He Was the Last Coastie POW In WWII. His Remains Are Finally Coming Home

Lt. James Crotty as lieutenant junior grade aboard a Coast Guard cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Lt. James Crotty as lieutenant junior grade aboard a Coast Guard cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard)

One of the Coast Guard's 43 Battle Streamers from the nation's wars is for the "Defense of the Philippines" in World War II, and the only reason it's there is because of the valiant service of Jimmy Crotty of New York.

Now, more than 70 years later, he is coming home.

Lt. James "Jimmy" Crotty was the only active-duty coastie in the Philippines when the forces of Imperial Japan attacked there three days after Pearl Harbor.

"He was the one that earned that for the service," Coast Guard historian Dr. William Thiesen said of the Philippines Battle Streamer.

Crotty could be said to have single-handedly engaged in "joint operations" of the services, now the hallmark of today's U.S. military, Thiesen said. The historian once wrote an article in the Coast Guard Compass magazine on Crotty titled: "Lt. Thomas James Eugene Crotty: Mine Specialist, Demolitions Expert, Naval Officer, Artilleryman, Marine and Coast Guardsman in the Battle for Corregidor."

The trip-hammer blows at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and on Manila on Dec. 10 had tested the nation's resolve, but not Crotty's.

He fought the invaders from the deck of the Navy minesweeper Quail, and went on raids with Marines of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. Crotty also fought the enemy from Army artillery positions on the tadpole-shaped island fortress of Corregidor, known to its defenders as "The Rock."

The out-numbered and out-gunned U.S. troops on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines were ordered to surrender in April 1942, resulting in the brutal "Death March" to the infamous Cabanatuan prison camp.

Under relentless bombardment, Corregidor surrendered in May, but Crotty "held the line to the last," according to a Coast Guard history.

Crotty was sent with thousands of others by cattle car to Cabanatuan, where he died of diphtheria in July 1942, according to camp survivors. He was 30 years old.

He was buried in a mass grave at the camp. After the war the commingled remains from Grave No. 312 were transferred to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial. For more than 70 years, Lt. Crotty was listed as an "unknown."

The remarkable work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) succeeded in identifying Crotty's remains in September.

He is believed to be the last Coast Guard POW/MIA (missing in action) from WWII whose remains will be identifiable, Thiesen said. There are about 600 others, he added, but almost all were lost at sea.

On Nov. 1, Crotty's remains will be flown to the Niagara Falls, New York, Air Reserve Station for a full-honors ceremony. There will be a funeral mass at his family's church, St. Thomas Aquinas in Buffalo, the next day. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz is expected to attend.

Patrick X. Crotty, the fallen Coast Guard officer's nephew, said the "Uncle Jimmy" he never knew is the "pride and joy" of the extended and influential Crotty family, which has deep roots in the Buffalo community and a legacy of public service in New York.

"So we learned to revere him over the years," Patrick Crotty said. "There was a lot of pride for him and a lot of sadness and pain over what happened to him, and not knowing what happened to him. That was a long part of that 77 years" of not knowing.

The Buffalo community is expected to join Crotty family in honoring the return of Lt. Crotty.

Patrick Crotty's father was first cousin to the legendary Peter J. Crotty, the long-time Erie County Democratic Chairman and a figure to be reckoned with in state and national politics.

His 1992 obituary in The New York Times described Peter J. Crotty as "the erudite king-maker who dominated Democratic politics in western New York" and was "a force in the campaigns of John F. Kennedy for President and Robert F. Kennedy for the United States Senate."

From Batboy To Coast Guard Officer And Legend

The Crottys were ballplayers in the 1920s and 1930s, and Jimmy Crotty grew up serving as the batboy for his own uncles, Patrick Crotty said. He excelled in baseball and other sports and would become a player and coach for an American Legion team that won a national junior baseball championship in 1929.

At the Coast Guard Academy, he was captain of the football team and president of the class of 1934. The editorial staff of the 1934 academy yearbook wrote "He will be missed by all of us when we come to the temporary parting of ways, but the future will be enlightened with thoughts that we will serve with him again."

Only months after graduation in September 1934, he was aboard the cutter Tampa during the rescue of survivors from the stricken ocean liner Morro Castle, which caught fire enroute from Havana to New York, killing more than 130 passengers and crew, before beaching itself in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

During the 1930s, Crotty also served on cutters operating out of New York, Seattle, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and San Diego.

