guard
AOH Division 7 Charitable Giving
256th Infantry Brigade (Mechanized)
"'Fighting 69th' Traditions are Alive and Well," Guard Times, March-April '98 Electronic Edition.
New York Army National Guard Home Page
Joe Hourigan's "History of the Fighting 69th"
Company A, 69th New York Volunteers Reenactment Unit
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