Fitzsimons Mural
Honoring a Forgotten Legacy

History recognizes a young doctor from Burlington, Kansas as the first American to die in World War I. Yet somehow in the course of time, First Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons’ tragic story was lost in the place it should have mattered the most:  his birthplace.

Coffey Health System was honored to renew his legacy through a mural at the new Rehabilitation & Wellness Services building at 409 Cross Street in Burlington. Through the vision of local artist Jim Stukey, two sections of concrete block wall were transformed into a fitting memorial for a fallen hero.

“He didn’t live too long. He was only 28 when he died, so it was not a long history, but he did serve his country,” George Fitzsimons said. “The family appreciates the honor extended to him, particularly since this is his hometown.”

A Life Cut Short
Lt. Fitzsimons was born in Burlington 124 years ago on April 18, 1889 to grocery store owners John I. & Catherine (Manson) Fitzsimons. He was one of five children and would have been in the class of 1907, though he did not complete school here. Will attended St. Mary’s College and records there remember him as “a thoroughly good, Catholic boy, a student of high ability, and a pleasant, companionable friend.”

Dr. Fitzsimons established a surgical practice in Kansas City and, after two years, left to specialize in surgery at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.

He was building a name for himself as a promising young surgeon when war broke out in Europe. The U.S. remained neutral, but several relief agencies began organizing  medical and humanitarian assistance. Eager to help and to learn, Fitzsimons was among the first to volunteer.

On Sept. 7, 1914 — just a year after arriving in New York — he departed for Europe. His experiences on this first mission led him to pen an article published in Military Surgeon regarding treatment of gunshot wounds to the chest.

Fifteen months later, he returned to Kansas City but could not ignore the escalating conflict in Europe. With the military medical corps woefully understaffed, Fitzsimons once again reported for duty. He arrived in Liverpool on August 12, 1917.

Impressed by his experience and skill, commanders immediately ordered Fitzsimons to Base Hospital No. 5 in France. Sadly, his service there was brief. Just 23 days later, First Lt. William T. Fitzsimons entered U.S. history as the first American officer killed in WWI.

The following excerpt from the book Builders of Trust:  Biographical Profiles from the Medical Corps Coin details attack on Fitzsimons’ field hospital.

“On the night of 4 September 1917, Fitzsimons and another American officer visited a club less than a mile from the hospital. While walking back to their camp, the men observed that the clear, moonlit night was ideal for enemy bombing. They were right. Fitzsimons was returning to his tent with several other officers when they heard ‘a heavy detonation’ in the distance, followed by another closer explosion. Base Commander Patterson later wrote ‘the distinct sound of an airplane motor was heard immediately overhead, and almost at once the dropping of bombs occurred in the hospital area.’  The first two bombs landed among the hospital tents, one within a few feet of Fitzsimons’ tent, killing him instantly. Several others were injured and two others later died of their wounds, despite heroic efforts of the hospital staff to treat and save their own.”

 

Military transport space was limited, so instead of returning fallen soldiers to America, they were temporarily interred in France. Lt. Fitzsimons was initially buried in a British cemetery, but was later moved to a U.S. military cemetery in northern France. In the 1920s, the war department offered to reinter the American war dead in the United States. The Fitzsimons family chose to leave their son and brother to rest peacefully in France.

About the Artist

The artist, Jim Stukey, resides in Burlington.  He has completed hundreds of murals and other works of art in Missouri, Iowa, and throughout eastern Kansas.  Burlington mayor and CHS trustee Gene Merry, along with his wife Barb, assisted Stukey with the mural.


The Fitzsimons Home
Though the family home is long-since gone, some may remember the stately home which stood on the northwest corner of Second & Hudson in Burlington. Photo courtesy of the Coffey County Historical Society