A South Buffalo native who was captured by the Japanese during World War II and died while still in captivity will finally be interred in Western New York, decades later. The remains of Coast Guard Lieutenant Thomas James Eugene Crotty, known by friends and loved ones as "Jimmy," were returned Friday in a solemn ceremony at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
For surviving relatives, the arrival of their loved one's remains was years in the making.
"We're overwhelmed with joy," said nephew Patrick Crotty. "We never thought this would happen. It was so long ago, the technology wasn't there. We have a lot of honors from other ways but the DNA really helped this happen and we're very, very pleased."
Lt. Crotty was captured by the Japanese while serving with the US military in defense of the Philippines and, according to Coast Guard historian William Thiesen, died at Camp Cabanatuan in July 1942.
"In those days, the prisoners actually had to bury their own dead," he explained. "So the prisoners, the POWs at the Cabanatuan prison camp buried his remains, along with others. Every day they had a new set of remains to bury outside the prison walls."
After the war ended, Crotty's remains were moved to the US military cemetery in Manila. Many years later, he was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. It was then that a grandnephew, Michael Kelly, began raising the family's interest in finding and returning Crotty's remains to Western New York.
Patrick Crotty was one of five relatives who provided DNA samples that helped investigators gain positive identification of his uncle's remains.
"We went to meetings. They have national meetings for people who have relatives that are POWs or lost in the war," he said. "We went there, learned the process and learned a whole lot more. And then, this is the result."
Among those in attendance was Congressman Brian Higgins, whose family lived near the Crottys in South Buffalo. Years later, he would play a role in securing medals for Crotty's family and then advocate for the return of the late lieutenant's remains.
"I used to deliver their papers, when it was the Buffalo Evening News, to 282 Cumberland Avenue," Higgins recalled about his boyhood South Buffalo neighborhood. "It's bittersweet, of course. But this is what he wanted. In his final letter to his mom, he wanted to be reunited with friends and family. This is a beautiful reunion, in that regard."
A funeral mass will be held Saturday at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Buffalo, followed by interment at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna. A portion of his remains, though, will be placed in the columbarium at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered all flags lowered to half-staff Saturday in Crotty's honor.
Back in Niagara Falls, Thiesen spoke of the significance of the day, not just for the family.
"For any of the people in this building, it's the only time in their careers and their lives they'll ever see this," he said. "This is the last one. All the other people that were lost in the line of duty during World War II that were missing in action were lost at sea. Their remains obviously can never be returned, so in a way this represents hundreds of Coast Guard people who served in World War II that were lost at sea and will never come back."