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Vets recall Vietnam firefight that led to posthumous MoH for corporal

Sep. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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PHILADELPHIA — It was called a “fortress in the clouds.”

The 21st Regiment of the Second Division of the North Vietnamese Army had carved a stronghold into the steep slopes of Nui Chom, a mountain with rugged peaks covered by a towering jungle canopy that blocked the sky. There, the NVA had dug 250 machine-gun bunkers to defend a secret field hospital.

On Nov. 20, 1968, Michael J. Crescenz of Philadelphia walked into an ambush on Nui Chom. His squad was pinned down when he made a snap decision to grab an M60 machine gun and charge the bunkers. He took out three, killing six enemy soldiers who may have been dumbstruck in their last seconds to see a lone American running into their fusillade of bullets.

As he charged a fourth bunker, Crescenz, 19, was killed.

For his heroism, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He is the only Philadelphian to receive the nation’s highest military commendation during the Vietnam War.

Only in recent years has Crescenz’s courageous feat begun to receive greater public notice. When his name comes up, however, only the basic details of his biography usually get cited: West Oak Lane boy with five brothers. Cardinal Dougherty High School graduate. Engaged when he died.

Memories have faded in the nearly 45 intervening years, but not for those closest to him.

William “Doc” Stafford served with Crescenz in Vietnam. He was the last person to see him alive on Nui Chom.

“I knew it that day that he was special,” Stafford said. “His family knew it before. And now the world will know.”

The Crescenz family lived in the 7400 block of Thouron Avenue and attended St. Athanasius Catholic Church.

Charles Jr., a World War II veteran, worked in the beer-distribution business. His wife, Mary, was a homemaker.

Together they raised six sons in their working-class corner of Northwest Philadelphia. The boys — in order of birth Charles, Michael, Peter, Joseph, Stephen and Christopher — played stick ball, Wiffle Ball, half ball, wall ball and step ball.

“You played out in the streets from sunup to sundown,” said Joe Crescenz. “It was a great neighborhood. It was a great growing-up.”

Mike Crescenz was tall and naturally strong.

“He always had this presence around him,” said Ronald Burke, one of his closest friends. “I don’t know if it was because of his height or his overall demeanor. Everybody looked up to Mike as a leader.”

As teens, Crescenz and Burke played together in a basketball league at Simons Recreation Center in West Oak Lane. During a game against rivals they had struggled to beat in the past, one of the opposing point guards fouled Burke hard, knocking him to the ground.

“It looked like a fight was going to ensue, and guess who stepped in, almost like a guardian angel,” Burke said.

“He wasn’t my big brother, but that day he was my big brother, and probably saved me from getting my head beat in,” Burke said.

And they won the game.

Mike and his brother Charles were talented athletes. They played varsity baseball at Cardinal Dougherty.

“Charlie was more of a quiet sort of guy,” Joe said. “He let his playing do his talking.”

Mike “was more of a slam-bang, you know, power kind of person,” Joe said. “Mike had a different type of athleticism, and his personality fit that.”

Blessed with a movie-star smile, he also was popular with girls.

“That took him away from us other schmucks hanging out at the schoolyard,” said James Engler, another close friend.

“He just seemed to have a confidence,” Engler said. “He didn’t doubt himself.”

He also didn’t back down in a fight.

One brawl stands out. At Simons Rec, Crescenz had a confrontation with two brothers, Engler said.

“I knew Mike was tougher than them, but I didn’t think he could beat both of them up. And he did,” Engler said.

It wasn’t just Mike. Charles, who later became a New Jersey state trooper, also was a protector.

“They were there for you, you know. Something happened in the neighborhood, the older brothers were there. They had your back,” Joe Crescenz said.

“Maybe Mom and Dad instilled that into them. I don’t know.”

Crescenz graduated from Cardinal Dougherty in 1966. He went to work for a company called L.B. Smith in Plymouth Meeting and began to learn welding.

Meanwhile, his brother Charles enlisted in the Marine Corps and was shipped off to Vietnam.

In February 1968, Crescenz enlisted in the Army.

“He seemed anxious to do it,” Burke said.

Attitudes had already begun to shift against war. When Mike signed up, the Tet Offensive was at its height. On Feb. 27 during the evening news, Walter Cronkite raised serious doubts about whether the United States could prevail in Vietnam.

If Crescenz had any regrets about his decision, he revealed none to his friends.

“He didn’t show any trepidation or concerns about going to Vietnam,” Engler said.

