FAMILY OF KNIGHTS CHAPLAIN SEEKS PURPLE HEART
By Joe Pappalardo
LAST U.S. OFFICER KILLED IN WORLD WAR I NEVER RECEIVED AWARD
When a German artillery shell killed 1st Lt. William F. Davitt on Nov. 11, 1918, the Knights of Columbus chaplain became the last American officer to die in World War I. That same morning, the fighting would stop at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day.
Davitt would leave the trenches to drag wounded soldiers out of no man’s land to safety. The volunteer Knights of Columbus chaplain also continued to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and give last rites while supporting the troops in France. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross for leading a rescue party through machine gun fire to save 40 wounded soldiers.
Despite all of this, he never received a Purple Heart for his ultimate sacrifice. His family is on a quest to change that.
Robin Davitt, the chaplain’s great-niece and a retired Air Force Colonel, visited the Knights of Columbus museum’s World War I exhibit in early May, along with her cousin Christina Davitt Dubis. A Gulf War veteran herself, Col. Davitt is seeking a posthumous Purple Heart for her great uncle.
“If he were royalty he would be the people’s prince,” she said, noting the strong bonds he held with his parishioners and family in western Massachusetts.
Before he was braving bullets and saving lives, Father Davitt was a priest at St. Ann Parish in Lenox, Mass. There, the local Knights, Council 2412, is named after him. Several other landmarks across Massachusetts bear his name, including the Father William F. Davitt Memorial Bridge in Chicopee and a memorial square in Worcester. Each year, football players at his alma mater —College of the Holy Cross— see his name on the awards for most outstanding offense and defensive player.
Col. Davitt said it was incredible “for a priest back then to say ‘I’m going to give up the Berkshires and go minister to the troops and say Mass.’”
Father Davitt left the life of a parish priest to support soldiers fighting in France. Along with his famous rescues, he was known to assist in burying fallen troops and going over the top of the trenches alongside U.S. forces. Even burial parties could be shot while tending to the dead because it required them to leave cover for no-man’s land.
Still, Father Davitt has yet to receive the Purple Heart. He was confirmed to be eligible on November 13, 2018, but there’s a catch — only direct family members can receive the award on his behalf. For grand-nieces like Col. Davitt and Dubis, this means there’s more work to be done.
“I’ve been reaching out to just about everybody,” Col. Davitt said, listing the Secretary of Defense among the officials she’s contacted to appeal for the award.
Until then, the family remains proud of the efforts of Father Davitt.
For the full list of Chaplains and Knights like Davitt who lost their lives in World War I, click here.
If there are corrections to the list, they should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, Knights of Columbus Museum. She is keeping the master list of Knights who were killed in WWI.
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