Remains of WWII prisoner of war return home to US after 77 years
After 77 years buried unidentified in a cemetery in Manila, Philippines, the remains of a World War II prisoner of war missing in action (POW/MIA) returned home to Buffalo, New York.
Lt. Thomas James “Jimmy” Crotty is the Coast Guard’s last known recoverable POW/MIA from the conflict.
“I would wholeheartedly call Lt. Crotty a Coast Guard legend,” William Thiesen, the Atlantic-area historian for the U.S. Coast Guard, 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”
Born in Buffalo, Crotty was only 5 when his father died. Despite early in life tragedy, he was a “witty and energetic kind of guy,” Patrick Crotty, the lieutenant’s nephew, told ABC News. Patrick Crotty grew up hearing about his uncle’s “wit” as well as his “deep love for his family, his friends, his church and his country.”
Crotty’s journey to his decorated service began at the U.S. 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.
An explosives specialist, Crotty arrived in the Philippines, then still part of the American commonwealth, in 1941 to assist the Navy in building the Manila Bay minefield. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, precipitating the United States’ involvement in World War II.
Although a member of the Coast Guard, Crotty was celebrated by the Navy’s EOD for his time serving as executive officer of the USS Quail (AM-15). During his time on the vessel, the USS Quail swept mines, shot down Japanese aircraft, and defended American and Filipino forces fighting on the Bataan Peninsula.
After serving in the Battle of Baatan, Crotty was given command of an artillery piece in the May 1942 Battle of Corregidor. The fight was 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 said.
The Japanese loaded U.S. prisoners of war on boxcars headed to a camp at Cabantuan. The trip was difficult, and many members of the military did not survive.
Thiesen told ABC News the camp 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.”
Crotty died at Cabantuan on July 12, 1942. One of almost 3,000 POWs to die there, Crotty was buried in a mass grave. Other POWs logged his death in records that accounted for almost each prisoner confined there.
His nephew Patrick Crotty said “there was really deep sense of loss and a pain” in his family having his uncle missing in action.
“[My father] had this deep concern that because he was an officer, he might have been mistreated worse than others,” he added.
The long process to identify Crotty’s remains began in 2009 after his grand nephew, Michael Kelly, reached out to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), a Department of Defense agency tasked with recovering missing personnel from the United States’ past conflicts. DPAA took the case, beginning a 10-year endeavor to bring Crotty back home.
When the process started, Patrick Crotty said his family did not expect his uncle’s remains to return home.
However, DPAA found his uncle. With the documents kept by the POWs at Cabanatuan, they matched the records of those who died with the re-interred remains 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 Friday, after a long haul voyage from the Philippines, Crotty returned to western New York. Almost 200 people, including the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Vice Admiral Scott Buschman, welcomed him to Niagra Falls Air Force Base.
“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 same parish church that Crotty grew up attending hosted his funeral Saturday. Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz attended and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all flags at half-mast.
“The word everyone would use is closure,” Patrick Crotty said, “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.”