American POWs of Japan is a research project of Asia Policy Point, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that studies the US policy relationship with Japan and Northeast Asia. The project aims to educate Americans on the history of the POW experience both during and after World War II and its effect on the US-Japan alliance.
Monday, August 05, 2019
THE Coast Guard's POW of Japan
Lt James Crotty, USCG
August 4th is the birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard. On this day in 1790, the first Congress authorized the construction of 10 vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws, prevent smuggling, and protect the collection of federal revenue.
Thus, today, we pause to remember the Coast Guard's one POW of Japan. Records suggest there were two others, but Coast Guard historians believe they were actually sailors assigned to Coast Guard duties in the Philippines.
By all accounts, Lt. Thomas James "Jimmy" Crotty is a hero. He arrived in the Philippines on October 28, 1941 for what was supposed to be a six month deployment as a member of a Navy mine recovery unit near Manila.
A 1934 Coast Guard Academy graduate, Crotty had never before traveled outside North America. He served on board cutters based out of New York, Seattle, Alaska and Sault Ste. Marie. His career included duty on the cutter USCGC Tampa (WMEC-902) during its famous rescue of passengers from the burning liner SS Morro Castle, and a Justice Department appointment as special deputy on the Bering Sea Patrol.
Prior to his Philippines assignment he studied at the Navy’s Mine Warfare School in Yorktown, Virginia. With additional training at the Navy’s Mine Recovery Unit in Washington, DC, Lt. Crotty became the Coast Guard’s leading expert in mine operations, demolition and the use of explosives. He was first assigned to the In-Shore Patrol Headquarters at the American Navy yard at Cavite, located near Manila.
On December 10, Japanese aircraft bombed and damaged most of the facilities at the Cavite Navy Yard and advancing enemy ground forces necessitated the movement of American units behind fortified lines on the Bataan Peninsula and onto the island fortress of Corregidor. During this evacuation, Crotty supervised the demolition of strategic civilian and military facilities to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. This equipment and material included the Navy yard’s ammunition magazine and the fleet submarine USS Sea Lion, which the enemy damaged during the air attack. Crotty had the sub stripped of useful parts, filled it with depth charges and blew it up on Christmas Day.
Corregidor under attack
The Navy withdrew Crotty and its other personnel from Cavite to the Sixteenth Naval District Headquarters at Fort Mills, on Corregidor. The Navy reassigned Crotty to the local guard unit, but he also participated in night raids on the mainland to demolish more American equipment and facilities before the Japanese occupied Manila.
During February and March of 1942, Crotty served as executive officer of the Navy minesweeper USS Quail (AM-15), which shot down enemy aircraft and swept American mine fields so U.S. submarines could surface at night to deliver goods and remove critical personnel. During his time as executive officer, the Quail served as a command vessel and provided shore bombardment for an offensive against Japanese landings attempting to cut off supply lines to American forces trapped on the Bataan Peninsula.
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After Bataan was surrendered on April 9, 1942, Corregidor's defenders held out for another month. Crews on board Navy vessels, such as Quail, had cannibalized deck guns and moved them onto the island to mount a final stand against the encircling enemy forces. Crotty served up to the bitter end fighting alongside the island’s stubborn Army, Navy and Marine defenders. Eye witnesses reported last seeing him commanding a force of Marines and Army personnel manning 75-millimeter beach guns firing down on enemy forces landing on Corregidor’s beaches. When Japanese bombardment finally silenced Crotty’s guns, Corregidor’s defenders knew the island fortress would soon fall.
With Corregidor’s capitulation on May 6, Crotty became the first Coast Guard prisoner of war since the War of 1812, when the British captured Revenue Cutter Service cuttermen. At the end of May, the Japanese loaded Crotty and his fellow prisoners into watercraft transferring POWs from Corregidor Island to Manila, where they were marched through the city to Bilibid Prison and eventually taken by railroad in box cars to the Cabanatuan prison camp in northern Luzon.
Crotty’s fellow prisoners at Cabanatuan knew him for his love of sports as well as his sense of humor and optimism. One of them wagered a bet with Crotty on the outcome of the 1942 World Series while another later recounted that: “The one striking thing that I remember was 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 general welfare.” But Crotty’s courage and optimism could not sustain him late in the summer of 1942 when a diphtheria epidemic swept through the camp killing forty prisoners per day. Crotty contracted the illness and, with the Camp's lack of necessary medications and proper health care, he passed away only days after getting sick joining the more than 2,500 American POWs who perished in this camp during the war.
It had been unclear if he died July 19th or September 30th. On September 10, 2019, the Defense Personnel Accounting Agency (DPAA) confirmed that Crotty had died July 19, 1942, and was buried along with fellow prisoners in the Cabanatuan Camp Cemetery, in grave number 312. In January 2018, the “unknown” remains associated with Common Grave 312 were disinterred and sent to the DPAA laboratory for analysis, including one set, designated X-2858 Manila #2. These remains proved to be LT. Crotty's.
In a May 6, 2010 ceremony in Buffalo, New York, Crotty's descendants received his long-overdue Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal and the Philippines Defense Medal. It is possible for the family to now apply for the Congressional Gold Medal given to those who served with Filipino troops during WWII.
On November 2, 2019, a rosette will be placed beside his name on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial indicating that he has been found. His funeral will be that day in Buffalo, New York at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and he will be buried with full military honors next to his parents in Holy Cross Cemetery, 2900 South Park Avenue, Lackawanna, Erie County, New York.
One of the 43 Battle Streamers on the Coast Guard flag--Philippines Defense--is entirely due to the actions of one man, LT Crotty from Buffalo, New York, who helped command a Navy vessel, scuttled a submarine, swept mines, served as adjutant, led Marines and soldiers defending Corregidor and held the line to the last.