by William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area
One may become a leader in a variety of ways. Some learn the skills over the course of a lifetime, while a select group are born leaders. This is the story of Thomas James Eugene Crotty, a natural leader, who became an outstanding Coast Guard officer.
Born in 1912, Thomas James Eugene “Jimmy” Crotty was the youngest of seven children. He grew up in the old Fifth Ward of Buffalo, New York, and devoted his early life to athletics and team sports. In a letter to Crotty’s mother, Helen, Jimmy’s childhood friend William Joyce reminisced about “those wonderful days when we were boys, athletes, and friends together.” Crotty competed for three years on the American Legion junior baseball team. In addition, in his senior year in high school, he managed and coached the team that won the 1929 American Legion Junior National Championship. Many of the trophies and photographs from Crotty’s winning teams remain on display in the American Legion post on Buffalo’s south side.
During his senior year at Buffalo’s South Park High School, Crotty applied for entrance to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. In the Academy entrance examination essay, Crotty wrote his opinion regarding the nearly ratified London Naval Treaty of 1930. He prophetically noted that the United States “accepted a compromise with England and Japan which gave to these two countries exactly what they wanted . . . while [the]United States gained nothing which was necessary for her to regain her power in the sea.” Later in the essay, he wrote, “War, that deadly horror which spreads destruction and ruin to many innocent and harmless countries, must be abolished.”
At the Academy, Crotty excelled in athletics. He participated in basketball for three years and competed in football all four years, serving as the team captain his senior year. Crotty also served as class vice president and, during his senior year, as class president and company commander. In the 1934 Academy yearbook, the editorial staff 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. Bon Voyage and Good Luck.” For most of Crotty’s classmates, graduation would be the last time they would see their friend.
After graduation, Crotty began a promising Coast Guard career, which hardened him into a mature leader. For six years, he served on board cutters based out of New York, Seattle, Sault Ste. Marie and San Diego. His assignments included duty on cutter Tampa, during her 1934 rescue of passengers from the burning passenger liner Morro Castle; and, a Justice Department appointment as special deputy on the Bering Sea Patrol. Throughout these years, Crotty continued to play on, and coach, Coast Guard sports teams.
In the late 1930s, diplomatic tensions heightened between the U.S. and Imperial Japan and the American military began sending additional personnel and units to Pacific outposts. These military moves set Jimmy Crotty on a collision course with tragic events unfolding in the Far East. In 1941, the Coast Guard assigned him to the U.S. Navy for specialized training in mine warfare. Jimmy probably embraced the opportunity to cross-train with the Navy. As one of his commanding officers wrote, Jimmy was “forceful and always enthusiastic about engaging in new problems; sometimes ‘too’ willing to attempt things when perhaps, maturer judgment would suggest further consideration.” In April 1941, Crotty received orders to the Navy’s Mine Warfare School in Yorktown, Virginia. After that training, he joined the inaugural class of the Mine Recovery School located at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, graduating in August 1941. Crotty had become a leading military expert in mine warfare, demolition and the use of explosives.
After completing his mine warfare training, Crotty received orders from the commander of the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas Hart, to sail for the Philippines and join a navy mine recovery unit at the fleet’s homeport in Manila. On Tuesday, September 2, Crotty concluded a visit to Buffalo and saw his family for the last time. By Friday, he was in San Francisco embarking the passenger liner S.S. President Tayloron a one-way trip to the South Pacific. The thirty-year-old officer thought his deployment would last six months, but he would never see the States again.
On October 28, 1941, Crotty finally arrived in Manila and the Navy attached him to InShore Patrol Headquarters at its Cavite Navy Yard. By that time, overall military commander General Douglas Macarthur expected an attack by the Japanese in the first half of 1942. However, on Sunday, December 7, without warning or provocation, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And, on Wednesday, December 10, Japanese aircraft bombed and destroyed most of the facilities at Cavite Navy Yard. Advancing enemy ground forces necessitated the movement of American personnel behind fortified lines on the Bataan Peninsula and on the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay. By December 26, the Navy had transferred the Sixteenth Naval District Headquarters from Cavite to Fort Mills, located within rocky Corregidor Island. The next several months would test Crotty’s mental and physical limits.
