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Faith and Valor on the Front Lines


by Ed Langlois

A snapshot of four of the 100,000 K of C servicemen who put their lives on the line during World War I

Sgt. Major Daniel Joseph Daly (1873-1937)

Sgt. Major Daniel Joseph Daly (1873-1937) Wikimedia Commons

Marine Sgt. Major Daniel Daly stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed just 132 pounds, but he was larger than life. More than a century ago, during World War I, he singlehandedly captured a German machine-gun nest, taking 14 prisoners. Daly was no stranger to courage. He had twice received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, before the war had even begun.

Unlike many of the doughboys around him, Daly had surpassed the intoxication of youth. He could calculate the consequences. He knew he might die and what a poignant sacrifice it would be. The same could be said of 1st Lt. Chaplain John B. DeValles, who heroically served, and saved, numerous wounded soldiers on the front lines. So, too, the first and last U.S. officers to die in the war — 1st Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, a doctor, and 1st Lt. Chaplain William F. Davitt, a priest — tirelessly cared for others, body and soul.

In addition to being brave, each of these men was also moved by charity, and they represented the Knights of Columbus well. And like many other notable Knights who served in the Great War, their actions were defined by their faith in Jesus Christ and their decision to follow his example of self-emptying sacrifice.

Semper Fi Personified

MAJ. GEN. SMEDLEY BUTLER called him “the fightingest Marine I ever knew.” Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune called him “the most outstanding Marine of all time.”

A member of Loyola Council 477 in Middle Village, N.Y., Sgt. Major Daniel (Dan) Joseph Daly grew up on Long Island, where he lost his Irish immigrant father and became the family breadwinner at a young age. He learned to tussle for the most profitable corners to sell newspapers and later entered the ring as a prizefighter. He joined the Marines in 1899 as another way to help his mother, sending her his paychecks.

Daly carried habits of servant leadership onto the battlefield, and always put his men first.

During the Battle of Peking in 1900, Pvt. Daly held a position alone overnight against “Boxer” rebels hell-bent on attacking Chinese Christians. All he had was a rifle, bayonet and his fists, but when reinforcements finally arrived the next morning, some 200 enemies lay dead outside the perimeter.

In 1915, during the Battle of Fort Dipitie in Haiti, Sgt. Daly led his men out of an insurgent ambush to safety while crossing a river. He then returned and dove into the river to locate and retrieve their only machine gun.

On another day, he tunneled under a jail wall to free a squad of captured Marines.

Daly’s heroics continued in France after he received Medals of Honor for his service in China and Haiti. Some young Marines were surprised to learn he was real, not merely a legend like Paul Bunyan.

In a desperate firefight during the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, the Marines were outnumbered, outgunned, and pinned down. Unbelievably, Daly ordered an attack. Leaping into the fusillade with his rifle held high, he hollered to his exhausted men, “Come on! Do you want to live forever?” The U.S. victory in that battle would be a turning point in the war.

Many thought he deserved another Medal of Honor, but Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, reportedly believed that Daly had been honored enough.

Daly himself refused promotions, saying he’d rather be “an outstanding sergeant than just another officer.” He dodged publicity and called medals “a lot of foolishness.”

After the war, he took a job as an armed bank guard. He never wed, and died in 1937 at age 63.

Father John B. DeValles (1879 - 1920)

Father John B. DeValles (1879 - 1920) Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives/National Archives/Sergeant A.C. Duff

‘Angel of the Trenches’

A GENERAL ONCE WITNESSED Father John B. DeValles work for hours on end carrying injured men. The strap that bound the chaplain’s hand to the stretcher had worn through flesh to bone, mingling the priest’s blood with that of the wounded.

A native of the Portuguese archipelago of Azores, Father DeValles was ordained for the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., in 1906. Soon after founding the first Portuguese-language parochial school in the United States, he was among the first five K of C chaplains who shipped to France in 1917. They would be joined by nearly 50 more by the war’s end.

Father DeValles called the trenches “hell incarnate.” One of his primary duties was to leave the trench at night to retrieve wounded and dying soldiers in “no man’s land,” often under artillery and machine-gun fire. German or American, he gave them all first aid, and spiritual and material comfort. One night, Father DeValles didn’t return as expected. The next day, searchers found him unconscious on the ground next to a dead soldier he’d been trying to help.

Only months into his service, the French government awarded Father DeValles the Croix de Guerre for bravery.

The priest posted a hand-lettered sign outside his dugout: “Father John’s Office.” It was an invitation to doughboys to come for sacraments or counsel. The men loved and trusted him because he lived among them and asked for no special protection. They told him their deepest dreams and fears, and Protestant and Catholic alike begged him for blessings.

“The spiritual feeling is strong in such trying hours when death lurks everywhere,” the priest told a reporter. “There are no denominational lines out there.”

The tools of Father DeValles trade were bandages, a thermos of tea, cigarettes and a last rites kit. As he saw injured men off to the field hospital, he often said, “Courage, lad. God bless you. Think of God and your mother.”

He even organized regular entertainment for the regiment, using an upright piano captured from a German officer’s quarters.

Weakened by mustard gas during his wartime ministry, Father DeValles died at age 41 in 1920, soon after receiving the Distinguished Service Cross. He was buried with full military honors and was remembered as the “Angel of the Trenches.”

First and Last to Fall

A MEMBER OF Kansas City (Mo.) Council 527, Dr. William T. Fitzsimons was a zealous physician and a hard worker. Friends called him Fitz.

In 1914, he shipped out as a civilian with the Red Cross to aid Allied soldiers in England and Belgium. He had joined the Medical Officers’ Reserve Corps by 1917 and landed in France that June as an Army first lieutenant.

German planes bombed the hospital tent where Fitzsimons had been waiting for more wounded on the night of Sept. 4. He was 28.

Within a week of his death, a memorial parade in Kansas City ended with Mass at a crowded Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

The Jackson County Medical Society stated, “His mission was not that of a combatant, but one wholly of mercy.”

In 1922, an image of 1st Lt. Fitzsimons was featured on the cover of Columbia’s September issue. “His sacrifice was the inspiration for the innumerable sacrifices that led to victory,” the cover story declared.

When Fitzsimons’ mother, Catherine, led a 1930 delegation of Gold Star mothers and widows to visit graves in France, the women chose her to lay a palm at the Arc de Triomphe.


Father William F. Davitt (1886-1918)

Father William F. Davitt (1886-1918) Courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross Photo Archives

When football was a young sport, William F. Davitt knocked heads on the line as a tackle for the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. By 1918, he was a priest on the front lines in France.

Father Davitt was ordained in 1911 for the Diocese of Springfield and later volunteered as a wartime Knights of Columbus chaplain.

In August 1918, while serving in France, he heard reports of 40 wounded Americans stranded in a ravine and led a successful rescue party under a barrage of German machine-gun fire. Two months later, he was seen dashing out of a trench, bullets whistling past him. He retrieved three wounded men from “no-man’s land,” dragging them to safety one by one.

He did all of this while also hearing confessions, celebrating Mass and giving last rites.

On Nov. 11, 1918, Father Davitt unpacked a U.S. flag he’d been carrying in his bedroll for months and brought it to his commanding officer to be raised at 11 a.m. to celebrate the war’s end. As the handsome 31-year-old priest returned to his field office, the Germans fired a late artillery shell. Shrapnel instantly killed Father Davitt at about 9:45 a.m.

To this day, football players at the College of the Holy Cross receive awards named in Davitt’s honor.

ED LANGLOIS is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel and its Spanish-language edition, El Centinela, newspapers of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore.