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BUFFALO, N.Y. — No one who knew Coast Guard Lt. Thomas J.E. Crotty was surprised to learn he was on the scene during the desperate American stand in the Philippines during the early months of World War II, one of his relatives said Thursday.
The youngest in a large Irish-American family raised in South Buffalo, "Jimmy" Crotty was already known a leader from his days managing a sandlot baseball team and his tenures as class president and captain of the football team at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
"Being a leader was not foreign to Uncle Jimmy," said nephew Patrick Crotty, 68, of Orchard Park, as he joined three dozen other relatives for the posthumous awarding of four medals to Thomas James Eugene Crotty.
What came as a surprise to some family members was that he also served in other branches of the military during America's first six months of fighting in the Pacific in World War II.
The Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal and the Philippines Defense Medal were awarded during a ceremony in Crotty's hometown Thursday, the 68th anniversary of the American surrender in the Philippines. It was the largest defeat in U.S. military history.
After six years aboard Coast Guard cutters, Crotty was assigned to the Navy's Pacific fleet three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines the next day, Crotty was serving with an underwater mine-removal unit in Manila Bay. A demolitions expert, he later joined Army and Marine infantrymen in defending Bataan and the island of Corregidor, where the 30-year-old officer was among some 15,000 American and Filipino troops taken captive on May 6, 1942.
While it wasn't uncommon for sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen to be mixed together in the same frontline units in the Philippines, Crotty's combat experiences with four separate branches of the military were unique because he was the only active duty Coast Guardsman who fought the Japanese at Bataan and Corregidor, according to Coast Guard historians.
"It was extremely chaotic out there, and you basically threw together whatever people you had," said Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
With Corregidor's surrender, Crotty became the first Coast Guard prisoner of war since the War of 1812. He eventually wound up at the POW camp at Cabanatuan, where he died on July 19, 1942, after an outbreak of diphtheria. Crotty was buried in a mass grave outside the prison.
Crotty's mother, Helen, and his four brothers and sister were devastated by news of his death, relatives said. All have since passed away, and none of the relatives at the medal ceremony knew Crotty as an adult. Patrick Crotty said he and three male cousins who attended the medal ceremony were infants or toddlers when their uncle died.
Like most of his relatives, 39-year-old Michael Kelly didn't learn many of the details of his great-uncle's wartime service until a visit to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., prompted him to contact Coast Guard officials last year.
"They knew exactly who I was taking about when I called," said Kelly, also of Orchard Park.
That call started the process necessary for awarding long overdue medals. It's a fitting tribute to a man who deserved recognition for his heroic actions on the seas and in the jungles of the Philippines, Patrick Crotty said.
"We've always been extremely proud of Jimmy Crotty," he said "That's just been extended greatly over the years because of this."