After his Navy command’s transfer to Corregidor, Crotty served a variety of roles with several units. In mid-December, he became second-in-command on board the minesweeper USS Quail, where his shipmates knew him as “T.J.E.” At the same time, Crotty supervised the demolition of strategic civilian and military facilities to keep them from falling into enemy hands. These assets included the fleet submarine USS Sea Lion, which the enemy had damaged during the December 10 air attack. Crotty had the sub stripped of useful parts, filled it with depth charges and blew it up sometime around Christmas Day. Sources indicate that Crotty participated in further demolition work at Cavite and the Navy’s Sangley Point Naval Station, before the enemy occupied the bases around Manila.
While serving on board Quail, Crotty would disappear for days at a time, not only for demolition missions, but wherever he was needed. By January, the Japanese ruled the skies over the Philippines, so grounded naval aviator Commander Francis Bridget assembled approximately 500 unattached marines, Navy pilots and sailors, and converted them into an infantry unit unofficially named the “Naval Battalion.” In early January, the Japanese had landed troops on the undefended beaches of Longoskawayan Point behind Bataan’s American lines. The Japanese hoped to cut supply lines and flank American and Filipino forces. Bataan’s Army command assigned Bridget and the Naval Battalion the mission of surrounding the Japanese infiltrators and pushing them back into the sea. Crotty rotated over to Bataan during this time to serve in the jungles with Bridget. Late in the month, the two men boarded the Quailand, on the morning of January 27, they coordinated a land and sea bombardment that wiped out much of the Japanese force hidden in the jungle and in coastal caves. Next day, Filipino infantry took over from the Naval Battalion and finished the job a few days later.
During the rest of Crotty’s time on board Quail, the minesweeper provided vital anti-aircraft cover, likely shooting down several low-flying Japanese aircraft. Quailalso maintained and patrolled the Navy’s enormous minefield seeded around Manila Bay. This minefield and one planted by the U.S. Army prolonged the survival of American forces by denying the Japanese navy access to Manila Bay; allowing passage of American water traffic between Bataan, Corregidor and other island defenses; and safeguarding U.S. submarines surfacing at night to deliver essential supplies and remove critical personnel. On a number of occasions, Crotty assisted in the minesweeping process, which required two motor lifeboats, a chain and rifles. With the chain suspended between them, the two boats proceeded along a parallel course through the minefield. The chain would snag the live mines, and the boat crews would raise them to the surface and shoot holes in them until they sank. This process helped clear as many as twenty mines with the loss of only a few to detonation.
April proved a pivotal month for Crotty. On Wednesday, April 1, he sent by submarine the last message his family would ever receive. A little over a week later, on Thursday, the 9th, the diseased, starving and exhausted American and Filipino troops besieged on adjacent Bataan Peninsula could hold-out no longer and surrendered to the enemy. By mid-April, Crotty transferred from Quail to Fort Mills, Corregidor, and for the rest of the month, he served as adjutant to the headquarters staff of the Sixteenth Naval District.
Jimmy also served as a member of the Marine Corp’s Fourth Regiment, First Battalion, which defended the narrow strip of the island stretching from Malinta Hill to the eastern point of Corregidor Island. Of the four battalions defending Corregidor, only the First Battalion would see action against the enemy, which landed on Tuesday, May 5. Eyewitness accounts indicate that Crotty supervised the crew operating a 75mm field howitzer dug-in on top of Malinta Hill, the small rocky mountain that held the island’s underground command center. Crotty’s field piece faced east, toward the oncoming Japanese troops and he served up until American forces surrendered in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 6.
With Corregidor’s capitulation, Crotty became the first Coast Guard prisoner of war since the War of 1812, when the British captured U.S. Revenue Cutter Service vessels and their crews. The Japanese loaded Crotty and his fellow prisoners into watercraft transferring POWs from Corregidor Island to Manila, where they boarded railroad cars bound for a prison camp in northern Luzon. Eyewitnesses indicate that the prisoners stood throughout the lengthy trip and many of the weak and infirm who entered the boxcars never left them alive. Crotty, however, made it to Cabanatuan Prison’s Camp #1, and bunked in barracks reserved for officers with the rank of lieutenant.
