NEW LONDON, Conn. — Jimmy Crotty, memory of his football career and brave military service all but erased over time, was honored Saturday afternoon when the Coast Guard Academy football team, which he captained some 80 years ago, took on top rival Merchant Marine at the Academy's home field high above the picturesque Thames River.
In a touching halftime tribute, the Bears dedicated their season to Crotty, who arrived on post from Buffalo as a baby-faced, bright-eyed cadet in 1930, only to die oceans away in an infamous World War II Japanese prison camp, making him, to this day, the Coast Guard's lone POW since the War of 1812.
A man with a quick smile, a passion for sports, and a craftsman's hand for detonating war targets, Crotty died of diphtheria in September 1942 in the hellish Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines. Along with captaining the '33 Bears football squad and playing basketball at Coast Guard for three seasons, Crotty was also president of his class (1934) and patrolled domestic ports for some seven years before he was assigned to the Pacific Theater with the Navy just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
"It is difficult to describe in words the many thoughts which transpire in mind,'' Crotty, then 29, wrote to his mother in Buffalo in February 1942, shortly before his capture and ultimate demise, "while enshrouded by the war clouds of the Far East.''
It was that letter, in part, as well as a treasure trove of other personal artifacts discovered in the attic of his family home in South Buffalo, that some 15 years ago started to revive the story of Thomas James Eugene Crotty. Peg Kelly, a 71-year-old niece of Crotty's here for Saturday's dedication, in recent years helped spur his renaissance by forwarding artifacts and oral family history that aided Coast Guard staff in reassembling, and in turn honoring, the many facets of his life and service.
Crotty, born March 18, 1912, is a growing legend at the Academy, his letters from battle in the Philippines read aloud nowadays in leadership training classes, leaving Kelly with a sense of special connection to him when walking the post's bucolic grounds.
"I feel more that way than ever lately,'' said Kelly, who arrived from Buffalo late in the week with a fresh batch of homemade cookies to thank those who have helped bring her uncle's story back to life. "With all that's happened, I find myself walking around campus saying, 'Jimmy, it's in your hands now.' ''
Crotty studied and trained here for nearly four years. As a senior, he scored the winning touchdown against archrival Norwich. Here is where he endured the basic training rites of "Swab Summer," built friendships among teammates and classmates, and finally graduated as an ensign in the spring of 1934. The yearbook "Tide Rips'' that year noted, "He will be missed by all of us . . . but the future will be enlightened with the thoughts that we will serve with him again.''
"One of the big things is, his life wasn't really known, or remembered, for 70 years or so,'' said Kelly, musing over what it means now for her "Uncle Jimmy's'' memory to be reclaimed and preserved. "It's nice that people are getting to know him and everything he did. To be honest, as a family, we've regretted we didn't learn more about him long ago.''
The post's Coast Guard Museum, under the watch of curator Jennifer Gaudio, now features a prominent display of Crotty, one that only last week was completed when athletic director Tim Fitzpatrick added a current Bears football helmet, one with the newly designed "Jimmy 34'' logo worn by all Bears players this season. A glass display case includes pictures of Crotty as a cadet, as a football player, and later as a lieutenant, and also features a copy of a letter to his mother written by James E. Grey, a fellow Cabanatuan POW.
More than three years after Crotty's death, Grey, a Navy lieutenant, wrote the letter to inform her that her son was buried among 2,700 other onetime prisoners just outside the confines of the ghastly jail.
"Things started getting too tough to think,'' wrote Grey, describing conditions at Cabanatuan, also noting that Crotty died within three days of presenting initial signs of diphtheria.
According to Kelly, recent efforts by the United States government to identify and exhume Crotty's body in the Philippines have gained traction, no easy task, she noted, considering the scope of the prison's mass graves. But family members, of whom more than 30 attended Saturday's dedication, remain hopeful that his remains soon will make their way back here to be laid to rest with military honors in a soon-to-be-constructed columbarium.
"Oh, that would be great,'' said Kelly, a retired nurse practitioner who lives with her husband, Pat, in West Seneca, N.Y., a short drive from the Crotty homestead. "But before New London, we'd want him home first . . . for a last trip by Cazenovia Park where he played ball as a kid, then St. Thomas Aquinas, his grammar school, then South Park High, and then the family homestead. And finally, the Academy. That would make it all feel right.''