He got engaged to a girl named Christine.

“Mike wanted to get married before he shipped out,” Joe Crescenz said.

His grandfather persuaded him to wait until he got home.

Crescenz arrived in Vietnam in September 1968 and was assigned as a rifleman to Alpha Company, Fourth Battalion, 31st Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division.

During a preinduction medical exam, the 6-foot-tall Crescenz weighed 187 pounds. He bulked up after basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga.

“I remember he was a big guy. He was 200 pounds plus, I think,” said “Doc” Stafford, a platoon medic with Alpha Company.

“I remember he was engaged. He was so excited about that,” Stafford said. “He was very family-oriented. He was proud to be from Philadelphia.”

In a letter home that was summarized in a neighborhood newspaper after his death, Crescenz complained about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to halt bombing in North Vietnam just before the 1968 election.

Joe Crescenz recalled that his brother wrote about being physically exhausted from the grueling daily patrols. The letter has since been lost.

In mid-November, Crescenz’s battalion was on the hunt for the North Vietnamese Army, which was suspected to be operating in and around Nui Chom near the village of Hiep Duc, southwest of Da Nang in the northern part of South Vietnam.

Robert L. “Sam” Wetzel, 82, now a retired lieutenant general and living in Georgia, led the search-and-destroy missions against the North Vietnamese.

Nui Chom — nui being the Vietnamese word for mountain — was more than 3,000 feet high. It was treacherous because of the terrain: thick jungle and precipitous slopes. In some places, the soldiers had to crawl hand over hand.

“It was inch by inch up this slippery mountain,” said Wetzel, the battalion commander who at the time was a lieutenant colonel.

On Nov. 17, first contact was made by Delta Company on the left flank of what would be a three-pronged attack up Nui Chom. Alpha Company was ordered to join Delta.

The battle lasted six days, Wetzel said, and the U.S. forces in the end prevailed. The troops were aided by a bone-rattling barrage of artillery, mortars, air strikes and even the Battleship New Jersey firing from the South China Sea.

In 1968, Sgt. George Hawkins wrote accounts of the battle soon afterward for two Americal Division publications, and he described the NVA base on Nui Chom as “their high-peaked fortress in the clouds.”

A light rain fell on Nui Chom on the morning of Nov. 20.

“Monsoon clouds moved in, and the peaks of the mountains were shrouded in gray mist,” Hawkins wrote.

Crescenz’s squad walked point, the lead position. If anything bad was lurking ahead, his squad would face it first.

Each man was about three yards behind the man ahead, said Jack Bisbee, who served with Crescenz in the same squad. Bisbee recalled being eighth or ninth on the line. Crescenz was probably about 20 yards ahead, but Bisbee could not see him because of the dense jungle.

Then “all hell broke loose,” Bisbee said.

Machine-gun fire erupted in front of the squad and from the left, Bisbee said.

At least two soldiers were hit. The squad was in danger of getting wiped out.

“The perfect ambush,” Bisbee said.

Crescenz picked up an M60 machine gun and charged the length of a football field up the slope of the mountain.

The Medal of Honor recommendation signed by Wetzel describes what happened next:

He assaulted the first enemy bunker and succeeded in killing the two NVA firing from that position. He then assaulted the second bunker while dodging a hail of bullets. He entered the second bunker killing two more NVA. Courageously, PFC Crescenz still moved forward. Machine gun fire hit all around him as he resolutely continued up the hill, firing his M-60 machine gun. He succeeded in silencing the third bunker and killing two more of the enemy.

During the ambush, Stafford was called up to aid one of the wounded.

“I got down there. I treated the guy, and I was trying to bring him back. I couldn’t get back,” said Stafford, now 64 and living on Long Island.

“The fire intensified so much that there was no way I was going to get back. If I stood up I wasn’t going to be around, so I stayed down,” he said.

“I noticed close by there were bunkers, enemy bunkers there. I dragged the guy into the bunker so we were out of the line of fire pretty much,” he said.

“I pulled him out again and tried to bring him back up and that’s when Michael showed up,” Stafford recalled. “Michael said, ‘No problem,’ he’ll take care of it.

“He was cool, calm, and collected, that’s for sure. “There was no fear in the voice. He wasn’t wavering.

“I could hear him behind me. He had an M60 machine gun. He was shooting the machine gun. He stepped forward in front of me, and, as he did, they opened fire.