Back home in Buffalo, Crotty’s status remained unknown. At South Buffalo’s St. Aquinas Catholic Church, parishioners remembered Crotty in their prayers. Meanwhile, Helen Crotty had received no word of her son’s situation since his final April 1 letter. According to Jimmy’s older sister, Mary, Mrs. Crotty watched and waited for the mail carrier every day and seemed to fail visibly each day.
The Crotty family finally contacted Washington, D.C., for any information regarding Jimmy’s location or condition. However, little was known at Headquarters until late summer, when survivors and escaped prisoners returned from the Philippines. In October 1942, Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche met with, and later received a letter from, navy intelligence officer LCDR Denys Knoll. On Tuesday, May 3, Knoll had boarded USS Spearfish, the last submarine to depart Corregidor before the island fortress fell to enemy forces.
In the letter, Knoll recounted his recollections of Crotty’s character and service in the defense of the Philippines:
“Lieutenant Crotty impressed us all with his fine qualities of naval leadership, which were combined with a very pleasant personality and a willingness to assist everyone to the limit of his ability. He continued to remain very cheerful and retained a high morale until my departure from Fort Mills the evening of May 3rd.”
Knoll concluded his letter to Commandant Waesche:
“Having seen Lieutenant 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 Lieutenant Crotty to active duty, for I am sure he will continue to perform his duties in keeping with all the traditions of the Naval and Coast Guard Services.”
By the time Knoll penned his lines to the commandant, Jimmy Crotty had lost the battle against an invisible enemy. In July, a diphtheria epidemic swept through Cabanatuan and, by mid-month, Crotty contracted the illness. Eyewitness accounts indicate that with the camp’s lack of proper medication and health care, he passed away on Saturday, July 19, only three days after getting sick. A POW burial party interred him in a mass grave outside the prison walls. In a subsequent letter to Mrs. Crotty, fellow prisoner and Marine Corps officer, Michiel Dobervich, wrote, “[Crotty’s] friends were heartbroken over the suddenness of his death, but we had to carry on, the same as you do.”
Jimmy Crotty performed exceptional duty under trying circumstances and distinguished himself through his various combat roles. He participated in Philippine combat operations in 1941 and 1942 as a member of U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and U.S. Army and served in a variety of missions against an overwhelming enemy force. During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Crotty relied on his innate leadership skills repeatedly in the defense of Bataan, and later at Corregidor. At Cabanatuan, prisoners remembered Crotty for his sense of humor and positive attitude. One of them recounted his “continued optimism and cheerfulness under the most adverse circumstances. He was outstanding in this respect at a time when such an attitude was so necessary for the general welfare.”
In January 1945, the Army’s Sixth Ranger Battalion liberated Cabanatuan Prison, an event glorified in books and movies. Liberation came too late for Crotty however, whose body was buried in a mass grave alongside thousands of American and Filipino heroes who perished in the insufferable conditions at Cabanatuan. Today, he remains one of the Coast Guard’s last MIAs. Records indicate that Jimmy Crotty was the only active duty Coast Guardsman that fought the Japanese at Bataan and Corregidor, operations that merited authorization of the Defense of the Philippines battle streamer for the Coast Guard.
The story of LT Crotty has been lost and forgotten like the heroic sacrifices made by thousands of defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. Even though he singlehandedly earned the battle streamer for the Service, Crotty received little individual recognition for his heroic efforts during the war or its aftermath. However, in 1999, he was recognized as a member of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Memorial Wall located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. In 2010, the Coast Guard recognized Jimmy Crotty’s heroism in a ceremony at Buffalo, presenting the Crotty family with the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal and other fitting medals and awards. In addition, in November 2015, the Coast Guard Academy recognized LT Crotty by inducting him into the Academy’s Wall of Gallantry.
The official U.S. Marine Corps history for the defense of Corregidor concludes that those who fought in the ranks of the Fourth Marine Regiment, “whatever their service of origin, were, if only for a brief moment, Corregidor Marines.” Thomas James Eugene Crotty served his men and his country to the best of his ability under desperate conditions. In his letter to Crotty’s mother, Jimmy’s boyhood friend, Bill Joyce, concluded, “He left this world a better place than he found it, and I am more than thankful that I was honored to know him.” Jimmy Crotty was a member of the long blue line and his brief life embodied the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.