Overall, Crotty's athletic career at the Academy is but a footnote to his life lived, and lost, in the service of his country. With the Coast Guard under the direction of the US Department of Homeland Security, it would be the extreme exception in 2014 for a Guard member to be called to war duty overseas. But World War II was an extraordinary time, calling for extraordinary service. Crotty, the youngest of Pat and Helen's six kids, answered the call, eventually to deliver him to the thick of battle soon after he entered the Navy's Mine Warfare School in April 1941 at Yorktown, Va.
Trained in demolition, mine operations, and the use of explosives, according to Bill Thiesen, a Coast Guard historian, Crotty in September of that year sailed out of San Francisco and landed in the Philippines 10 days prior to Japan's historic attack of Pearl Harbor and follow-up bombings of Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines.
From December until Crotty's capture at Corregidor the following May, he fought with valor, guile, and ingenuity, alongside members of the US Army, Navy, and Marines.
"Crotty served up to the bitter end,'' wrote Thiesen. "Eyewitnesses 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.''
Shipped forthwith by the Japanese to Cabanatuan, Crotty became the first Coast Guard POW since the detainment of four Guardsmen, one of them in the Bahamas, in the War of 1812. According to Coast Guard officials, Crotty was their only POW in World War II, duly noted in the museum.
"That's the picture that breaks my heart,'' said Gaudio, the curator, eyeing a portrait of a smiling Crotty, then an 18-year-old cadet, displayed at the museum. "So young, happy . . . it makes you wonder. Did he know what he was getting into?''
Bill George, in his 16th season as the Academy's head coach, called his charges together at the start of August and provided them with a brief primer on Crotty. Eighty years after Crotty's leaving here, at the urging of Fitzpatrick and George, the Bears dedicated the season in Crotty's honor.
"They're military people,'' noted George, whose club opened its Division 3 schedule last week with a 45-14 loss to St. Lawrence. "We're talking about someone who is one of them.''
George said he was particularly struck by accounts he's learned that Crotty's mother, widowed from the time her youngest son was in the first grade, didn't receive official word of his death for two years.
"Two years . . . going to that mailbox every day, not knowing if her son's dead or alive,'' George said recently in his office. "I mean, I can't imagine what that must have been like, waiting for that letter. Two years. Her youngest kid. That just makes it all the worse.''
George, 56, said he has thought of Crotty a lot in recent weeks, especially when taking the field on Academy grounds and staring into the blue sky stretching out over Long Island Sound.
"I mean, not a cloud . . . a gorgeous day . . . and I'll think, 'Is this what he saw . . . is that what he thought about when he was in that prison camp . . . did he think of his time here, the sky, his teammates, playing football . . . being captain?' '' mused George. "You hear his story now and you can't help but think about that. What does a person think each day when he's dying in a heinous place like that?''
Collis Brown, a wide receiver from Houston, and Victor Rizzardi, a linebacker from northern Virginia, are the Bears' senior captains this season, following directly in Crotty's large footsteps.
"Hard for me to imagine anyone being as involved as he was,'' said Brown, who hopes to be assigned to a Coast Guard cutter, ideally in Florida, upon graduating in the spring. "He was a real go-getter, that's for sure. From reading his bio, what stuck with me was how other POWs described him — lively, compassionate, fun. In the worst of times, he put his whole heart into it, stayed positive. You could tell he was a great leader.''
"I think it's cool that he was the football captain here and was also the lead guy in explosives and stuff,'' added Rizzardi, his dream to go to flight school. "He did so much. Football captain. Company commander. All these different leadership roles here and then in the war. It makes me think, 'Don't waste the day away.' I'd like to think that we can show the same resilience and toughness he must have shown on the football field 80 years ago.''
It is now 72 years since Jimmy Crotty, proud football player and military man, took his last breath in the hellhole of Cabanatuan. On Saturday, thousands of miles from his burial site, family and friends and fellow Guardsman paid tribute to him on the football field. They pledged to play for him this year, keep his memory alive.
One day, many people hope, Jimmy Crotty will return here for good. This is where he started, where he played, where he belonged, where he left to protect his country. Now remembered, only fitting that he comes home.