Five U.S. troops would die during the battle, Crescenz among them. But the count almost certainly could have been higher.

“He took a bullet that might’ve been mine,” said Stafford. “He definitely saved my life.”

About 7 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, there was a knock on the door at the Crescenz house on Thouron Avenue.

“My dad was upstairs shaving in the bathroom, getting ready for work,” said Joe Crescenz, now 57 and living in Chester County.

His mother was making breakfast.

Joe, then 12, opened the door.

“Sir, can I help you?” he asked.

“Is this the Crescenz residence?” the visitor in the Army uniform inquired.

The man asked to speak to Joe’s parents.

“Who the hell is bothering us at this time in the morning?” Joe’s father, Charles, yelled from upstairs.

“I said, ‘Dad, it’s somebody from the Army.’

“You could hear the frying pan drop on the kitchen floor.”

Crescenz’s death was duly noted in local newspapers, but there were no details.

His brother Charles, who served in Vietnam as a Marine, was quoted at the time in The Inquirer: “I kept hoping he would be as fortunate as I was.”

It was a bitterly cold December day when Crescenz was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham.

As soldiers fired volleys in a final salute, wind-driven flurries swirled around huddled groups of mourners.

Afterward, his parents “kept the family moving forward as best they could. We didn’t dwell on it,” Joe said.

His family had no idea what he did on Nui Chom.

For the Army, Crescenz was unfinished business, and men in uniform would return to Thouron Avenue.

Once it was to present his parents with their son’s Bronze Star, the first indication Michael had done something extraordinary.

Then, on a Friday evening in early 1970, there was another knock on the door from another man in uniform. Joe’s father ordered his children upstairs, but Joe could still hear.

“I couldn’t believe my ears. And it still didn’t sink in until Mom and Dad explained more the next day. That this gentleman was asking my parents’ presence, to come to the White House to have the Medal of Honor bestowed on our brother Michael for his actions in Vietnam over a year and a half earlier.”

On April 7, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Crescenz’s parents. His brothers Charles and Peter also attended the ceremony, as did Wetzel, his battalion commander.

Nixon presented 21 Medals of Honor that day, all posthumously.

“They wouldn’t be the men that they were if they didn’t come from good families,” Nixon told the assembled. “We know that. Their mothers, their fathers, those who grew up with them — something came from that family that helped them be the men that they were, that gave them that extra something which enabled them to do something far beyond the call of duty.”

The award did not surprise Ron Burke.

“The citation stating how he reacted, how quickly he reacted. That, to me, was Mike Crescenz,” Burke said. “And obviously he paid the ultimate price for our country. And the family lost a great son and a brother. And we all lost a good friend that day. But the end result is, that was Michael.”

Engler, Crescenz’s other childhood friend, had the same reaction.

“I just thought, that’s not out of character for Mike,” said Engler, now 64 and living in Bucks County. “When it did come time to overcome challenges like that, he was fearless sometimes.”

Some of Crescenz’s fellow soldiers did not learn about the Medal of Honor until years later. Bisbee said three decades passed before he heard the news at a veterans’ reunion.

Knowing now what happened, Bisbee believes Crescenz saved his life.

“Mike is an absolute hero,” said Bisbee, now 66 and living in Nebraska. “I had opportunities to charge bunkers. I never did.”

Today, veterans returning from wars are welcomed home and celebrated. Troops returning home during the Vietnam era faced a decidedly different reception.

“Back in 1968, ’69, and ’70, that was a hard time for a soldier to come home from anywhere,” said Burke, now 64, who served along the DMZ in South Korea and now lives in Camden County.

Crescenz was buried in Cheltenham because his parents wanted him close by. After they died — their father at age 66 in 1988 and their mother at age 68 in 1992 — Crescenz’s brothers decided that his body should be moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

Frank Tacey, a Vietnam veteran from Philadelphia who now lives in Florida, had never heard of Crescenz until the 2008 reinterment was covered in the news. Tacey then came up with the idea to rename the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center in his honor. Tacey approached Joe Crescenz, who agreed to support the effort.

“I think his story should be told,” Tacey said.

In February, Rep. Chaka Fattah and Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey introduced legislation to name the center after Crescenz, who was promoted to corporal after his death. The bills are pending in Congress.

Burke said renaming the center was fitting.

“It is something to say, ‘Hey, this is somebody good and decent who did something great for his country,’ “ Burke said.

“Sometimes you’ve got keep the story alive.”

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