Lt. Thomas James “Jimmy” Crotty, a World War II hero and the US Coast Guard’s last known recoverable POW/MIA from the conflict, has been returned to his hometown of Buffalo – 77 years after he died in the Philippines and buried in a mass grave.
“I would wholeheartedly call Lt. Crotty a Coast Guard legend,” military historian William Thiesen told ABC News. “He was the only Coast Guardsman serving in the defense of the Philippines when the Japanese were encircling and finally capturing those areas.
“He’s also the only member of the Coast Guard who’s ever been honored by the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal], which is really a special part of the Navy,” he added.
On Friday, Crotty’s remains were returned to western New York, where he was welcomed back by almost 200 people, including Coast Guard Atlantic Area Vice Admiral Scott Buschman, who welcomed him to Niagara Falls Air Force Base.
Crotty, who died at Cabantuan on July 12, 1942, was one of almost 3,000 POWs to die there.
His nephew Patrick Crotty said “there was really deep sense of loss and a pain” in his family as his uncle remained missing in action.
“[My father] had this deep concern that because he was an officer, he might have been mistreated worse than others,” he told ABC.
Crotty’s stellar military career journey began at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, where he graduated in 1934.
“He was captain of the football team, he was class president, he was beloved by all,” Thiesen said.
In 1941, the explosives specialist arrived in the Philippines, still part of the American commonwealth at the time, to assist the Navy in building the Manila Bay minefield.
Shortly thereafter, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, leading the US to enter the war.
Despite being a Coastie, Crotty was celebrated by the Navy’s explosives ordnance disposal brass for his time serving as executive officer of the USS Quail, which swept mines, shot down enemy aircraft and defended US and Filipino forces fighting on the Bataan Peninsula.
After serving in the Battle of Baatan, he assumed command of an artillery piece in the May 1942 Battle of Corregidor, the United States’ “last holdout” in the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Thiesen said.
“Casualties were mounting up and the ammunition was running low, the [U.S.] command had no choice but to surrender,” he told ABC.
US prisoners were taken to a camp at Cabantuan that lacked “medical supplies and all kinds of items necessary for survival there.
“So when a disease swept the camp, like diphtheria which hit that camp in the middle of the summer of 1942, [Crotty] contracted diphtheria and when he went into the infirmary, he never came out,” he said.
The lengthy process to identify Crotty’s remains began in 2009 after his grand nephew, Michael Kelly, reached out to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which began a 10-year effort to bring Crotty back home.
At the beginning, Patrick Crotty said his family did not expect his uncle’s remains to return home.
But DPAA ultimately found Crotty using documents kept by the POWs at Cabanatuan that they matched with records of those re-interred in Manila.
“They got a DNA sample from the family and the folks in Hawaii that do the POW MIA repatriations found a match with remains from the American cemetery in Manila,” Thiesen said.
On Saturday, Crotty’s funeral was held at the same parish church that he grew up attending.
In attendance were Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who ordered all flags at half-mast.
“It had a solemnity to it and it was highly emotional,” Patrick Crotty said. “When that plane was back up to the door of the hangar, when that color guard walked down the casket, I think that was the most memorable moment for me. And then you had the bagpiper playing, the hearse was there.
“The word everyone would use is closure. It certainly brings closure. But the other word, the feeling our grandmother and parents would have on this day. That just keeps coming to mind for us,” he added.
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