CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti - Poet Joyce Kilmer, most famous for the poem “Trees,” was killed over 100 years ago while serving as a sergeant in the New York National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment scout section during World War I.
But a reminder of Kilmer is still with the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry today, as Task Force Wolfhound serves in Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
The crucifix belonging to Kilmer was reportedly taken from his body by Medal of Honor holder Maj. William Donovan after Kilmer’s death on July 30, 1918. It has been taken to war and overseas deployments by the battalion commander ever since.
Today it is being carried by Lt. Col. Shawn Tabankin, the commander of the 69th Infantry and the 1,100-member Task Force Wolfhound.
“The Kilmer cross is one of the legends of the 69th,” said Tabankin. “It is part of our history and part of our lineage.”
The crucifix is usually displayed in a case at the 69th Infantry’s headquarters at the Lexington Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Traditionally, the battalion commander carries it during the annual New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, which the 69th has led since the 1850s.
But the cross went to war in Iraq with the 69th in 2004, and Tabankin brought it with him to Africa.
While deployed to CJTF-HOA, Tabankin made sure the Kilmer crucifix was taken to the five locations where Task Force Wolfhound Soldiers are stationed.
“It is important for us to maintain our traditions to the greatest extent possible, even while deployed,” Tabankin said. “Whenever I travel to any of the outstations, it comes with me. I’ll wear it again when we have our St. Patrick’s Day parade here in Djibouti.”
Kilmer was a famous writer, editor, poet and ardent convert to Catholicism in the years before World War I.
In April 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the New York National Guard’s 69th Infantry because it was a predominantly Irish-Catholic unit then.
Kilmer served with distinction, and though he was eligible to receive a commission, he reportedly said he would rather be a sergeant in the “Fighting 69th” than an officer in any other regiment.
While serving, Kilmer wrote the poem “Rouge Bouquet,” commemorating 19 men killed by German artillery fire. That poem is now read at all 69th events.
As a scout, Kilmer was often forward. He died in action near Seringes-et-Nesles, France, during the Second Battle of the Marne. “Rouge Bouquet” was read aloud at his gravesite.
After the war, the crucifix was passed down from commander to commander before being lost to history in the years following World War II.
It was returned to the regiment in the 1990s. Since then, it again has been passed from commander to commander and is revered as one of the unit’s most important relics.
The 69th Infantry will miss this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York March 17; the rear detachment will march instead.
But despite the distance, the unit plans to mirror the celebrations overseas at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, the unit’s current headquarters.
Tabankin, who is Jewish, realizes that though the demographics of the unit have changed over the years, its commitment to its traditions hasn’t wavered.
“The 69th Infantry was formed by Irish immigrants who were predominantly Roman Catholic,” Tabankin said. “That was probably the dominant religion in the regiment for decades. Today, we are obviously much more diverse and reflect the population of New York City.”
During this deployment to Africa, 13 religious communities are represented across the task force of more than 1,100 Soldiers.
When the regiment returns to the United States later this year, its members will bring the Kilmer crucifix home, where it will once again be displayed.