Patrick Fitzgerald rests quietly amidst the lichen and moss of a beautiful 15th century graveyard in the south west of Ireland. Try as he might to have been American, Patrick was somehow brought home to Ireland after finding his fate in the Second World War battlefields of Europe. To this day his resting place remains a secret story seemingly not recorded in any official military lists.
The old Crecora cemetery in County Limerick houses the ruins of a church that was dedicated to Saint Brigid in 1410. The church was destroyed in the Irish rebellion of 1641. The graveyard also hosts the remains of the infamous John Scanlan who was the murderer of the Colleen Bawn in 1819.
The Fitzgerald family has been here abouts for millennia, and Patrick’s life started just two miles down the road in the village of Patrickswell. The place was so named because Saint Patrick himself was said to have drawn water from a well there in the 5th century. Patrick’s father Thomas worked for his brother-in-law William Spaight and wife Anastatia at Cloghkeating, Patrickswell, which was a residential farm of 55 acres. Patrick was born there on Saint Valentine’s Day the 14th of February 1912.
Young Patrick was restless and at just seventeen-years-old, he set off down the road to Cork and the port of Cobh. For half of the six million Irish people who emigrated to North America in the hundred years since the start of the Famine, Cobh was the last place they set foot on Irish soil. For others it’s perhaps better known as the final port of call for the Titanic on her maiden voyage in the year of Patrick’s birth. On the 27th of October 1929, young Patrick departed Cobh aboard the White Star Line’s Royal Mail Steamer ‘Cedric’ which at one time was the largest ship in the world.
He arrived in New York eight days later in plenty of time to enjoy his first American Thanksgiving Day dinner at the home of his aunt Mary Spaight. Patrick made it clear that he intended to stay in America indefinitely. He was working as a grocery clerk the following year as an eighteen-year-old when he signed his declaration of intent to seek citizenship. Later he would sign the oath of allegiance, “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Edward VIII of Great Britain, Ireland and British Dominions… ” King Edward reigned for only 327 days before he abdicated just four months after Patrick’s oath.
Patrick lived with his aunt Mary, along with his cousins James Spaight and Patrick Moran, at 470 West 165th Street, New York City. This was in Washington Heights which was a neighbourhood up past Harlem in the northern part of Manhattan. In the early 1900s, Irish immigrants moved to Washington Heights, followed by Greeks in the 1920s, and European Jews escaping Nazism in the 1930s and the 1940s. Patrick heard their stories and on the 16th of October 1940 he registered for the draft, not waiting for the rush the following year after Pearl Harbour.
During this time he was a grocery clerk at the fashionable address of 981 9th Avenue New York with A&P Tea Company which was the largest retailer of any kind in the country and possibly the world. According to The Wall Street Journal, A&P “was as well-known as McDonald’s or Google is today.”
In May 1942, the biggest contingent of US troops yet to arrive in Europe landed in Northern Ireland. Ten days later at 30-years-of-age, Patrick presented himself to formally enlist at Fort Jay which was the headquarters of First Army on Governors Island in New York Harbor. He went to serve with the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division. This was organized as a “heavy” armoured division with two armoured regiments totalling four medium tank battalions and two of light tanks, at full strength 232 medium tanks and over 16,000 men. Patrick was sent back across the Atlantic to England as the Allied forces prepared for the invasion that was to come.
On the morning of D-Day the 6th of June 1944, the Americans who headed for Omaha’s eight-kilometre-wide, crescent-shaped beach on the coast of Normandy, France, faced a long dash to cover. The foothold that they gained on D-Day was the most tenuous across all the D-Day beaches.
Meanwhile, Patrick was attached to the Headquarters Battery of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion. They were waiting their turn back at Weymouth on the English side of the channel. Two and a half weeks later, the battalion drove through the town and were given a rousing farewell by the townsfolk. Patrick went across the causeway to a beach that was lined with columns of vehicles, wound his way around the roads of the island, and past a large enclosure full of German prisoners who were recently captured in the fighting across the water.
A diary written at the time said that Patrick’s tank landing ships looked like huge whales on the beach with mouths open, “the large opening dwarfing the tanks as they rumbled up the plank to the ship.” Patrick’s transport sailed near midnight and the French coast appeared hazy in the distance when he awoke the next morning. The ship dropped anchor in the midst of a host of different sorts of craft. He studied the shore through binoculars and could make out the effects of the bombardments which preceded the initial landings. Patrick landed at Omaha Beach in the Fox Red sector and joined the fight to Berlin.
The battalion crossed the Sein River near Tilly in France on the 26th of July. They were just thirty-two kilometres from Paris. That night thirty-two Germans surrendered to Patrick’s battery.
Come November, Patrick was approaching the German border and saw German ‘buzz bombs’ for the first time. Every evening around dusk, the sky was filled with the eerie yellow flames emanating from German V-1 flying bombs as they streaked directly overhead bound for the port of Antwerp and other Belgium targets. Ernest Hemmingway, the American writer and later a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was there as a war reporter. During breaks, Red Cross girls delivered doughnuts and the Special Service sent girls to entertain the troops, but Patrick and others enjoyed the show overhead as American P-47 fighters maintained the allied air superiority.
The army was then building up for another attack on the Siegfried Line which was a German defensive line that stretched over 630 kilometres from the Netherlands to Switzerland and featured more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. Patrick was in the Hürtgen Forest sector along the border between Belgium and Germany.
Operation Queen commenced on Thursday the 16th of November 1944 with one of the heaviest Allied tactical bombings of the war. The sky was filled with American bombers dropping their payload directly in front of Patrick’s tank battalion. Some made the awful mistake of dropping their bombs short and landing directly on HQ Battery. When the air attack finished and the smoke cleared, Private Patrick Fitzgerald was among the dead, killed in action by friendly fire.
Seven years later in 1951 back at Patrickswell in Ireland, Thomas Fitzgerald signed an application for an upright marble headstone from the American government. Patrick’s father wanted a commemoration befitting his returning prodigal son. Thomas travelled probably by foot the two miles to the old Crecora cemetery and prayed in front of the headstone that we still see today.
A dozen years later, another Fitzgerald from America returned home to County Limerick. This time it was an American president. He and subsequent administrations remained unaware that an American soldier’s headstone stood so close amid the beautiful lichen and moss of a medieval Irish graveyard.
Lest we forget amid the current unusual events in world history the sacrifice of others.
Old Crecora Cemetery – my own
The White Star Liner Cedric – painting by Charles DeLacy, Wikipedia Public Domain
Ernest Hemingway with Colonel Buck Lanham, 18 Sep 1944 – US National Archives and Records 192699, Wikimedia Commons
The Great AP and the Struggle for Small Business in America (2019) by Marc Levinson
B-17G 391st Bomb Squadron 34th Bomb Group flown by Charles H Ettlebrick, Germany 5 Nov 1944 – photo by Lew Funk
Eighteen-year-old Patrick Fitzgerald – New York, State and Federal Naturalization Records 1794-1943, Ancestry