One of Crotty's duties, Thiessen said, was to board abandoned "ghost" ships and set charges to scuttle them and eliminate the threat to navigation. His expertise in demolitions would come to be relied upon by those he served with in the Philippines, Thiesen added.

In April 1941, Crotty was sent to the Navy's Mine Warfare School in Yorktown, Virginia. In September, he saw his family in Buffalo for the last time before arriving in the Philippines in late October where he was assigned to In-Shore Patrol Headquarters at Cavite Navy Yard.

On Dec. 10, Japanese air bombardment destroyed much of the Navy Yard and Crotty moved aboard the minesweeper Quail as second in command, but his explosives expertise was in constant demand on other missions.

Around Christmas Day, he boarded the damaged submarine Sea Lion and set charges to scuttle the boat to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy.

In mid-April 1942, Crotty left the Quail and served as adjutant to the headquarters staff of the Sixteenth Naval District at Fort Mills on Corregidor.

When Corregidor surrendered in May 1942, Crotty became the first Coast Guard POW since the War of 1812, Thiesen said.

Back in Buffalo, Crotty's status was unknown. There were prayers for him at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

Thiesen wrote that, according to Crotty's older sister Mary, his mother, Helen Crotty, "watched and waited for the mailman every day and seemed to fail visibly each day" when there was no word.

In October 1942, then-Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche received a letter from Navy intelligence officer Lt. Cmdr. Denys Knoll, who was on the last submarine, the Spearfish, to leave Corregidor before it fell.

"Having seen Lt. Crotty undergo all the trials during my five months in the Manila Bay area, I feel sure that the rigors and trials of a prisoner of war will produce little if any change, and I look forward to the return of Lt. Crotty to active duty," Knoll wrote, not knowing that Crotty had died months earlier.

"He continued to remain very cheerful and retained a high morale until my departure from Fort Mills the evening of May 3," Knoll wrote.

After the war, one of the Cabanatuan survivors, Marine officer Michiel Dobervich, wrote to Helen Crotty. Crotty's many friends in the camp "were heartbroken over the suddenness of his death, but we had to carry on, the same as you do," Dobervich wrote, according to Thiesen's account.

Remains Finally Identified

According to DPAA, Crotty was one of about 2,500 POWs who died at Cabanatuan. After the war, the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) exhumed the remains at the camp in an effort to identify them, but due to commingling and the state of technology at the time, many could not be identified.

Crotty's remains were among the other unidentified remains which were re-interred as "unknowns" in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

In 2010, the Coast Guard presented the Crotty family with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for Lt. Crotty, and "that was really like a turning point," Patrick Crotty said. "We found out a lot more about our Uncle Jimmy."

His nephew, Michael Kelly, took an interest in the case of his grand uncle and contacted Thiesen. As a result, "in 2017 a marker was placed at Arlington [National Cemetery] for him because we did not have his remains," Patrick Crotty said.

Members of the family then attended a DPAA meeting in Syracuse, New York, on the processes for identification and later submitted DNA samples, Crotty said.

In January 2018, the "unknown" remains associated with Common Grave 312 from Cabanatuan were disinterred and sent to the DPAA laboratory for analysis, including one set designated X-2858 Manila #2, DPAA said in a release.

About six months ago, as best he could recall, "lo and behold they call us. The term they use is they say 'your uncle's name is on the board,'" meaning that Lt. Crotty's remains had been identified, Patrick Crotty said. "And we are so thrilled. People in the family, the Coast Guard, we're all exuberant about this."

DPAA made the formal announcement that the remains had been identified in September.

Ahead of the return ceremonies this weekend, Thiesen said that Lt. Crotty "is a uniquely important person in terms of the history of the service. His role in World War II, and as a Coast Guard officer in the 1930s, embodies the values of our service. He went in harm's way without question."

On the 178th anniversary of the Coast Guard, then-Commandant Willard J. Smith, affixed the first set of Battle Streamers ever to adorn the Coast Guard Color.

"From this date on, these streamers, together with others which may be bestowed on the Coast Guard at some future date, will adorn the Coast Guard Ceremonial Color whenever and wherever it may be unfurled," Smith said.

"Let these Battle Streamers forever stand as a living memorial and a lasting tribute to our gallant personnel, who, by their deeds and heroic action, served the Coast Guard and their nation with glory and distinction in its hour of need," Smith said.

Jimmy Crotty of south Buffalo was there in the hour of need at Corregidor, and that Battle Streamer for the Philippines is all his.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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