Late WWI Veteran And Boston Marathon Winner Honored At This Year's Race

04/20/2015 01:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

VLAMERTINGE, Belgium (AP) — At the Vlamertinge Military Cemetery in Flanders Fields, the headstone of James Duffy usually stands unnoticed among the solemn rows.

But one century after his death and in the days leading up to Monday's Boston Marathon, Duffy's grave has been honored with a scattering of wooden memento crosses, the drawing of an athlete, and a running bib.

"Died fighting for liberty — Ex-long distance champion runner of Scotland" is chiseled in stone. Yet to his family, what stands out is Duffy's win in the 1914 Boston Marathon and his death one year later, almost to the day, amid some of the worst violence of World War I.

On Monday, Maureen Kiesewetter will don bib No. 23149 and run the Boston Marathon in honor of her great-great uncle.

"Last year we were able to celebrate his win. This year we will remember his passing and his sacrifice," she said.

Anyone with a love of running and a zest for living should consider the heroic and Olympian life and times of James "Jimmy" Duffy.

"He was quite a character," Kiesewetter said in a telephone interview from her home in Peoria, Illinois. She learned about Duffy from her grandmother when, at 27, she was preparing for her first marathon. "I was absolutely excited. Wow! How neat. I had no idea."

By that age, the whirlwind life of Duffy was already over. It started in Sligo, Ireland, before touching Edinburgh in Scotland, Canada and Boston before ending back across the ocean in the trenches of western Belgium, where shrapnel ripped his skull open.

"He was asking for his mother at the end," Kiesewetter said. During his 24 years he lived at full throttle, with running embedded in his blood.

After spending his youth in Ireland and Scotland, Duffy decided to try his luck in Canada where he quickly made a name for himself running. At 22 he was spearheading Canada's marathon effort at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Because of the extreme heat that day, he set off too slowly and let the eventual medalists slip out of reach. He was still fresh when he crossed in fifth place, out of the medals but still good enough for some Olympic glory.

His best came at the 1914 Boston Marathon, with a performance that entered the lore of the race. In the closing stages of another sweltering day, Duffy was ahead with fellow Canadian Edouard Fabre, and the two exchanged the lead no less than four times before Duffy won by the smallest margin in the history of the race at the time, 15 seconds.

Famously, he asked for a beer and a cigarette after crossing the finish line. "That sounds like one of ours. He enjoyed a good time," Kiesewetter said.

Those 15 seconds still make it into the top 15 of tightest Boston Marathons ever. The road of professional racing lay open for him — but for the war.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed in Sarajevo, and the whole world was sucked into the Great War, including Duffy. "Within six months, he joined the army," Kiesewetter said. Canada was part of the British Commonwealth and soon he was back on a boat to Europe, this time to fight the Germans.

On April 22, 1915, Duffy found himself deployed in the Ypres Salient, scene for some of the worst fighting of the entire four-year war. That day, Germany opened the taps on more than 5,000 cylinders of chlorine gas, the first large-scale use of chemical weapons in warfare.

"He went in like a lot of young people not knowing what this was going to be about," Kiesewetter said.

Hundreds died that evening from gas and artillery, and Duffy's battalion was sent in for a counterattack. Frederick Scott, a poet and senior chaplain to Canadian forces, was inspecting the post-battle carnage by moonlight when he saw something move.

"I called out, 'Is anybody there?' A voice replied, 'Yes sir, there is a dying man here.'" It was Duffy. "He had been struck by a piece of shrapnel in the head and his brain was protruding," Scott wrote in his account "The Great War As I Saw It."

"We tried to lift him, but with his equipment on he was too heavy," Scott recalled.

British military records show that Duffy died on April 23, 1915, from his wounds in a Canadian field ambulance. In his absence, Fabre had finally won the Boston Marathon four days earlier.


Associated Press reporter Virginia Mayo contributed to this report.


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